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Office Hours: Civil Rights and the Long Road to Justice

Professor Kate Floros | Posted on September 30, 2019

Grizzled man being interviewed, salt and pepper hair

Kate FlorosAlbert Woodfox at UIC, September 24, 2019

Imagine going to the movies with a friend and being told at the door that your friend will have to go around back and sit separately from you throughout the movie.

Or imagine jerking awake at 4:00 in the morning to a barrage of gunfire and realizing that you and your friends will probably be killed by the police for speaking out against the government.

Or imagine existing for almost 45 years in a 6′ x 9′ room crammed with furniture for 23 hours a day and being stripped searched every time you entered or exited your room. Imagine not knowing if you’d ever see your family or your friends again, and most devastatingly, missing your mother’s funeral.

Three conversations in the past two weeks have led me to question how much I really know about the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and how many people suffered after the landmark legislation of the 1960s (1964 Civil Rights Act, 1965 Voting Rights Act), and continue to suffer today because their fundamental rights as human being are being trampled by our society. I consider myself very lucky to be at UIC, where having these types of meaningful conversations are easier to come by than other areas of the United States.

My first conversation grew out of UIC’s celebration of Constitution Day, a day that marks the day in 1787 (Sept. 17) when the members of the Second Constitutional Congress signed the US Constitution before sending it to the states for ratification. UIC invited Chicago civil rights attorney Flint Taylor to speak about the topic of his book, The Torture Machine, which details the years of police-inflicted torture on African American suspects of major crimes on Chicago’s South Side between 1972-1991. Think of the worst treatment visited upon enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, and know that it was perpetuated against American citizens, Chicagoans, by the Chicago Police with the full knowledge of the city’s political leadership and criminal justice system.

After the talk, I spoke with Flint on my UIC Radio program, The Politics Classroom, about the torture cases, as well as his 50-year career in fighting for justice for those whose rights have been violated. From murdered Black Panther leader Fred Hampton to the young man who was almost convicted of murder on the vague hospital testimony of a concussed 7 year-old, Mr. Taylor’s law firm has sued the city and the state to drive home the point that everyone in Chicago matters, especially those in communities that are frequently targeted by the police for trying to live their lives.

My second conversation occurred the following week when I interviewed Political Science professor and former Chicago alderman Dick Simpson on The Politics Classroom. Professor Simpson and his friends, through “stand-in” protests at Austin, TX movie theaters, helped integrate all movie theaters in the country while he was still a student at University. He went on to fight against the Chicago Democratic Party political machine through 8 years as an alderman and in his support of reform candidates for office, especially mayor Harold Washington, the first African American mayor of Chicago. I was amazed at his stories of fighting and fighting and not giving up. His sacrifices on behalf of others with much less access to the halls of power were truly inspirational, and he continues to Fight the Good Fight (the name of his book) on behalf of the people of Chicago.

Just hours after speaking with Professor Simpson about corruption at city hall, I was confronted with one of the worst life stories I’ve ever heard from a man who could not have been more lovely and accepting of his fellow humans. The Social Injustice Initiative at UIC hosted a conversation with Albert Woodfox (new book: Solitary), who spent almost 45 years in prison, most of it (approximately 43 years) in solitary confinement. The solitary confinement came as a response both to his false conviction for the murder of a prison guard, but also because of his activism within the prison as a member of the Black Panther Party and prison officials’ concern that he would instigate a prison riot if he mixed with the general prison population. His outspokenness and refusal to be treated as anything less than human led prison authorities to try to break his spirit. Rather than break, Woodfox fought to improve conditions for inmates in prison, and through several lawsuits, succeeded in having some of the most degrading treatment ended.

Woodfox was finally released from prison in 2016, and he has spent the last several years traveling the country and the world, sharing his story. And what a story! Yes, there’s a great deal of tragedy and horror, but there’s also a great deal of love and friendship among Woodfox and other prisoners in solitary confinement. It’s a story of perseverance and survival in the face of truly inhuman conditions, and it’s a testament to the resilience of the human spirit despite all attempts to destroy it.

Participating in these three conversations highlighted for me not only that the criminal justice system remains broken, and that the laws and institutions that are supposed to protect Americans are deeply flawed and often complicit in some of the worst abuses, but that individuals can make an actual difference. Woodfox shared the story that one of his fellow prisoners always told about throwing a pebble into water and getting a ripple, and throwing more pebbles and eventually getting a wave, and throwing even more pebbles and sparking a tsunami. A pebble may just be a pebble, but it makes a difference, and even small acts by college students (or college professors) can lead to transformative outcomes, whether it’s integrating movie theaters, or ending police torture, or ending unnecessary strip searches in prison that take away a person’s dignity.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The three men with whom I’ve spoken recently aren’t famous or particularly brilliant or wealthy, but they are committed to doing their part to tip the scales to the side of justice. I challenge the UIC community to join their struggle because achieving true justice cannot be a spectator sport. We all have a pebble to throw. Let’s starting working toward a tsunami.

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