Don’t forget that in 1961, a group of 400 courageous black and white activists called the Freedom Riders challenged the Jim Crow laws of the day by riding buses and trains across the segregated south. Don’t forget that they risked their lives, even though these were peaceful demonstrations. Don’t forget that it was an important precursor to stabilizing black voting rights and the Civil Rights Movement. Don’t forget.
The program includes a preview screening of Freedom Riders, the film by award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson which will debut on PBS stations across the country as part of the “American Experience” series beginning in May. The film is based on the original book by Raymond Arsenault.
“We are very proud to be involved,” says Dr. Brenda Bryant, Dean of Community-Based Learning and co-founder of Marygrove’s Social Justice Program. “This is the kind of information we need to bring to the forefront, to keep it alive.” She adds that whenever history has presented unjust acts—outrageous incidents of discrimination, deprivation or exclusion—we, as a society must learn all we can to fully understand. “Remembering the Freedom Riders 50 years later brings the story back for new generations to learn, older generations to gain strength and for all to heal,” Bryant said.
Bryant and her staff are working hard to keep a social justice dialogue open on the campus of Marygrove. They believe that social justice, or the pursuit of it, begins with education. “If we get it right here, the hope is that it will spill over into the community and beyond,” Bryant says. Her brand of scholarly activism would make Marygrove’s founders proud. It’s in her bones.
You might say the spirit of social justice also lingers in the halls of Marygrove, and throughout its 53-acre campus. The college’s legacy began with its founders and sponsors the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), whose views about educating women were controversial in late 19th century America. Co-founder Sister Theresa Maxis challenged the social norms of the day to create a school for girls which later became Marygrove College in Detroit. Sr.Theresa was admonished and even exiled for her sense of social justice. But it did not stop her.
In a shared vision, Marygrove and the IHM Sisters have many documented acts of social justice through its 84-year history. In the turbulent 1960’s, Marygrove proposed the “68 for 68” scholarship program, committed to recruiting 68 African American women into its predominantly white school. In the1970’s, Marygrove re-dedicated itself to the Detroit community after recommendations to “relocate” to the suburbs. And in the 1990’s, Marygrove resisted merging with the University of Detroit and Mercy College, reaffirming its commitment to the city it serves. The college practices what it preaches.
“We teach our students to be present, to not allow others to dictate what is best for them, their community, their state, and so on,” Bryant says. She was compelled to start the Master in Social Justice Program after 9-11. “Americans need to understand how to be global citizens,” she said. It’s a way of thinking and behaving that will bring about change, slowly, but surely; much like the program itself. The first class in 2004 had 18 students, and now the Master’s program has roughly 60 students enrolled, from all walks of life—community organizers, nuns, health care workers, police officers, and teachers. An education in social justice can help anyone in any line of work because it is about humanity—it is about being a human being.
Bryant adds that the focus of Marygrove’s program is systems, and how they affect human beings. "We focus on how to fix unjust systems, whether it's at the institutional level, the political level, the civic level. We also tend to focus on organizing movements or joining movements," Bryant says. The social justice program at Marygrove is one of only a handful of its kind around the country. But everyone knows actions speak louder than words.
Maybe that’s why ONE (Our Neighborhood Engaged) is working closely with Marygrove to renew and revitalize the immediate area around campus—and the college is tackling issues on the disturbing national trends of “school to prison piplelines” and human trafficking. Popular subjects? Not yet; but immensely important to the society at large. And all on Bryant’s to-do list. She won’t forget.
For more information about the Freedom Riders forum sponsored by Marygrove College, DTE Energy Foundation and Ford, contact Karen Wood, Chief Communications and Marketing Officer, Marygrove, at 313.927.1446.