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Waves of Change

In the wake of a national reckoning on race and justice, America grapples with its history and the way toward equity

When an expressionless white police officer was recorded pressing his knee into the neck of a Black man in Minneapolis during an arrest, the brutality of the act set off what would become an unprecedented national outcry against racism in policing and other institutions.

The death of George Floyd on Memorial Day, May 25, ignited a firestorm of demonstrations by thousands who disregarded their own safety to protest in the midst of a deadly COVID-19 pandemic. Unified by both empathy and rage, Americans of all races in big cities and small towns carried signs proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe,” the last plea for life from the lips of Floyd.

“It’s amazing to me that not only have we awakened to the terror of our history and the terror that we keep living because we denied it, but I’ve never seen a moment, historically, when we are talking about tearing down some of these institutions and rebuilding something completely new,” says Fania Davis ’69, a former civil rights trial attorney and former founding director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth.

The video of Floyd’s final minutes showed people in 2020 what the country saw on their TV screens and newspapers during the 1960s when police brandished batons, sicced German shepherds, 

and aimed water hoses at peaceful civil rights protesters while Alabama state troopers mercilessly attacked them on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

This time, a young Black woman recording the arrest with an iPhone highlighted the horror, and the world became a witness.

The protests were so fierce, fervent, and unified that they pricked the conscience of people who never had the will or inclination to act. Whites listened with an understanding that had not been seen before. Many realized that they could no longer simply reason that they were inculpable because they weren’t around “back then.”

“We watched a lynching,” says Danielle Moss ’90, CEO of Oliver Scholars, which assists young Black and Latino students with admission to top independent schools.

“When you have a mob in the form of four police officers serving as judge, jury, and executioner, cautioning the community not to intervene, it spoke to a level of our collective humanity. What happens next is really on us.”

Moss and Davis are among Swarthmore alumni who have worked tirelessly toward social justice over the past 50 years. Several of them express how the country could turn the energy of the protests into something more lasting: a complete restructuring of a system that from its roots has subjugated African Americans. They agree that changes should be local and community-based, encompassing all who are affected and ensuring voting without restraints.

The protests have begun to contribute to both superficial and potentially substantive changes in a system built on racism and racial supremacy. Cities and protesters have begun the process of removing Confederate flags and monuments from public view. Major corporations pledged millions of dollars to Black interests, and some removed vestiges of racial stereotypes from their brands. Local governments began trimming their police budgets, moving 

the money into social services or eliminating their police departments altogether. Legislatures made choke holds and other controversial police tactics illegal.

“White supremacy is part of the building blocks of this nation, so we’re not going to dismantle it in a month or two of protests,” says Juan Mejia ’00, social documentary director at Human Pictures in New York. “The focus on the police must continue — redistribution of funding, rethinking what requires police response and what doesn’t, reimagining what institutions meant to protect and serve communities should look like.”

Since leaving Swarthmore, Mejia has used filmmaking to spotlight social injustices, a path that he began while studying with anthropology professor Miguel Díaz-Barriga at the College. He has used Human Pictures, which he co-founded, to tell stories of the ignored. 

“We’ve never been in control of the narrative,” he says. “The narrative has been written by white people in power. It is part of what’s been institutionalized, and white supremacy is what tells the story.”

Adds criminologist David Kennedy ’80, H’11, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York: “White people created the damage that they then look at and say, ‘Those people, those neighborhoods, those communities, those families.

“It’s our fault.”

An entrenched system

Life in America has always been stacked against African Americans, experts like Kennedy say.

“Since the original sin of the founding of the nation in white supremacy and slavery, the struggle in the United States has been to recognize the illegitimacy of core American institutions and to fix that,” says Kennedy.

Its legacy is 250 years of slavery; 100 years of Jim Crow laws that denied Black Americans the right to decent schools, jobs, health care and housing; and 60 years of benevolent federal laws that lifted the yoke for some Black people, but left many more behind.

Fixing society’s wrongs is something Kennedy learned as a student at Swarthmore.

“Swarthmore taught a general sense of your personal and moral and civic responsibility — that you’re supposed to look around you and face facts and try to do something about what you see — and a clarity and rigor of thinking,” says Kennedy, who is also director of the National Network for Safe Communities. “Those are the things that I have tried to bring to bear on the work that I do.”

History has shown that the police, as well as white vigilantes, have always been a persistent and intimidating force in carrying out the worst of the laws against people of color. The Ku Klux Klan terrorized African Americans from Reconstruction into the 20th century, the convict lease system used them for free labor, and white men lynched them without fear of punishment.

