Civil rights march in Selma inspires Chicago Theological Seminary conference

“Sankofa,” a word in the Akan language of Ghana meaning "to go back and get it," is often pictured as a mythical bird reaching its neck to retrieve an egg from its back. Invoking this symbol—as a representation of retrieving knowledge and wisdom from the past in order to move toward the future—framed a panel discussion on the state of the civil rights movement 50 years after the march in Selma, Ala.

Chicago Theological Seminary recently held a two-day conference designed to remember and celebrate Selma as a moment within the larger civil rights movement, and to address the intersection of public theology and academic scholarship.

Held on Friday, April 24 to Saturday, April 25 at the seminary, the conference traced a thread through the legacy of civil rights activism to contemporary activist movements. More than 360 participants examined critical social issues and their effects on society, as well as strategizing actions that would inspire and engage the next generation of leaders.

"The 'Selma at 50: Still Marching’ conference is all about hope, inspiring leaders to see the daunting challenges facing us not as an occasion for despair, but as an urgent invitation to claim our place in today's marches that are the legacy of Dr. King and all who answered his call," said John H. Thomas, senior advisor to CTS President Alice Hunt.

The conference featured keynote addresses by Michelle Alexander, civil rights lawyer and author of The New Jim Crow, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., who received his Master of Divinity degree from the Chicago Theological Seminary in 2000. Jesús "Chuy" Garcia, member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, shared his hopes and concerns for Chicago while also relating his experiences as a mayoral candidate.

The event boasted a roster of 60 speakers, partners and performers, including the University’s Office of Civic Engagement, the Institute of Politics, and the University Community Service Center. OCE made 30 tickets available to students through IOP and UCSC.

“Social justice issues are particularly relevant in America today,” said Sonya Malunda, Senior Associate Vice President for Community Engagement, University of Chicago. “The ‘Selma at 50: Still Marching’ conference provided a tremendous opportunity for the next generation of civil rights leaders to learn from and be inspired by the forefathers of the movement such as Rev. Jesse Jackson and Timuel Black.

“The Office of Civic Engagement was delighted to collaborate with the Chicago Theological Seminary and other campus partners on this important and timely dialogue,” Malunda added.

The Friday sessions included a panel that discussed Selma's impact on civil rights activism today. Featuring South Side activist Timuel Black, University of Chicago Professor of Sociology Omar McRoberts, and Curtiss De Young, the executive director of the Community Renewal Society, the group considered to what extent today's civil rights movement is either new or an extension of the past.

De Young pointed out the shameful similarities between 2015 and 1965: the problems of police brutality and vigilante justice have not gone away.

McRoberts agreed that the misuse of police power is regrettably carried over from the past, and the larger issue of the abuse of power, generally, needs both a legislative and a cultural solution. In response to De Young's point that this is not simply a civil rights issue but rather a broader issue of social justice for all, Black made poignant observations about the universality of our humanity. "I am a part of each and each is a part of me," he said. "I am responsible for everyone of you here, and I hope you will feel a sense of responsibility for this old man."

In order to provide a format and venue that would encourage local community residents to discuss important social issues, the Seminary created opportunities for dialogue on social media channels, resulting in the conference hashtag, #CTSSelma, trending at number 10 nationally.

The conference also provided a youth participation tract to introduce and engage a new generation of activists. Approximately 75 young people between the ages of 15-35 gathered to share personal experiences and affirm their role in today's civil rights movement.

This event represents an extension of the seminary’s history of involvement advancing the cause of civil rights. Notably, it was the first seminary in the United States to award the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree in 1957. Then in 1965, CTS president Howard Schomer, faculty and students, including Jackson, marched alongside King in Selma.

"In commemorating the role of CTS in the Selma marches 50 years ago," Thomas said, "we hope to inspire a new generation of religious leaders and activists as we challenge racism and injustice in our own time."