Group hosts symposium

Event promotes larger campaign to establish Ella Baker Day in April


Graduate students organized a symposium last Friday to promote the campaign to designate April 15 as Ella Baker Day in Virginia.

The symposium honored the legacy of Ella Baker, a Virginia native recognized as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement, as well as contributions of women of color at the state and national level.

The effort to establish Ella Baker Day is part of a reaction to Gov. Bob McDonnell's 2010 proclamation that April would be Confederate History Month in Virginia. Although McDonnell claimed this would serve to attract tourists to the state for this year's 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, his proclamation attracted negative attention primarily for its failure to acknowledge Virginia's role in slavery or the state's struggle with civil rights.

"A day in honor of Ella Baker would bring much-needed attention to Baker's amazing accomplishments, but such a day would also highlight the lives of all Virginia's underrepresented and oppressed communities, including people of color, women of color and the working class," Graduate student Hephzibah Strmic-Pawl, the visionary and organizer of the symposium, said in a press release.

The event began in the Dome Room of the Rotunda and concluded in Clark Hall. It was hosted by the The Magnitude Collective, a graduate student organization whose goal is "to give voice to, and educate the U.Va. community about, Pan-African perspectives as they relate to and seek to transform, a range of issues and conditions," according to the group's website.

In her opening remarks, keynote speaker Ruby Sales, founder and co-director of the SpiritHouse Project, invited the audience to "sit a spell" with her as she led a conversation about Ella Josephine Baker. Sales purposefully engaged the audience from the beginning by playing "Ella's Song" and encouraging the audience to sing along to the words, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes."

Sales said Americans need to rewrite the nation's historical narrative of slavery, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement to include new focal points which honor the long lost people who stood up against oppression. Sales spoke about the 60 million people and generations of blacks who were oppressed for 400 years, describing this history as a "sobering reality that cannot be celebrated." Instead of focusing on plantation slavery and its effects, Sales encouraged the audience to examine "the amazing people who were able, after 400 years of enslavement, to produce in the span of 38 years an Ella Baker."

Moreover, Sales said that "Ella Baker came out of carefully tilled soil," and that people should reflect upon the community from which she came to better understand the legacy of her accomplishments as the mother of the Civil Rights Movement. By examining the life of Ella Baker and her influential role as a mobilizing force in movements for civil rights, Sales argued that one can see how "ordinary people move forward democracy in this country, in ways that we are benefitting from today."

Sales concluded her speech by elaborating on what it means to honor Ella Baker. "It's celebrating the highest part of a society, rather than the lowest aspects of a society," Sales said. The keynote address was followed by an afternoon panel titled "Ella Baker's Legacy: Traditions of Activism." This segment of the symposium focused on community organizing, social justice and student activism. Following the second panel, the Living Wage Campaign at the University received the Ella Baker Social Justice Award. The Honorable Mention was awarded to Sister II Sister at Hampton University.

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