“This was a system to limit and punish and destroy the Black community coming out of slavery,” says Ellen Barry ’75, an attorney who founded Legal Services for Prisoners with Children in 1978. “The anti-Black Jim Crow laws, the convict lease system, and the early emergence of the Klan are all intertwined with the development of sheriffs’ departments and jailers. This was not an accident. This was a very intentional attack on the Black community after slavery was formally ended.”

Protests have largely been instrumental in sparking changes for African Americans — in the 1960s, with a president and Congress that were forced to pass federal voting and civil rights laws, and in 2020, with the potential to cut deeper into institutions that discriminate.

But arriving at a place of equality for all will not come easy, and solutions will not be simple. Black Americans and other people of color are up against intractable forces that include powerful police unions, along with state and federal laws that protect police. While most Americans see protests as positive, according to polls, they also believe other ways are effective, including community involvement, cross-racial discussions, and more African American lawmakers.

“Historically we see gains … followed by a period of retrenchment,” says Davis, a longtime social justice activist who was among the Black students who took over Swarthmore’s Admissions Office in 1969. “That’s very much a part of our history. So, we can never rest on our laurels when we go forward in this nation in terms of race relations. Invariably, there’s going to be a pushback.”

Adds Carolyn Rouse ’87, professor and chair of anthropology at Princeton University: “The protests change hearts and minds, but institutionalizing change in a way that is not authoritarian requires democracy and compromise.”

In her 2015 inaugural speech, Swarthmore President Valerie Smith noted that “the future of our democracy depends upon our ability to create inclusive and equitable communities.” Smith is the College’s first Black president.

“I feel very good about the level of support that Val Smith is receiving from the Board of Managers in terms of her ability to really influence and move the needle on some of these issues,” says Moss, a former Board member. 

Moss has been working in social justice since she graduated from Swarthmore and credits the College with helping to prepare her.

“I got a world-class education,” she says. “I learned how to argue, how to think at a new level, how to write, how to express my ideas. I love Quaker values, but my time at the College was also complicated. In many ways, like many other Black students, I felt largely invisible.”

The issue of policing

The protesters were vocal in their demand to “defund the police,” which can translate into a range of actions, from reforming existing policing structures to scrapping traditional police departments and creating an alternative system for public safety. Over the years, police budgets grew even as FBI statistics have shown that violent crime had dropped. Politicians afraid of being “soft on crime” boosted police budgets, while at the same time the departments became militarized.

In 2017, local and state governments allocated $115 billion to police departments — an increase of $42 billion from 1977, adjusted for inflation, according to the Urban Institute. Corrections funding stood at $79 billion. Police departments accounted for up to 40% of municipal budgets in major cities in 2017, according to the Center for Popular Democracy.

“What we’ve done for many decades, we’ve allowed the correctional and state enforcement systems to take over our local budgets,” says Barry, who has worked in social justice for 40 years, pioneering the issues impacting incarcerated parents and their children. “We spend more to jail people than we do to house people, to give decent access to education.”

Many health professionals cite racism as the cause of neglect in many Black communities, leading to health disparities. It manifests itself in high incidences of deaths and diseases, as in the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on Black Americans. In July, the medical journal Lancet editorialized about its effect and the responsibility of the medical community to act. 

Rouse proposes transferring some funding from police budgets into schools and social service programs that provide a quality of life that would alleviate the need for policing. The stimulus checks paid to taxpayers during the pandemic showed how easily the government can redistribute money, she notes.

“I hope everybody really holds that in their thoughts,” says Rouse. “You can put money toward whatever you value as a society. … So let’s shift how we move our money, from an ‘economy of things’ to an ‘economy of care’ so that we are paying people to do the types of work to make life better for all of us.”

Policy and institutional changes should start with grassroots community input, says Utz McKnight ’86, chair of the University of Alabama’s Department of Gender and Race Studies. “At the local level, people must put pressure and require that the police are accountable,” he says.  

McKnight was asked by his university to design a certificate course for local police officers. He will teach it himself and focus on African American studies.

“I don’t need to say that racism is a problem. They know that’s an issue,” he says. “What I need them to see is the way they thought about Black people is wrong. They can keep their hatred, but they’ve got to know that it’s hatred.”

McKnight has not always been focused on social justice. He arrived at Swarthmore in the 1980s intent on a career as an astronomer and studying with the country’s leading double star expert, Wulff-Dieter Heintz. By his junior year, McKnight was involved in politics, and his focus turned to issues around social change.  

“What Swarthmore does, it allows you to challenge yourself,” he says. “Swarthmore made me realize that there were more important things than just building a career and being a successful scientist.”

Kennedy pointed to some of the tactics of the 1960s organizers as a cue to what we might do today.

