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Passing Civil Rights Torch to a New Generation of Ambrosians

January 2014 | by Barb Arland-Fye


Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement participating in a panel discussion Jan. 22 urged young adults at St. Ambrose University to continue the work of civil rights activism because racism still exists.

"You can listen to us tell tales of how it was, but that's not going to change things. You've got to get involved firsthand," said Ernie Rodriguez, one of six civil rights activists participating in the panel discussion in the university's Rogalski Center.

Rodriguez, Henry Vargas, Bernice Jones, Larry Roberson, Msgr. Marvin Mottet and Judith Morrell (executive director of the Davenport Civil Rights Commission) shared stories of how racial discrimination galvanized them to action. Tom Carpenter, director of the St. Ambrose University School of Education, moderated the event and offered insight as well. He noted, for example, that school desegregation led to the loss of approximately 60,000 jobs for black teachers, never to be hired in the integrated schools.

Among their pupils was panelist Larry Roberson, an African American who described his upbringing in a segregated community in North Carolina as great because he knew the people there shared a common bond and cared about him.

"Our teachers understood they were getting us ready for society; we had teachers who believed in us," said Roberson, who graduated from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and went on to a career with Deere & Co.

Racism was overt back then; today it's more subtle, the Davenport NAACP member told his audience of mostly young adult students. He recalled interviewing as a young man for a cashier's job at a grocery store. A Caucasian woman was also applying for the job. He recalled that the woman was unable to answer a simple math question: how many oranges could you buy for 10 cents if oranges were 3 cents apiece? She couldn't answer the question, so Roberson - who did know the answer -- figured he'd get the job. But as he left the interview, he saw the woman tying on an apron to begin training for the cashier's job. 

"I believe in young people," he told the audience. "People are not born haters; you need to make the world a better place than what we grew up in."

Jones, an African American who grew up in Princeton, Ill., moved to the Quad Cities in search of a better life. She obtained employment on Arsenal Island in Rock Island, Ill., working her way up from janitor to eventually serving in the Equal Employment Opportunity Office (because she spoke up about racial injustice) and advancing to the position of Equal Employment Officer. Jones told the St. Ambrose group she wasn't afraid to confront anyone with equal employment regulations when necessary. "There's only one race; it's the human race," Jones observed. Once all people acknowledge that fact, "then we'll make progress."

Rodriguez, whose family moved from Bettendorf's "Holy City" Mexican American community, remembered hearing his parents talk about how neighbors tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent the family from moving into the Davenport neighborhood. He recalled listening to a Davenport mayor who gave a speech saying that anyone could become president of the United States. Rodriguez thought, "That's not true!" He sought to change the way things were so that Mexican Americans like him could pursue such a dream. Rodriguez got involved with civil rights activists and worked at AMCCOM headquarters on Arsenal Island in the Equal Employment Office, serving as Hispanic Employment Program Manager.

Vargas said he became involved in civil rights in the process of moving his wife and children from Cook's Point, a Mexican American community. He remembered trying to find a place to rent and being turned down because of his ethnicity. Later, he sought to purchase a house in a Davenport neighborhood. The owners "wouldn't let me in the door," he said. "They thought we'd spoil the neighborhood."

Discrimination convinced him of the need to join other Mexican Americans (including Rodriguez) to work for justice. They formed a Davenport council of the League for United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in 1959.

Msgr. Mottet shared with the audience how his commitment to social justice was engrained by the example his parents set when he was growing up in Ottumwa. They assisted people who knocked at the door in search of food. As a student at St. Ambrose College, he said, "you got social justice in every class, with a few exceptions." The priests who taught there were from working-class families and their fathers worked in factories and probably were members of labor unions, he said. Msgr. Mottet's education set him on a lifelong ministry of social justice.

Morrell noted that race discrimination exists today; proof is in the complaints received by her office. "It's more subtle now; that's what makes it harder. But you have to root it out."

During the Q&A session, Sarah Eikleberry, an assistant professor of kinesiology at St. Ambrose, observed that each of the speakers had identified spaces where they felt a sense of belonging, a place to be heard and encouraged. She asked whether these "spaces of community" have changed or been reduced.

Roberson responded with an observation about the NAACP, an organization started by black people and white people to advocate for social justice. Young people today don't realize the NAACP can help them. They don't give much thought to discrimination until it affects their ability to get a job, for example, Roberson said.

"There is hope," Carpenter responded. "We are in the process of starting a St. Ambrose student chapter of the NAACP." (St. Ambrose previously had an NAACP chapter, established in 1947. It was the first chapter on a U.S. college campus, noted Ryan Saddler, St. Ambrose University's director of diversity).

Pope Francis' advocacy for social justice and a place at the table for the poor and marginalized speaks persuasively to the fact that "the struggle continues," Carpenter added. "So the spaces are still there. It's in the churches. The African American church is the home place."

Morrell says she sees hope in the conversations that are happening about civil rights. Judges are talking about racial injustice in the court system and what can be done to change that. "Groups are starting to talk about these things," she said.

St. Ambrose senior Molly Gabaldo, who has worked with youths on the south side of Chicago, noted, "I don't feel like many of them feel they have a voice, or know what to do with (their) energy. How can we move forward on an issue that is so big?"

"If you're going to be successful, you need to start with the parents," Roberson said. And teachers have to care. That is a winning combination." He urged the audience to also help bring about change. "If you don't, no one else will."

See a Facebook album of the Silent March.

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