Fifty years later, UA should recognize students as catalysts for change, progress

This year, as our campus and state pause to remember our defining role in the nation’s civil rights movement, we will have many opportunities to take part in and witness the many commemorative ceremonies, numerous speakers and painfully simplistic plaques representing a token effort to soothe the painful memories of our past.

But so far, participation in this year’s events has been limited, and students have been seemingly left out of the equation – or at least stand as an afterthought in the whole process.

This was perhaps best illustrated by March 1st’s historic events on our campus, as more than 300 high-profile individuals commemorated Gov. George Wallace’s stand in the doors of Foster Auditorium and subsequent integration of our university, sponsored by the Faith & Politics Institute.

What? You don’t know what I’m talking about? It’s okay. You weren’t invited, anyway.

Last Friday, more than 30 members of Congress and their families spent the day on our campus as part of a weekend-long program in Alabama that culminated with a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the sight of unspeakable racially-motivated violence some 48 years earlier. Vice President Joe Biden made an appearance in Selma to deliver a heartfelt plea for the evident necessity of the Voting Rights Act, as the Supreme Court currently considers its viability in our nation today.

Attendees on our campus on Friday included Rep. John Lewis, a major civil rights leader and himself a target of racist violence in Alabama in the 1960s, as well as Vivian Malone’s sister and Wallace’s daughter. Fifty years ago, the idea that all three of these individuals would be in one room – as equals – discussing our state’s critical role in cementing the nation’s awareness for the need to codify equality would have been laughable.

Truly, this was a historic day for our campus – but we, as students, were left out of the whole thing. Seemingly, the Faith & Politics Institute had no interest in our participation.

I can only find an extremely small handful of elite students who were even aware of the delegation’s presence or itinerary on campus prior to a vague email to the student body inviting us to celebrate the moment with Denny Chimes at noon.

The communication was such a failure that some students assumed the increased security and canine units wandering through university parking lots signaled a second round of a pointless drug raid on campus. Take a step back; let that sink in – that’s the true state of our university today. We assume the worst, when we should be participating in history.

I can’t seem to understand the baffling logic the Faith & Politics Institute used to exclude students from these events, or at least make them feel not welcomed or confused about what was really happening on campus. I don’t understand why we weren’t asked to be a part of this incredible moment in our university’s history.

I wonder if the members of Congress wondered where all the students were, and why they were completely absent and unaware of their visit. I pray they didn’t mistake our absence for apathy, and my optimistic mind hopes that at least someone complained to an administrator about the lack of student participation.

Historically, it has been the student body that has pushed the University forward – not administrators held hostage to campus politics. When Vivian Malone walked into the cafeteria of Mary Burke Hall in 1963 to have her first lunch as a student, it was a group of brave students that met her at the table to welcome her to the student body.

The students of our campus have always been the true catalysts for progress at our university. As we go forward during this year of concerted remembrance, it’s long past time the coordinators for these events recognize it and administrators demand our ability to participate.

Austin Gaddis is a senior majoring in communication studies. His column runs biweekly on Wednesdays.

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