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INTERVIEW

Lecia Brooks – Dedicated to Ending Injustice in America

Outreach director at Southern Poverty Law Center discusses events in Charlottesville and the “Take the Knee” protest

Lecia Brooks speaking at the 15th symposium of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association

Lecia Brooks speaking at the 15th symposium of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association

Oscar Tollast | 15.01.2018

The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Alabama, is committed to fighting hate, teaching tolerance, and seeking justice. Lecia Brooks, the Center’s outreach director, frequently gives presentations around the United States to put this message across to others. As a faculty member of the 15th symposium of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA), Brooks wanted to put another thought in her audience’s minds.

“What I wanted to convey to the participants in the seminar was that these issues that they do such a good job in chronicling for academic purposes, and they spend their time researching, have real-life consequences; that they’re representative of people’s real lives; and that the threat to civil rights and civil liberties that we’re seeing thus far under the Trump administration are affecting people already. I wanted it to be more than an intellectual discourse, but I sought to put a face to some of the story, the pictures we were painting,” she says.

A few weeks before the symposium in Salzburg in September 2017, events unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia that grabbed the world’s attention. Hundreds of white nationalists and supremacists descended on the town for the Unite the Right rally: a far-right rally organized to oppose the removal of a statue of Civil War general, Robert E. Lee. The night before the rally, about 250 people took part in a torchlight procession through the University of Virginia campus, shouting phrases such as “You will not replace us!” and “Blood and soil.” The group clashed with counter-protesters and left following the arrival of police.

On the day of the rally, the violence continued. In the early hours of the afternoon, one person was killed and others were injured after a car went into a group of counter-protesters. A helicopter monitoring the clashes also crashed that day, killing the two Virginia State Patrol troopers who were on board.

Brooks, who also serves as director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center, chose to share images from the torchlight procession in one of her presentations. She says, “It was just so incredible, and it is just frightening that it happened in the United States and right in the open on a university campus. First and foremost, I wanted to document that it happened, remind people that it happened, and remind people that it could happen in their university as well.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project has led to the creation of anti-bias resources such as documentaries, lesson plans, and curricula, which are distributed to educators free-of-charge across the country. Brooks says the Center hopes to educate young people about the threat from the far right and “talk more about our aspirations to create diverse and inclusive communities and to make clear that those diverse communities are for everyone, including white males who are feeling marginalized at this time, [which] makes them particularly vulnerable to messages from white supremacists.”

Brooks wanted to attend the 15th SSASA symposium – Life and Justice in America: Implications of the New Administration – to have a conversation about justice, civil rights, and the issues surrounding them with a global community. She says, “I thought it would be really important, and it has been.”

On the first morning of the symposium, participants woke up to remarks from US President Donald J. Trump made during a rally in Alabama. He criticized National Football League (NFL) owners for not punishing players who protested, who he accused of disrespecting the American flag. In a series of tweets posted the following day, he said, “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

His remarks are thought to be in reference to the actions of players such as Colin Kaepernick, who first chose to sit during the anthem in August 2016. Kaepernick sat down during the anthem to protest the oppression of people of color in the US and issues with police brutality. Following a conversation with Nate Boyer, a former NFL player and US army veteran, Kaepernick chose to kneel, not sit, during the anthem from that point onward to show more respect for the armed forces.

In response to Trump’s remarks, a movement sparked on social media with people tweeting a photo of themselves kneeling using the hashtags #TakeAKnee and #TakeTheKnee. In the NFL games that followed, several teams linked arms while other teams chose to stay in the locker room during the national anthem. More players were also seen to be kneeling.

Commenting on the origin of the “Take the Knee” movement, Brooks says, “I think that it is up to us as individuals to talk about what the movement [and] what this protest is about. The narrative, unfortunately, has been switched by the president and other people. They’re trying to frame it as a protest that is disrespecting the United States flag or disrespecting the anthem, and thus the military and [what] all of America stands for when in actuality it’s a protest.

“It’s a way of protest that was used during the Civil Rights movement with Dr [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] and others on numerous occasions…. That’s what the Take the Knee protest is about, protesting injustice, in particular, racial injustice. It has nothing to do with the flag. 

“People who have participated in the protests are veterans [and] from all walks of people. What people can do is correct the narrative. Be sure to correct people when they mistakenly think it’s about something else. Talk to people about it and decide how they can support anyone – in this case NFL players – in exercising their First Amendment right to protest.”

Brooks, who grew up in Oakland, California, first joined the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2004 as director of Mix It Up at Lunch Day, a Teaching Tolerance program which aimed to help break down racial, cultural and social barriers in schools. Before this, she worked for 12 years in several roles for the National Conference for Community and Justice in its Los Angeles office.

She says, “I grew up very much aware of the racial oppression of the United States and fortunately found a way to channel that, to help advance equality and equity for African-Americans. That has, over the course of my life, exposed me to the inequities that people suffer because of who they are. So, that’s just really important to me in my life. It’s my life. It’s my work. It’s what I’m dedicated to: trying to end injustice or call out injustice.”


Lecia Brooks was a participant of the Salzburg Global program Life and Justice in America: Implications of the New Administration, which is part of Salzburg Global’s multi-year series Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA). More information on the session can be found here. You can follow all of the discussions on Twitter by following the hashtag #SSASA.

15.01.2018 Category: CULTURE, JUSTICE, SALZBURG IN THE WORLD, SALZBURG UPDATES, SSASA
Oscar Tollast