“The last big civil rights movement in the United States, which led to the legal changes of the 1960s, was a sustained political mobilization, and that’s going to be the heart of what’s going on here,” he says. “As well as … advocacy. It’s voting. It’s the kind of work that I’m part of, which is developing theoretical and practical alternatives to policing and criminal justice as it’s been practiced. What a lot of us who do that kind of work know is that there’s a tremendous appetite in policing and criminal justice for a different way of doing things.”

Voting as an extension of the protests

The November elections could be a rallying point for how the protests and their demands play out. Thousands of protesters turned into thousands of voters could effect change in who makes the laws and set policy.

“Long-term systemic change comes from institutional change,” says Rouse, “and you have to be a part of the institution.”

Participation should not be focused solely on federal elections, Moss says, but also “local and state levels in terms of policymaking that either supports or hinders social justice.” She suggests that people work with local groups that have been engaged in voting rights for years. “Leaning into our civil rights and social justice organizations, creating those voting guides so people know what they’re voting for is a really important step,” she says.

Turnout may be complicated by the coronavirus, which didn’t seem to be a problem for the young protesters but may be for their elders. Mail-in balloting has already become an issue, starting with the primaries.

Another threat, notes Davis, is suppression of the Black vote. Some states have removed Black citizens from voting rolls by the thousands and instituted laws such as Voter ID as 

a way to disenfranchise them, she says. Another population left out of the voting booths, Barry notes, are men and women who lose their right to vote after they are imprisoned.

“The discussions around racial justice must come from communities of color,” says Barry, a member of Critical Resistance, an organization that seeks to eliminate the prison system. “And the discussions around equity for people who have been criminalized by the legal system and people who have been brutalized by state violence need to come from people who have had that experience.”

A need for prison reform

It is an experience faced by many young Black men under age 30. Studies have shown that they are more likely to be stopped and frisked, to be awarded higher bails that keep them in jail, to get longer sentences, and to end up in prison for nonviolent crimes.

A few months before he was killed by an Atlanta police officer in June, Rayshard Brooks was interviewed by a company called Reconnect, which focuses on ways to fight incarceration. He was jailed for a year on false-imprisonment and credit card fraud charges. He left prison hardened, he says in Reconnect’s video, but he was determined not to give up. He suggested that people like himself be given some support as they start over. 

Davis’s Restorative Justice program is just one of those trying to find solutions to the problem of criminalization; Barry also works with the program. Kennedy says his National Network “works to prevent violence in communities across the U.S. and internationally, with a central recognition of both the importance of policing and the criminal justice system and of their historic and present harms.”

Restorative Justice aims to find solutions to incarceration by bringing together fractured people in a neutral space to work through their issues. It’s a peaceful place at which Davis arrived after years of being angry: as a child losing two friends in 1963 in the 16th Street Baptist Church racial bombing in Birmingham, Ala.; fighting for years to free her sister Angela Davis of federal criminal charges; and in her career as a civil rights trial attorney.

“Ours is a justice that harms,” Davis says. “Ours is a justice that asks who’s to blame, what law was broken, who broke it, and what punishment is deserved. Restorative Justice seeks to flip this and is more concerned with harm and how to heal that harm.”

Added Rouse: “We all have to sacrifice something in order for any healing to take place.”

What Change Looks Like

For many Swarthmore students, the summer of 2020 has been a time of activism and agency as they organize, overcoming COVID-19 limitations, and work to make positive change in their communities through a variety of initiatives. When Joel Paulson ’22 watched as the death of George Floyd ignited large-scale protests in Minneapolis, he wasn’t optimistic that it would bring any change.

“I had a really cynical approach,” says Paulson, a political science and education double major from Hellertown, Pa., and member of the men’s lacrosse team. “I thought that this was going to be discussed for two weeks and then white people were going to get tired of about talking about it.”

But while visiting a friend in Washington, D.C., he attended Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. The experiences were electrifying. 

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is what change looks like,’” says Paulson. “Black people have been dealing with their trauma, and our trauma, and the trauma of existing in the United States since 1619. And only a few times in the history of this country, I’d say, has it been under a microscope like it is right now.” 

Paulson credits several courses at the College for enriching his views on Black history and the U.S. education system.

 With Professor of History Allison Dorsey, he has taken the Black studies and history classes African American History, 1619 to 1865, which the College recommends for teacher certification, and Black Reconstruction, which explores the “hard-won successes” and “splendid failures” that Black Americans secured after the Civil War.  

