Civil rights activists urge Naperville students to 'overcome hate' after racist post

  • James Shannon, right, a fair housing advocate and pastor of Peoples Community Church in Glen Ellyn, speaks Monday urging Naperville Central High School students to create an environment where racist attitudes no longer are acceptable.

      James Shannon, right, a fair housing advocate and pastor of Peoples Community Church in Glen Ellyn, speaks Monday urging Naperville Central High School students to create an environment where racist attitudes no longer are acceptable. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • James Shannon, a fair housing advocate and pastor of Peoples Community Church in Glen Ellyn, speaks Monday to Naperville Central High School students on a panel also including Thomas Armstrong of Naperville, a civic educator and consultant who has worked on civil rights causes including as a Freedom Rider in the 1960s, and the Rev. Jeanette Wilson, a criminal defense attorney, senior adviser to the Rev. Jesse Jackson of Rainbow PUSH Coalition and pastor of Fernwood United Methodist Church in Chicago.

      James Shannon, a fair housing advocate and pastor of Peoples Community Church in Glen Ellyn, speaks Monday to Naperville Central High School students on a panel also including Thomas Armstrong of Naperville, a civic educator and consultant who has worked on civil rights causes including as a Freedom Rider in the 1960s, and the Rev. Jeanette Wilson, a criminal defense attorney, senior adviser to the Rev. Jesse Jackson of Rainbow PUSH Coalition and pastor of Fernwood United Methodist Church in Chicago. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Thomas Armstrong of Naperville shares his experiences working on civil rights causes, including the Freedom Rider movement of the 1960s, with freshmen students Monday at Naperville Central High School.

      Thomas Armstrong of Naperville shares his experiences working on civil rights causes, including the Freedom Rider movement of the 1960s, with freshmen students Monday at Naperville Central High School. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/13/2020 3:55 PM

Three civil rights activists challenged Naperville Central High School students Monday to stand up to racial bullying after a post that has one student facing hate crime charges.

Speakers who have fought for racial equality and worked in fields of criminal defense law, housing rights and religious leadership encouraged freshmen during a panel discussion to speak out against discrimination and to use social media to fight against, rather than perpetuate, stereotypes.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"To the students here, we have a problem," said Thomas Armstrong of Naperville, a civic educator and consultant who has worked on civil rights causes -- including as a Freedom Rider working to integrate buses in the 1960s -- since he was a 17-year-old in Mississippi.

The problem, he said, comes from issues such as a Naperville Central student's Craigslist post in November that showed a picture of a black student with the heading "Slave for Sale (NAPERVILLE)," from the experience of a multiracial group of 18 who were asked to switch seats at a Naperville restaurant because employees told them two white customers did not want to sit near black people, and from students reporting other episodes of race-based bullying.

Change, Armstrong told the students, "always moves from the bottom up." So he encouraged them to step up and discourage bullying.

"I urge you to speak out against discrimination and join forces with your principal, your teachers and other like-minded people and organizations to support victims of hate crimes that might appear on your campus," Armstrong said. "You can overcome hate. All it takes is for good people like you to stand up."

Joining Armstrong on Monday's panel were James Shannon, a fair housing advocate and pastor of Peoples Community Church in Glen Ellyn, and the Rev. Jeanette Wilson, a criminal defense attorney, senior adviser to the Rev. Jesse Jackson of Rainbow PUSH Coalition and pastor of Fernwood United Methodist Church in Chicago.

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Jackson himself was scheduled to attend but could not make it because he had to travel to California after a friend's son died unexpectedly, Wilson said. He may make plans to visit with Naperville students in February for Black History Month, organizers said.

Panelists shared their experiences encountering racism in the past and said Naperville -- despite recent episodes -- has made progress toward integration, acceptance, diversity and understanding.

Shannon, for example, shared his memory of moving to Glen Ellyn and finding his neighbor across the street unwilling to speak to or acknowledge him and his wife. Other neighbors supported them, and the man across the street eventually apologized and changed from "the neighbor from hell to the neighbor from heaven," Shannon said.

But the man's assumptions illustrated the irrationality of racism, he said.

"You cannot get any kind of common sense out of racism," he said. "It makes no sense."

Wilson blamed tension among races on "a culture of disregard for all people." She said young people should find more "creative" ways to use social media. Rather than continuing to be bombarded with "negative images of people of color," she said teens can post positive images themselves to start changing the tune.

"You are not born with a racist gene," Wilson said. "You are born into an environment that fuels disconnect. ... I hope our discussion will enlighten you, encourage you and inspire you to think of new ways of bridging the divide."

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