An update from student Tannah O.:
Today we visited Tuskegee University and toured Selma, Alabama. Tuskegee is famous for several things, Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Airmen being a couple. However, probably the most tragic and infamous of all its markers is its history in the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis. As discussed by the man that led our presentation and the following discussion, the study should really be called the U.S. Public Health Syphilis Study as the current name misleads people to believe that Tuskegee University ran the study. However, Tuskegee people were the subjects of the study, not those in charge. The subjects of the study included about 600 Black males from the area, some of which had syphilis and some of which didn’t. The men that did not have the disease originally were purposefully and unethically infected with the disease. All were left untreated. The supposed purpose of the study was to examine the effects of syphilis on the “Negro male body,” which doctors believed were fundamentally and medically different from the white body, and which we now know is false. These black men suffered terrible pain for years, endured intense psychological and emotional trauma, and received very little or no compensation for the many excruciating years of “service.” This experiment lasted 40 years (1932-1972), but it was not until the Clinton administration that the men were recognized and given an official apology.
Next, we went to Selma, Alabama, where the famous march from Selma to Montgomery occurred in 1965. The march was led by the Rev. John Lewis and Hosea Williams. The march was organized as a demand for voting rights, and in this sense it was extremely successful, resulting in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, issued under the Johnson administration. However, the march did not come without cost. At the far side of the bridge between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, troops waited for the non-violent protestors with violence. With sticks, fists, tear gas, and rage, the troops attacked the protestors — black, white, old, young, female, male. Our guide, Joanne Bland, attended the march and recounted the sheer violence that took place on that fateful day, not only at the march but for many excruciating hours afterward. Three people were killed directly because of the march: Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black activist who died shielding his mother and sister from the police; James Reed, a white Unitarian Universalist minister and activist; and Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from Detroit who left her husband and five children, in order to help the cause. Liuzzo was killed while transporting protestors away from the scene.
It was a very emotionally tolling day; and personally, I believe it was the most humbling so far. I had a very strong sense that it was my time to sit down. As a human rights major, I often feel entitled to stand tall and firm in my beliefs about inclusion and justice, but it has become more and more clear to me that I am an outsider in the movement for Black equality — and I mean that in the most refreshing way. For the first time, I am starting to realize how forced the narrative of the movement is. My history books and my professors have done a decent job of recounting the events and the truths behind them, I thought. But what I’m realizing is that there is so much of the movement that runs deeper than the marches and the protests. It is the parts of the movement that lie in the wounds and scars on black bodies, and in their psychological injuries that the depth of the movement lies. I believe the true pain, or truth of the Black struggle, cannot be understood unless the members of that struggle narrate the story we hear. Thus, I have been compelled and convicted to listen more than I talk, to serve where needed and use whatever platform I have to help, but to let those who experience the truths of racism every day lead the struggle against it as I follow.