20th Annual Symposium Celebrates Civil Rights, Social Justice

Shirley N. Weber, Secretary of State in California, gave the keynote for this year's Fannie Lou Hamer Human & Civil Rights Symposium on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.

Galloway, N.J. – Following an emotional statue unveiling in Atlantic City, Stockton University continued paying tribute to civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer with the 20th annual Human & Civil Rights Symposium in the Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, Oct. 10.

This year’s symposium included a performance of gospel songs by the Stockton Freedom Singers, led by Beverly Vaughn, professor of Music; a video compilation of previous symposiums; poetry recitation by Stockton faculty and a keynote address by California’s first Black Secretary of State, Shirley N. Weber. 


Weber’s address emphasized how much Hamer and her legacy informs how she serves the people who elected her to office. Weber, a daughter of former sharecroppers in Arkansas, said that the people who most inspired her were the people who embodied Hamer’s hope for a better tomorrow.

“So often, I'm asked by so many people, ‘Who motivated you? Who was the person that you looked up to, and how did you become the highest-ranking Black woman in elected state office in California, one of the largest states in the Union? I give them famous names sometimes, but most of the time, I don't: I give them the names of people who helped me, folks that they would never meet who remind me of the Fannie Lou Hamers of the world. Folks who said to me, ‘Little girl, you’re going to be someone when you grow up,’ and they gave me a little gift in church on Sunday because they read about me in the newspaper.

“Because I had a community that believed in me, folks like Fannie Lou Hamer who fought for us, all those kinds of things, put together somehow nullified all the negative things I had in my life. (Against) all the poverty, racism and discrimination, our family developed these buffers for us so that we grew up believing, in spite of what we had, that we could always be somebody.”

Hamer’s fight for equal voting rights was a long and hard battle, and Weber said she hopes to see students keep her tenacious spirit alive by being as persistent as Hamer was in the face of challenges like the current lack of mail-in ballot access for Black voters, retaliation against poll workers and bills calling to gut the Voting Rights Act of 1969. According to Weber, voting is the “American equalizer” that Hamer dedicated her life to fighting for. 

“And so, as we fight these battles, I have to remind people of Fannie Lou Hamer. Listen, Fannie Lou went down there several times to take the (literacy test) before they said she could have her right to vote. Even if they put a barrier on you and say, ‘We're not going to let you have water,’ bring your own water bottle. And if somebody says, ‘Bring your own chair if you want to sit down,’ be prepared to stay and wait. Whatever the issue is, don't leave. Vote, and you'll see them change the rules again. Make sure that you understand the game that is being played throughout this nation to figure out how to disenfranchise people. We have to pay attention to where we are and what we're doing, and Fannie Lou Hamer should be a motivation to each and every one of us in this room.

“Everything that she had was riding on this right to vote: her justice, her dignity, her life. All these (challenges against her) took place, and there was no one standing up and saying stop. But she kept standing, and she kept fighting with those who believed in her. As a result, we have a legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer that is second to none.”

Shirley Weber
Weber gave the keynote for this year's symposium, emphasizing voting rights and advocating for one's community. 

Voting rights and social justice were frequent topics at the symposium. The audience was encouraged to not only acknowledge the past but to use it as a source of inspiration during our current climate surrounding civic engagement.

“It is so marvelous that, in 2023, we are allowed to intermingle freely amongst one another, vote, hold high power positions in society, be educated and choose our own paths because there was once a point in time when these things were forbidden for African Americans. Although tremendous progress has been made toward human and civil rights, the fight is nowhere near done,” Vanessa Bauwah, president of the Unified Black Student Society, shared in her remarks. “Because of leaders like Mrs. Hamer, we are able to utilize our rights as lawful citizens to vote for candidates that fight for social, economic and environmental policies that benefit our communities. I hope that, through the symposium, you will gain impactful knowledge and inspiration to become a catalyst of social change in your community, state and country.”

President Joe Bertolino emphasized how Hamer’s legacy on campus aligns with Stockton’s mission of educating tomorrow’s future leaders.

“If we, as an institution, are going to deliver on that mission of valuing diversity and inclusivity, we must be proactive in promoting civil rights and social justice,” Bertolino said. “I have been privileged to be a social justice educator for almost 30 years, long before the term ‘social justice’ became a buzzword in the political sphere. To me, social justice can best be described as ensuring that we treat one another with dignity, respect, kindness, compassion and civility, and to do that, we must recognize that not all of us come from the same place, with the same experiences or from the same starting point.

