Mary Lou Finley, Civil Rights History, and Campus Activism

This past Thursday, I had the privilege of participating in a roundtable conversation with Mary Lou Finley. A primary organizer for the Chicago Freedom Movement (1965-1967), she worked closely with some of the leading civil rights activists of the era—from Martin Luther King, Jr. to James Bevel. She was just emerging from college then, but in decades in between she has continued to valiantly push for greater social and economic equality. Mary Lou is now a professor of sociology at Antioch University in Seattle; additionally, she leads trainings with various civil rights organizations.

Her years of organizing experience show. She greeted us with compassionate confidence, listened deeply, and offered humble reflections on the arc of race relations and social change in late 20th and early 21st century America. In what became a fluid conversation, students, faculty, and community members engaged in a moving discussion of the troubled times in which we find ourselves today.

Moments like Thursday night have proved essential over my four years at Middlebury. It is all too easy at times to let immersion into the thriving campus life here supplant engagement with the outside world. But it is essential to remember that they are not mutually exclusive. As a history major, I have come to understand the inseparable links between past and present, campus and (world) community.

Our beautiful campus may be far away from some of the sites we have seen mentioned in the news lately. But in its distance lies the root of the intense sense of community here. Here, where a group of committed citizens can so passionately and respectfully discuss avenues for making our world a better place. Here, where the lines between professor, student, and townsperson blur. Here, where we learn to engage.

In a period of strife and social conflict, college campuses should be spaces of engagement, of conversation, of introspection and outward-looking action.

Mary Lou reminded us Thursday night of the successes and the unfinished work of history. It is our role as students and citizens of the world to carry that work forward.

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