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The third annual Diversity Excellence Lecture and Awards event featured Dr. Charles Neblett as its guest speaker, who gave his perspective with the Civil Rights movement and current issues facing America.
The SIU Board of Trustees hosted the event and awarded the Diversity Excellence Award to members of the “Reclaiming the African American Heritage of Southern Illinois Project” or RAAHSI.
The project members of RAAHSI, Watler Ray, Pamela Hackbart-Dean, Melvin “Pepper” Holder and Pamela Snoot, accepted the award from J. Phil Gilbert, the Chair of the SIU Board of Trustees.
After the award ceremony, Neblett gave a lecture about his experiences as an activist and organizer, as well as his personal experience, with racial discrimination and systemic opposition.
“We have historical documents everywhere. If we can dig that up we will be much richer and we will know much more,” Neblett said.
He said the work RAAHSI is doing is important and similar to the work he has been doing with Community Projects.
Neblett came to Southern Illinois University in 1959 and has fought for civil rights since his days as a student.
“It was the first time I had been to an integrated campus anywhere. People would ignore you but I didn’t care. I knew why I was there and it didn’t involve me,” Neblett said.
Neblett said SIU housing was not open for black and foreign students and that the students were forced to walk a long way to get to campus. He said this bothered him.
“They were the first students in their families who had ever gone to college and if they got kicked out, their parents were going to kill them,” Neblett said.
Neblett said, in place of a demonstration kind of protest, two people in the group drafted up a “scandal sheet” about the president of SIU. They distributed the sheet around campus and were apprehended the next morning by campus police. They were taken directly to the president’s office.
Neblett said the president was livid. He told the president that they were more concerned about segregation on campus. “[The president] said, ‘if I take care of it, will you guys behave yourselves?’”
The president, from that encounter, ended segregation at SIU. Neblett said it is important for people to stand up for what they believe in.
Neblett spoke about several other encounters that he had later in life. He marched in the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. He was there when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.
“I see the same thing happening now that we had to fight 50 years ago. Different band, same old tune. People getting shot out in the street by police and they are getting away with it,” Neblett said.
“It has gotten so bad that people are desensitized to violence. You’ve got a president now who condones it,” Neblett said. “He said there is going to be a revolution if he gets kicked out, a civil war? Where are we at?”
Neblett also said the problem facing the people is a money problem. He said the rich are taking what little money the poor have.
Neblett said, “If we don’t do something about it, who’s going to do it?” He said that young people have to be involved in that movement.
Neblett was asked by a member of the audience about his opinion on the Black Lives Matter movement from the perspective of an older Civil Rights activist.
“Same thing happened when Stokely and them started saying ‘black is beautiful,’” Neblett said. “It caused a lot of controversy. ‘Black is beautiful? That’s gotta be saying white ain’t beautiful.’ But he didn’t say that, he said black is beautiful.”
Neblett said the name attracts a lot of attention and people do not look past that to the root cause of the movement.
“When you see black kids get shot down in the streets and you say black lives matter? See, they kill you in the title. They turn it around into something else,” Neblett said. “If it matters, it matters.”
Reporter Juniper Oxford can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter at @JuniperOxford.
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