Last Thursday, I spoke at the University of Alabama at the School of Social Work. As I gave my noontime talk, Mexico City’s Zócalo was being prepared for the convergence of three huge marches in support of the 43 missing students from the Rural Teachers’ School in Ayotzinapa. I made ‘understanding’ the topic of my talk.
I explained to the students that Mexicans have the right to demonstrate peacefully in public places without the need for any type of permit. This is a coveted and frequently exercised right that springs from the 1917 Constitution. In sharp contrast, U.S. law requires permits for any large gathering.
I told the students that what was unusual about the recent demonstrations is that many sectors of society are coming together in solidarity with the plight of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa. Much of the organizing is happening at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). This is where many middle class students study. Students from wealthy families who attend private universities are also joining the fray.
And they are protesting in support of poor, rural students. Rural teachers schools such as Ayotzinapa are where students from poor families can receive an education sufficient to obtain a teaching position.
Neither UNAM nor the college in Ayotzinapa charge tuition. But you don’t see a lot of students from poor families at UNAM because only people with sufficient family support can pay the other expenses tied into a college education – textbooks, food, lodging and transportation. In Ayotzinapa, students from poor families figure out how to make do with what they have.
Last week the University of Alabama’s stunningly beautiful campus of elegant colonial architecture modeled on Jeffersonian design was being readied for its homecoming game. A tower of lumber was in place in the center of the quad for a bonfire. Tradition dictates it be lit after the Friday night pep rally.
After the talk I walked around the corner from Little Hall with Ellen Csikai, PhD, the host of my visit. We stepped into Malone-Hood Plaza in front of Foster Auditorium and gazed at the Autherine Lucy Clock Tower.
This is the site where actions by college students had a profound impact on society during the Civil Rights movement. Autherine Lucy was the first African-American to attend the University of Alabama. She enrolled in 1956 and was suspended three days later because of campus unrest.
Vivian Malone and James Hood were on their way into Foster Auditorium in 1963 to register for classes when Governor George Wallace blocked the doorway. To get them through, President Kennedy “federalized” the Alabama National Guard, who persuaded Governor Wallace to get out of the way.
Bronze plaques commemorating the first three African-American students flank the new clock tower. The open doors in the tower are in invitation to all who seek to enter – a fitting tribute to a tense but peaceful step on the path towards justice.
The 1960s U.S. Civil Rights movement has much in common with happenings in Mexico today. To be successful, the movement required the participation of not just the oppressed but those of goodwill with commitment to social justice.
Beginning in 1961, Freedom Riders, young white men and women from all over the United States, courageously traveled to the segregated south to work with African American men and women. They helped register voters and integrate transportation, public restrooms and eating establishments.
Too young to join the Freedom Riders, I used a shortwave radio to follow their progress as best I could from my home. Last Thursday I, and much of the world, followed Mexico’s demonstrations by smartphone.
Technologically, much has changed in the intervening years and so has the University of Alabama – now 12 percent black. Together blacks, whites, Asian, Native American and Hispanic students celebrated homecoming (they won!); and hopefully my talk added to their understanding of their Southern neighbor.