“We all start from a different place and a different perspective, and it is important to have compassion for one another. In order to do so, we must listen to understand, not listen to respond. We must acknowledge the long history of events, policies and circumstances that have led our country and our world to where it is today, and when we talk about civil rights, we must have the complete picture.” 

Vanessa Bauwah

Freedom Singers

President Joe Bertolino

Louise Gorham-Neblett

Donnetriece Allison

Shirley Weber and Pat Reid Merritt

Lee Bryant

Freedom Singers

Pat Reid-Merritt

Following the keynote was an opportunity for students to talk with Weber and Molefi Asante, professor of Africology and African American Studies at Temple University and keynote speaker for the 2011 symposium. 

When asked how students can make their own impact on society, Asante referred to his own struggle with creating the Africology and African American Studies doctoral program and how important educating oneself about history is.

“Educate yourself, particularly about history, because history has answers for a lot of things and I think it's fundamental that we know what the context is; if you don't know the context for things, everything will be confusing chaos,” Asante said. “People always talk about the creation of the Ph.D. program, but I had to fight people. Every step of the way and every move was a fight, and we were able to do it, but it was hard. It's difficult, but you have to be courageous, and you have to believe in what you're doing. And I think that if you educate yourself and you know the context, you know the process and you can work the process.”

According to Weber, students should focus on the change that is feasible to them – it’s admirable to change the world, but the people, places and systems around them deserve that attention, too.  

“Each one of us has the capacity to enhance somebody else's life, whether it's a child or an adult. You'd be surprised how significant it is when you enter the community in which you work and you take an interest in the people that's there,” Weber said. “(Hamer) saw what was happening in her community, people were not allowing Black people to participate in the democratic process, and most folks would have said, ‘Aw, girl, that's the way they do it. I’m in it no more.’ No, no, no, no, no, no. You are it. It will only exist because of you.

“Take charge and do what you can. You don't have to wait to become famous or util somebody acknowledges you. Get it done. Our community has survived because of individuals who decided to do something.”

From left, Stockton President Joe Bertolino; Brian Jackson, chief operating officer of Stockton’s Atlantic City campus; Patricia Reid-Merritt, Stockton Distinguished Professor of Africana Studies and Social Work; Brian Hanlon, sculptor of the statue; and Donnetrice Allison, professor of Africana Studies and Communication Studies.
From left, Stockton President Joe Bertolino; Brian Jackson, chief operating officer of Stockton’s Atlantic City campus; Patricia Reid-Merritt, Stockton Distinguished Professor of Africana Studies and Social Work; Brian Hanlon, sculptor of the statue; and Donnetrice Allison, professor of Africana Studies and Communication Studies. The group poses with a more-than-7-foot-tall statue of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City on Oct. 10. Photo by Lizzie Nealis.

Atlantic City, N.J. — Thanks to the donation of a Stockton University professor, the legacy of civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer has been permanently enshrined in the place where she changed history.

An over-7-foot-tall resin statue of the woman who fought for voting rights for Black Americans was unveiled Oct. 10 during a ceremony at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. The hall was the site of the 1964 Democratic National Convention where Hamer made history by giving testimony in opposition to an all-white Mississippi delegation.

“It’s going where it belongs,” said Patricia Reid-Merritt, a Distinguished Professor of Africana Studies and Social Work, before the ceremony. “For all the great things and contributions that Fannie Lou Hamer made to the civil rights struggle, what she is known for is that speech in Atlantic City. It’s a tribute to her legacy and Stockton’s efforts to uplift her legacy.” 

— Story by Mark Melhorn

Keisha Blain during her keynote
Author Keisha N. Blain was the keynote speaker for last year's symposium. Photo by Susan Allen. 

Galloway, N.J. — The story of Fannie Lou Hamer usually ends with her fiery speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

Rather than ending there, author Keisha N. Blain challenged students and guests to look beyond at the 19th annual Fannie Lou Hamer Human and Civil Rights Symposium on Oct. 11 in the Stockton University Performing Arts Center.

Blain is a professor of Africana Studies and History at Brown University, a columnist for MSNBC and former president of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). Blain’s most recent book, “Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer's Enduring Message to America” (2021), was nominated for an NAACP Image Award and selected as a finalist for the 2022 National Book Critics Circle Award in Biography. 

— Story by Loukaia Taylor

– Story by Loukaia Taylor

– Photos by Susan Allen