Symposium examines justice

In the true spirit of Plato, attorney Alvin Chambliss asked members of the Emmett Till, Plagiarism & Africana Theory, Thought and Action Symposium to give their personal definition of justice.

Chambliss made his request Saturday at a roundtable discussion during the second day of the symposium, which was organized by MU English professor Clenora Hudson-Weems.

"I try to be supportive of my colleagues," said Julius Thompson, a professor and director of black studies. "This year, black studies decided to give support to the Black Culture Center."

Students, MU professors and guest speakers from across the country, including authors, professors, an attorney and a Hollywood producer, met for a dinner and discussion Friday night.

Topics included Hudson-Weems' thesis citing Emmett Till as the catalyst of the civil rights movement, a discussion of historical civil rights challenges and progress and talks concerning the recently passed Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007.

On Saturday, guests met again and expanded on the previous day's topics in Socratic discourse.

Texas Southern University English professor Betty Taylor-Thompson drew a personal link between racism in the past and in the present.

"My mother wanted to be a chemist, but they would not let her," Taylor-Thompson said. "If they had let my mother follow her dream and her talent, I would not have been where I was. I would've been somewhere else with a whole lot of opportunity, and then my children would be somewhere else."

Hudson-Weems has held two previous Emmett Till Symposia at MU in 1994 and 2000, and she released the final book in her Emmett Till trilogy in August. In 1985, she began researching the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Till.

"The chair of the English department said, 'Clenora, it's already been proven Rosa Parks was the beginning of the movement. Why can't you just say he was a significant factor?'" Hudson-Weems said.

"He was far more important," she said she replied then. "He was the catalyst."

The committee warned her she wouldn't receive her doctorate degree if she failed to properly defend the dissertation, Hudson-Weems said.

In 1988, Hudson-Weems published "Emmett Till: The Impetus for the Modern Civil Rights Movement."

"Rosa Parks will always be the mother of the movement," she said. "Martin Luther King, Jr., will always be the father of the movement. And Emmett Till will always be the child."

She has since given speeches in and out of the country.

University of Iowa English professor Fredrick Woodard credits Hudson-Weems with facilitating the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007, which allows the FBI to reopen investigations on unresolved civil rights crime cases prior to 1970.

"Clenora's 20-year passion and research on the Emmett Till Murder Case has unquestionably led to the passing of the 2007 Till Bill," Woodard said. "Thus, Clenora's research has brought about the emergence of a major public policy, indeed, a unique accomplishment for an academician."

Thompson said society must improve upon civil rights as well as human rights.

"I see the issue as a challenge for each generation, as we attempt to bring improvements politically, socially, economically and culturally to all American people," Thompson said. "Our challenge at the turn of the century is to build on the earlier foundations. These challenges are not necessarily facing one group, white, black or brown."

In his definition of justice at the symposium, producer and "Rain Man" co-writer Barry Morrow said hope for the future lies with today's children.

"All I can do is guide my children and teach them not to forget what it was to be 2-years-old, 4-years-old, and to grab the hand of the kid next to you," Morrow said. "You don't look at the color of that hand or anything else, you grab the hand because you're playing a game together. And in the game you make up your own rules, and they're always fair. And when they're not, a kid will say it's not fair."

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