Tougaloo College was the final staging site for James Meredith’s “March Against Fear.” The college bred the Tougaloo Nine, nine students who participated in the state’s first civil rights read-in at the whites-only Jackson Municipal Library in 1961. The historically black institution also saw activists and writers like Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Lurther King Jr., James Baldwin, Medgar Evers and Bayard Rustin grace its grounds for meetings, conferences and planning sessions.
Now, in 2020, the world is still reeling after watching eight minutes and 46 seconds of police officers brutally killing George Floyd, 46, in Minneapolis, Minn. Before him, it was Breonna Taylor, 26, whom police shot eight times while she slept in her bed in Louisville, Ky. Before her, there was Ahmaud Arbery, 25, who was jogging when three white men assaulted and killed him in Brunswick, Ga.
In response to the brutalization of these black bodies, Tougaloo College is continuing the tradition of freedom fighting by establishing the Reuben V. Anderson Institute for Social Justice.
“It remains our responsibility to contribute to the education of students to train them to become the ethical leaders, change agents and social justice advocates of tomorrow making meaningful change throughout the world,” Tougaloo College President Carmen J. Walters said in a press release.
The institute will teach students lifelong engagement on social-justice issues through theory, practice and initiatives that build on the knowledge in areas of pre-law, public policy, leadership development, and social activism and justice, the college says.
The Highest Form of Protest
In a phone interview, President Walters told the Mississippi Free Press that she believes education is the highest form of protest and views this new institute as a form of eradicating racism through education.
“We see that in order for our students to really effect change, no matter what your major is, you need to understand how policy is designed and developed, what grassroots efforts are centered around changing policy and then how do we get to the table to be one of the ones who write policy,” she said.
For instance, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is in support of the Amy Cooper Bill, which would make it a hate crime for 911 callers to make a false accusation based on race, religion or gender. In May, Cooper, a white woman, called the cops on Christian Cooper, a black man, with lies that he was threatening her and her dog, even though video later showed otherwise. This dispute started when he asked her to leash her dog, a rule of Central Park.
Policy change can make a huge difference in the lives and safety of African Americans, Walters says. If black men and women become trained on the importance and structure of policy-making, the possibilities for change are endless.
Walters said some students did not understand the establishment of the institute. However, after explaining its goals and objectives—problem solving and critical thinking—they get it now, she said.
“We think about the poverty levels, the health disparities. Why was George Floyd even in that state? He went to that state because he lost his job where he was. These are some of the challenges. Economic justice is just as important as justice with the police department,” she said.
‘Meet the World Where It Is Today’
U.S. Congressman Bennie Thompson and National NAACP President and Chief Executive Officer Derrick Johnson, both Mississippians, will sit as guest speakers for the leadership development program, which is centered around Medgar Evers’ theory and the power behind his ability to protest as one man making and demanding changes, the college president said.
“Students need to understand their role in the leadership around social activism and social responsibility. Students need to be able to look at those bills, understand how to read them, understand what that means if they vote for these bills and what change they can actually make,” she said.
With this institute, Tougaloo will continue its 50-year partnership with Brown University, a predominately white institution in Providence, R.I., which has had to acknowledge its own ties to slavery. The two colleges will continue engaging in collaborative conversations about social justice between both sets of faculty and students. These dialogues about social justice will also extend internationally, Walters said.
“We’re going to have technology there where our students can talk to university students in France, China and other countries about how do we handle social justice for African Americans all over the world and black and brown people all over the world,” Walters said.
Congressman Thompson said the Reuben V. Anderson Institute for Social Justice is much needed for Mississippi and the South.
“Collectively, we must educate future generations on past race relations so that we can end systemic racism in this country. I am proud Tougaloo has again taken the challenge on the local level to address the injustices of the African American community,” he said in the press statement.
The institute is named after Justice Reuben V. Anderson, who is the first African American to hold a seat on the Mississippi Supreme Court and is also a Tougaloo alumnus, a respected attorney and leader in Jackson. Anderson also provided funding to create the institute. The institute will be inside the college’s library on the second floor, a location that is the center of the college, Walters said.
Anderson said he is honored to help create this institute at his alma mater, and he is gratified to see students speaking out and protesting the injustices of today.
“I want to remind all people that getting out to vote and preparing students to fill local, state and national offices is most important. We need everyday citizens voting to elect politicians and legal representatives within the legislative and judicial systems who represent the change we want and need to see,” Anderson said in the press release.
“This institute is going to prepare students to meet the world where it is today and to meet the world where it’s going to be 15 to 20 years from today,” Walters said.