WATERTOWN — Despite inclement weather that cancelled classes and evening activities at Jefferson Community College, students and professors gathered in the auditorium of the Jules Center on Thursday to hear civil rights activist Tafeni L. English speak.
Her presentation, titled “Bridging the Divide,” challenged audience members to think about topics such as racial inequality, diversity, civil rights and voter suppression in an effort to bring personal, social and global change.
“For the Voting Rights Act to pass, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, even the Fair Housing Law, that all was a collective effort,” she said. “It was multiethnic, multiracial and multigenerational, so if we take anything, we have to take that with us and not be divided.”
Ms. English is director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center at Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. With over 20 years of experience advocating for social justice issues, she presents nationally to colleges and universities, community groups, civil and human rights organizations, schools and churches.
“This work would not be possible without my colleagues who work across the board at SPLC and it definitely would not be possible without our supporters, those who share our work and those who invite us out to their communities to talk more about the work,” she said.
Ms. English first joined the SPLC in 1997 as a research analyst for the Intelligence Project and later served as the first director of Teaching Tolerance’s Mix It Up program, which encourages schoolchildren to identify, question and cross social boundaries by sitting with someone new in the school cafeteria. She later worked for another Montgomery-based civil rights organization before returning to the SPLC in 2019.
“I was working in the business field and volunteering with a local community group and started visiting Southern Poverty Law Center and just really fell in love with the work they were doing, specifically their mission — they were born out of the civil rights movement,” she said. “Living in the Deep South, we see where there is a critical need to keep fighting for civil rights and social justice issues.”
The Civil Rights Memorial Center at the SPLC is an interpretive center that provides visitors with a deeper understanding of the civil rights movement and includes the Civil Rights Memorial, which honors 40 men, women and children killed during the movement.
The mission of the Southern Poverty Law Center is to dispel hate and bigotry and seek justice for the most vulnerable members of society using litigation, education, and other forms of advocacy.
According to Ms. English, the most rewarding part of her job as director is, in her opinion, the fourth-graders. In Alabama and other surrounding states, school groups come through the Civil Rights Memorial Center, and when asked who their civil rights heroes are, most often the answer is Rosa Parks or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Because we are intentional in ensuring that they know the movement wasn’t reduced to those two people, we have interactives inside of the interpretive center so they get to learn new things,” she said. “They always gravitate towards the children who were murdered in the movement like Emmett Till, and then that opens up conversations about how hate even destroys the lives of innocent children, which really sparks their curiosity and then they end up asking several questions about the movement and how to not repeat that — that’s one of the powerful things I love about my job.”
Being a native of the South, Ms. English said she heard about hate groups and knew they still operated, not just in the South but all over, but remembers one very formative moment in her career that showed the importance of the work she was doing.
“It was when we were monitoring a group out of Florida and a 13-year-old child was running a white supremacist website for kids,” she said. “That really solidified me continuing to work in this field because I wanted to be a part of dismantling all forms of hate, but definitely that sector there.”
The native of Lincoln, Ala. used visuals to add to the power of her speech, at one point showing the faces and sharing the stories of individuals important to the civil rights movement and the fight for votes and voices of color to be heard and counted like Rev. George Lee, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Emmett Till, and many more innocent lives that were lost in the fight for justice.
“If it had not been for the movement or the people who were murdered in this movement, there would be no Southern Poverty Law Center,” she said.
Highlighting some cases that the SPLC has taken on over the years, like when YMCAs in Alabama were told they needed to integrate their facilities and swimming pools and instead filled the pools with sand so they would not have to be integrated, Mrs. English drove home how much organizations like the SPLC can and do help in the fight for equality.
“People celebrate that, but you can celebrate us when organizations no longer feel comfortable to organize and rally and band together and commit acts of hatred in the community,” she said. “When we do that, then celebrate us.”
Another powerful visual used by Ms. English on Thursday was a map of the United States with symbols representing groups like the KKK and neo-Nazis spread out across the nation to show the presence of monitored hate groups in 2018 and how widespread hate really is in America.
“I really hope that people understand that these issues are real and that even with hate groups or what we’re seeing with the policy changes and how they are continuing to disenfranchise people of color, I’m hoping that they see where they have the power to affect change and they have the power to go out and vote for change and that our country doesn’t always have to be this way,” Ms. English said.
According to Ms. English, in the South, there’s a big problem with voter suppression. As the audience listened intently, she said that a few years ago in Alabama, a law was put on the books that said people had to have a photo ID with them in order to go to the polls. The very next day after the law had passed, over 60 DMVs were shut down, all in rural, mostly black communities.
Because of this, the SPLC filed a lawsuit.
“I recently returned to SPLC mainly because of the work that they were doing in advancing the movement and building different kinds of movement, and also their voting rights work that they’re doing in the Deep South,” she said.
After she had finished her presentation, Ms. English fielded questions from the audience ranging in content from how people can become involved with the SPLC to what individuals can do to help bring about change — to which she stressed the importance of voting. For those who were not registered yet, she urged them to register, and for those who are registered but don’t vote, she not only urged them to go out and vote, but encourage others in their communities to do the same.
“Our future is contingent upon all of us, we really have to demonstrate that in our everyday lives,” she said. “We have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable because this is not a comfortable conversation, but it’s necessary.”