I had the honour of meeting the soulful civil rights activist, Jean Stallings, who visited my school as part of the Journey to Justice project. Hearing her story and the struggles she faced was truly a sobering experience. Jean radiated a certain grace and eloquence which I have never witnessed before, the warmth of her words had captivated the entire room. I was taken aback by her ability to touch our hearts as well as her humility. I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to speak with her and hear her story. We discussed the struggles of a young, black and single mother living in 1960’s America and the misogyny she faced from her own community, and the extent to which many local black Americans felt alienated by large scale, conservative civil rights organisations. I was inspired by how determined Jean was to ensure a better future and education for her children. When she spoke of this struggle, my friends and I could feel the power of her words and the underlying pain of a mother. Meeting Jean has genuinely changed my outlook on life and I am still in awe of how empowering it was for me.
Jean’s strength of character will always remain a source of inspiration for me, and is what I strive to achieve. She is the type of woman young people should look up to and admire – an invaluable role model.
The highlight of the event, and something which I felt encapsulated the civil rights era, was when Jean was asked what convinced her to participate in the marches which defined the 1960’s civil rights movement. She responded by stomping her feet, and asked us, “Do you hear that?”, to which we replied yes. “That’s why. We wanted to be heard.”, Jean said.
Although all of Jean’s words were exceptionally moving, I was able to record part of her answers to our questions. She wisely said:
“No matter what happens in life, you can overcome. But respect…respect is utmost at the top of the list. Respect each other. Respect. You might not understand the language that your friend, or your peers, or someone from your neighbourhood is speaking; you can’t understand why their head is covered up. But smile. Smile and just get a warmth, where you can look at them and start talking, and finding out about their souls, and what’s in their heart. They want the same thing as you–they want the same thing. Help them; the ones who are downtrodden, sometimes just hold their hand. And when you see them being bullied, speak out against it. Don’t be afraid–speak out against it. The benefit will be that this world will be a better place because each one of you has played a part in it.”
I hope reading this gave you some food for thought. Lots of love, Kushi. Xx