 Paulson also says his adviser, Associate Professor of Educational Studies Edwin Mayorga, with whom he has also taken two classes, helped shape his views on education. In Intro to Education, a popular course at the College, he studied critical theory and worked in a class at Strath Haven High School for students with emotional issues. Another course, From the Undercommons: Ethnic Studies and Education, explored the social impact that applying an ethnic studies lens to education can have.

“Both classes helped frame the current educational system for me in stark contrast to what it must become,” he says. 

Paulson is grateful that he took the leap to activism now, rather than after earning his bachelor’s or law degree.

“I never really thought that before the age of 20 or 22, I’d be able to say that I’m doing something that I’ve wanted to do since I was 8 or 12,” he says. “I’m getting to do what I’ve always wanted to do, and use my platform and my voice to bring about change.” 

Passing the Baton of Resistance

Chicana activist Elizabeth Martínez ’46, H’00 has always been a great believer in finding the unity that can bring diverse groups of people together to work in solidarity for a cause greater than themselves.

 “My mother was a complete feet-on-the-ground activist as long as she could be,” says Martínez’s daughter, actor and teacher Tessa Koning-Martínez. “She’s in palliative care and no longer able to communicate verbally, but she would be most happy to see all of these young women and men of different races coming together in a spirit of resistance.” 

Martínez’s time at Swarthmore prepared her for a remarkable career working, among other places, at the United Nations, Simon & Schuster, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and California State University. She co-founded the Institute for MultiRacial Justice, wrote books including the bilingual 500 Years of Chicano History, and was an adviser for the Catalyst Project: Anti-Racism for Collective Liberation. A passion for social justice fueled her commitment to educating mixed groups of people about the history of racism and to encouraging others to work for a just, peaceful, and creative world.

The present moment kindles mixed feelings for Martínez’s generation. “It’s inspiring,” says Koning-Martínez, “but it’s also terrible to see history’s spiral. SNCC is celebrating its 60th anniversary, and we’re still fighting to protect voting rights — and voting to protect our right even to be activists.”

More than 40 years ago, Martínez worked with Tony Platt and others to publish The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove: An Analysis of the U.S. Police. “I think my mother would remind this new generation of activists that it can be a long, protracted struggle — and it’s important to persevere,” Koning-Martínez says.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked much devastation, Koning-Martínez believes her mother would have seen a certain poetry in the idea that “out of a terrible situation, something else is coming into bloom.”


Recommended Resources:

• Elizabeth Martínez, ed., Letters from Mississippi: Reports from Civil Rights Volunteers & Poetry of the 1964 Freedom Summer, 50th Anniversary Edition (Zephyr Press, 2014)

• Freedom on My Mind (Academy Award-nominated account of the Mississippi Voter Registration Project, produced and directed by Connie Field and Marilyn Mulford)

Substance Rooted in Reality

In her essay “Narrating Photography in Sweet Flypaper of Life,” Sonia Weiner writes:

“The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955) is the result of a collaborative effort between photographer Roy DeCarava and writer Langston Hughes. Their unique fusion of words and images provides an opportunity to examine how the two media can be brought together to form composite modes of expression.”

Weiner’s “analysis” is especially pertinent to the evolution of my photography. There must be substance rooted in reality.

Writer/historian James G. Spady and I were inspired by this book in the 1970s, and vowed, at the time, that we would do our best to emulate what DeCarava and Hughes did, except rather than a book, we wanted to impact journalism in the same way. While I was still an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, we would spend hours — on campus and off — discussing creative methods of “fusing” words and images. 

At that moment in time, there were only limited opportunities to pursue our goals, but we both believed we could offer a broader vision of the African American experience that was/is rooted in the history and reality of our culture. More specifically, we wanted to produce work that was symbolic, expressive, and aligned with what we knew to be a glorious history. (A discussion of how we worked can be found in my essay “Discourse Methodology in Service of Narrative Strategy: Nommo Seeking in a Hip Hop Universe, James Spady’s Hip Hop Oeuvre.”) I finally met and commiserated with Roy DeCarava while at Swarthmore during a conference. He was both a guide and influence on my work subsequent to our conversations. I was further convinced that every photograph should seek to expose the depth of substance rooted in the subject’s reality.

Beginning in 1973 and up to the time of his passing in February, Spady and I worked to offer substantive interpretations of life experiences that called upon the audience to think critically about what they were seeing.


Leandre K. Jackson ’75, whose work appears as the opener of this article, has been a professional photographer since 1971. His photography has been published in The Washington Post Magazine, Cornel West: A Critical Reader, Roc the Mic Right, Tha Global Cipha, and Conversations With Sonia Sanchez. The Leandre K. Jackson Collection of photographs is held by the New York City Public Library at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, A smaller collection of his photographs is held by Howard University in Washington, D.C.