Congressman John James Conyers, Jr. spoke about racial injustices, among other issues of equality during his keynote address at the 11th Annual Rosa Parks Luncheon. The event, hosted by the Rowan University Africana Studies program, occurred on Feb. 23 in the Student Center Ballroom.
The annual luncheon is hosted as a part of Rowan University’s celebration of Black History Month, and each year presents both the Gary Hunter Memorial Scholarship to Rowan students — usually members of Rowan University’s Africana Studies program — and the Rosa Parks commemorative award to the keynote speaker. This year’s scholarship winners were Helen Bowe and Karla Morales.
The luncheon aimed to touch on important aspects regarding black history. The evening’s events included a dance selection by Rowan’s Atomik Legacy Dance Crew, a video presentation and a musical selection by Rowan’s Dr. Lourin Plant, a faculty member of the College of Performing Arts, which all celebrated black history and heritage in some way. Notably, the highlight of the evening was the keynote speech as previously mentioned given by Congressman Conyers, who knew Rosa Parks personally.
Conyers, who has been elected to congress over 26 consecutive terms, and is Dean of Congress, was fortunate to meet Rosa Parks before he first ran for political office. She endorsed him, which Conyers believes led him to a successful campaign, due to her already distinguished place in history.
“She was a very reserved, distinguished person. She was steady and determined,” Conyers said. “I said, ‘Boy, if I’m elected into office, she’ll be the first person I ask on staff.’” Parks went on to accept Conyers’ offer.
Conyers believed Parks’ demeanor was different for a woman of a humble origin, which probably helped her throughout all of her trials as a racial equality activist. Rosa Parks is known to many as the woman who started the modern-day civil rights movement. Conyers believed Parks single-handedly revived the movement.
“We don’t think about the dangers of being progressive in the 50s,” Conyers said. “It’s hard to believe that where you sat on a bus, based on your race, could have dangerous consequences. For this is one of the many reasons I came to know and admire her.”
Conyers also touched on the many other inequalities and systems of injustice which pain our country today. He urged young people to vote, and claimed there should be much importance placed on creating a “Job Bill,” especially since so many of the unemployed in America are African-Americans.
His speech was met with a standing ovation by those in attendance at the luncheon. Many in attendance were emotionally moved by the event in its entirety.
“Rosa Parks was one of my favorite Civil Rights leaders. She was unbelievably powerful, which was one of the many reasons I came out for the first time to this event,” said community member Rev. Dr. Betty Sewell, senior pastor at Sicklerville Worship Center. “It is very well put together and very important.”
The dance piece put on by Atomik Legacy had a different, but important approach to celebrating black history. Dancers came on stage at first bearing white clothes, which were similar to those worn by the Klu Klux Klan to which a recording said powerful words about being black, the dancers then took off these drapes and danced to a powerful ballad which celebrated African-Americans. At the end of the number, they held the white drapes up in silent protest.
“[The dance] is a tough message and hard to perform, but it’s important when it intermixes with what Rosa did and what we are trying to still be doing for racial equality,” said Ciara Bouyer, senior elementary education major and performer with Atomik Legacy. “Like Rosa, I think it’s important we all know it’s okay to make people uncomfortable as long as it’s for the bigger picture and purpose.”