Tonight, as a faculty advisor for the CBU NAACP Chapter, I have been offered the opportunity to say a few words to mark this important event in CBU’s history. I am honored. The Lasallian Christian Brothers have long had a commitment to educating the poor and underrepresented as a means to bringing about a more just society. On the grounds of this campus, Br. Terence McLaughlin acted against the orders of Church leaders who told him it was too soon to integrate Christian Brothers High School. Defying the wishes of Church leadership, Br. Terence acted in defense of fairness and equality, admitting Jesse Turner as the first African American student on August 16, 1963. Christian Brothers High School became the first high school in Memphis to desegregate. Bishop William L. Adrian chastised Br. Terence for moving too swiftly, writing, “Up to this, we have followed the policy that integration be authorized only when the pastors of Shelby County approved; this included high school integration. Evidently you misunderstood or ignored this.” Br. Terence had not misunderstood the Bishop’s directive; rather, he understood that acting justly required breaking unjust policies.
Today, CBU is one of the most diverse university campuses in the South, but we cannot rely on our past and present. As a university, we must prepare students for future challenges. A college education is an investment in futurity—future careers and earnings but also future civic engagement.
Why do we need a chapter of the NAACP on a college campus in 2014? As someone who teaches about race, culture, and history, I see the difficulty students often have in participating in open discussions about race. For too many students, the topic feels taboo. An NAACP chapter on this campus ensures that students will have the opportunity to discuss and learn about the ways prejudice affects people. Education creates a foundation for advocacy and empowerment. Education is the foundation of justice.
We need the NAACP at CBU because…
We need our students to be future leaders. I hope this chapter includes future legislators, school board members, superintendents, doctors, teachers, professors, mayors, governors, district attorneys, public defenders, and community activists. Memphis hungers for innovative and compassionate solutions to inequality and poverty, to climate change and environmental pollution, to education shortfalls and public health crises, to racial profiling and unequal sentences, and to violent crime and mass incarceration.
We need citizens who are brave enough to imagine alternatives to the New Jim Crow, to use Michelle Alexander’s term for the caste system created by disproportionate arrests and unfair sentencing. Instead of a school to prison pipeline, we need a school to social mobility pathway. We need leaders who say “no more”—no more Trayvon Martins, Jordan Davises, Eric Garners, or Michael Browns. When CBU students enter to learn and leave to serve, we want them to embody CBU’s Lasallian tradition and the NAACP’s mission, both of which demand that we work toward a society that respects, without prejudice, the rights of all persons.
I believe that a college campus has to be a space where we can be our best possible selves. If we cannot imagine and work toward a more just world here, then we have no hope beyond these grounds. Today’s chartering of the NAACP is both a landmark event in CBU’s history and a continuation of the legacy that began with the Brothers’ arrival in Memphis in 1871 and the NAACP’s formation in 1909.
Tonight, we gather because a group of students saw a need and opportunity on this campus. They understood that the legacies of the NAACP and Christian Brothers University should go hand-in-hand. Thank you Taylor, Sam, Amber, Justin, Jasmine, Rakesha, Darianne, and all the other involved students for making tonight possible. In your hands, we are all assured a better future.
Dr. Jeffrey Gross
Assistant Professor, Literature and Languages