Living Civil Rights
Sister to Sister event inspires campus and Carlisle communities
by Anisah Hashmi ’11
September 29, 2010
Junie (left) and Sarah Collins took time before their Sept. 15 lecture to talk with students about their experience as reluctant heroines of the Civil Rights movement. To their right is Tracy Snipe, associate professor of political science at Wright State University, who discussed the historical and political context of the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. Photo by Flosha Tejada '11.
History books are filled with facts and figures but rarely do we get to see historical characters come to life, as they did on Sept. 15, when Sarah Collins Rudolph and Junie Collins “Peavy” Williams, survivors of the 1963 Birmingham, Ala., church bombing, shared their stories with the Dickinson and Carlisle communities. Their 14-year-old sister, Addie Mae Collins, was killed, along with three other young girls, in the bombing on Sept. 15, 1963.
The program, held in the Anita Tuvin Schlechter Auditorium, was part of a larger campus-diversity project led by Paula Lima-Jones, director of the Office of Diversity Initiatives (ODI).
Lima-Jones has been working for two years on integrating social-justice issues with traditional diversity concepts. “We’ll always be for recognizing and valuing differences in identity and social experiences, but … what do you do when you know that differences in identity have different consequences in the real world?” she notes. The plan is to engage students in conversations about diversity and social justice and provide them with a skill set to address political and social issues.
The Collins sisters’ visit was a response to what Lima-Jones calls “a historical gap” between generations. “In 1963 a church was bombed, but we actually have living, breathing people to say, ‘This is the impact and the significance of what happened,’ ” she says.
During the program, Junie and Sarah Collins admitted that they’re not typical heroines of the civil-rights movement. “I don’t think they ever knew that they would become what they are today,” says international-studies major Tiffany Hwang ’11, who attended the event. “They never actually led a life of an activist, but because of their positioning in history and where they were that day, that moment made them almost immortalized in our memory.”
Hwang, an ODI diversity assistant, found the Collinses’ story provocative. “I think we need to remember how [racial and gender discrimination are] still very much present,” she says. “These systems of oppression are still omnipresent in our society, and we need to be conscientious that our struggle for not just equality but to live lives of equal worth is not over.”
Hwang also was one of a select group of students who met with the women to share tales over lunch. “They were asking us about our lives on campus and how our lives have been affected by race relations at Dickinson,” she explains. “They were so eager to listen to our stories, which I thought was so wonderful, because who am I for them to want to know me?”
Other ODI members found the event significant in how it honored the Collins sisters. “It was very empowering for them, I think, that they were able to gain agency through telling their story over the years, and you could tell that they struggled through an evolutionary experience,” says Anthony Bush ’11, an American-studies major who does event planning and research for ODI.
“It gave me the chance to learn about the history that isn’t really talked about or really remembered or made mainstream,” adds fellow attendee Chris Reid ’13. “To be a part of that and actually hear from them personally was really something I’ll never forget.”
For Lima-Jones, perhaps the most surprising result of the evening was the overwhelmingly positive response from the Carlisle community, including a spate of e-mails afterward requesting information on future ODI events.
“A lot of times we have events on campus that cater to college students or to [an academic audience],” she says. “[Sometimes] the community in the greater-Carlisle area is kind of left out of these conversations. I think that Sister to Sister told a story that could connect them.”
Learn more about the Office of Diversity Initiatives or read more about the Collins sisters in The Dickinsonian.