In Your Own Words: Kathleen Wilson-Thompson, '79
The air is crisp on the Diag this fall day. Students of all races mill about, some pensive, others, like me, pivoting from foot to foot, awaiting the leader with the bullhorn to assemble the eager political activists. This march against apartheid is to be my first.
I can see it all now, so clearly: my afro leaping, bell bottom blue jeans, and an army green jacket with patches — my uniform of the day. I arrived ready and determined to fight for change, to be a part of the global movement towards long-overdue justice.
It was 1978, and the anguish of the Soweto uprising continued burning in our hearts and minds. Two years earlier in Soweto, Black school children had gathered in the South African township to protest against the government enforcement of Afrikaans as the official language of their curriculum. Morally and pragmatically, the Black students refused to accept the language of their colonizer and oppressor. They rallied against the edict, committed to fighting for the survival of their own language and culture.
During the Soweto protest, through an act of vicious police brutality and terrorism, 13-year-old student Hector Pieterson had been fatally shot. The photo of the young child, among the most influential images of the 20th century, remains emblazoned in my mind — Pieterson’s dying body draped in the arms of his friend, Mbuyisa Makhubo. Pieterson’s sister, Antoinette Sithole, running beside Makhubo with terror on her face. The image ripped through my young activist soul — and many others as well.
This would not be the last time I would witness such a terror of police brutality, of racism, of systemic injustice captured for the world to see. In May 2020, the world saw an eight-minute and 46-second video of Mr. George Floyd’s life slowly slipping away at the merciless hands of an overzealous police officer. As many watched, they questioned what we could or should do, and that reflection turned into action and voices demanding to be heard. And as photography and videography have become more and more accessible in our contemporary lives, we continue to be affronted, seemingly daily, with graphic photos and videos of anti-Black violence propagated throughout America and around the world.
Between the first draft of this article I wrote weeks ago and today’s publication, I was devastated to learn that yet another Black man has been shot by overzealous police. Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back in front of his three young sons and is paralyzed from the waist down. The facts surrounding the shooting are under investigation while once again, protestors fill the streets across the country demanding justice.
Today, as photos and videos of violence continue to flood our news cycles, I find myself peering at the screen, heartbroken and rattled. During moments of injustice, caught on film, the subjects do not see the viewers, but the thousands bear witness to their trauma. And in the reflection of our screens, our phones, our televisions, our tablets, we must recognize that we can also see ourselves.
These moments of injustice do not occur in a vacuum. We live and participate in this world, the society that permits these traumas to unfold. And we share a responsibility with our friends, family, and communities to recognize our own power to change the world around us. The question is, when we engage in self-reflection, when we observe our own physical and emotional reactions to these scenes, how do we summon the courage to do better, to propel change and impact lives?
Back in 1978, with the searing image of Pieterson etched in our minds, we marched. We demanded that the University cease business with companies that had commercial interests in apartheid South Africa. Joining forces with national and local civil rights organizations, faculty, and concerned citizens, University of Michigan students helped to dismantle an economic system that supported racial oppression. Our actions may not have prompted that change in totality, but we stood in unity against oppression to drive awareness and action. In total, it took more than a decade, litigation, and personal and professional loss by many like the giant of the movement, Nelson Mandela, to effectuate change. Today, South Africa has evolved into a more just, empathetic nation.
Here in 2020, the Diag sits emptier than ever before as COVID-19 ravages our families, our communities, the economy, and our very way of life. Everything has changed — well, almost. The country, the world, and the University at large continue facing a crisis of racial inequality, one further accentuated by a global health pandemic that has highlighted inequity and amplified fissures. Once again, we encounter a seminal moment, a historical turning point we cannot brush aside or minimize.
This new vehicle of information — the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice website — will serve as a pivotal resource connecting us in ways that even protests could not. We can communicate across the world as alumni, we can share our individual and collective thoughts on a path forward, and we can champion understanding, empathy, healing, and equity for all of our students, faculty, and communities.
The quality of our lives remain interconnected. As anti-Black violence ravages our communities, that political violence does not stop at its anti-Black iterations, but rather spreads across the globe and for a plethora of marginalized and disenfranchised communities. As an enormous body of alumni with rich and diverse experiences and backgrounds, by listening to one another, we can create viable solutions and strategies to protect and empower one another. We can plot a plan forward to support the prosperity of communities in our country and around the globe. In other words, we can make a difference in this world by listening to one another’s ideas, stories, and needs.
We must then take action with intentionality and an earnest spirit. We have to do the work; peer into our own hearts and minds with a critical eye and we must choose to do better. Then, we can make good on that promise of being the Leaders and the Best.