Black History Month keynote speaker Sherri Williams, an assistant professor in the school of communications at American University, treated her virtual audience to a celebration of student activism, particularly by Black students, using examples both personal and more broadly historic.
Williams began her lecture, however, by talking about the siege on the Capitol, noting that it took place not far from where she lives in Washington, D.C.
While the Trump presidency has led to an increase in hate crimes and more open expressions of racism, Williams notes that what the former president and his supporters tapped into was nothing new for the U.S.
"The anarchy at the U.S. Capitol was an extension of the chaos on which this country was built. This nation—founded on the theft of indigenous people's land and their genocide and the enslavement and commodification of Africans—stands on a bloody legacy of lies and oppression," said Williams.
Williams spoke to the insidious power of racist rhetoric before addressing the topic of student activism.
Williams opened her discussion of activism with reflections on the 2017 march at the University of Virginia by white nationalists, which led to the death of counter protestor Heather Heyer.
"One of the nation's ugliest modern examples of racist violence started on an American campus. It is not lost on me that college students held an important role in resisting white supremacy at UVA that night," she said. "Young people, especially college students, have been at the center of many of our nation's social justice movements. It is because of young people that we have progressed."
Williams spoke about The Freedom Riders and sit-in movements of the early '60s to the Kent State and Jackson State protests of the early '70s and the anti-apartheid movement of the '80s. In doing so, she drew a line from earlier protest movements to today's activism.
Regarding the Jackson State protests, where two young Black men were killed by police and 12 others were injured, Williams showed a photo of the bullet-torn dormitory at Jackson State.
"I lived in that same dormitory when I entered Jackson State in 1993, and those bullet holes are still there," she said.
When she moved on to more recent activism, Williams discussed protests at the University of Missouri and her other alma mater, Syracuse University, where in the last decade students have engaged in days-long protests both in 2014 and 2019, demanding the university address a multitude of issues related to racism, accessibility, student pay, and mental health services.
Williams also discussed difficulties faced by student activists in communicating their goals and praised the Black Student Liberatory Coalition for its use of social media during last semester's student strike.
"Most importantly, they communicated how much they cared about activists in the movement and other students," she said.
Williams also addressed the toll activism can take on students.
"After these sustained acts of resistance, students struggle to feel proud of themselves after they successfully cause change. They are tired, face retribution on campus, and sometimes second-guess their involvement. But I am here to tell you that you are on the right side of history."
Williams ended the night by taking questions from students.
"Dr. Williams delivered an eye-opening message that was necessary for Bryn Mawr to acknowledge the issues of the world and on campus with inherent racism and mistreatments of Black people," said Bria Nixon '22, co-president of Sisterhood*. "I am so grateful for her extending her knowledge and research to us all.”