On Friday and Saturday, the Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) hosted its spring conference on civil rights, “Selma at 50: Still Marching.” As its title suggests, the conference honored the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights actions in Selma, AL for voting rights for black Americans. Through a diverse array of panel discussions and workshops that featured speakers such as Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. and Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García, attendees were encouraged to examine the systemic causes of social problems and to craft strategies for implementing positive change.
“We chose to focus this year’s conference on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights actions in Selma, AL because of the seminary’s important and specific connections to that particular event,” CTS marketing director Susan Cusick said. “We decided on a very forward-focused tag-line, ‘Still Marching,’ to assure attendees that this conference was much more than a commemoration—it was a rally cry around the work being done, and yet to be done.”
Regarding the connections to Selma, CTS was involved in various efforts to advance the cause of civil rights, and in 1957 became the first seminary in America to award Martin Luther King, Jr. an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree for his activism. In 1965, then-CTS President Howard Schomer and other CTS faculty and students marched with King in Selma.
Jackson, an activist and founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to pursuing social justice and civil rights, delivered the opening plenary on Friday morning. Jackson recounted the history of the civil rights movement and emphasized the ongoing struggle for equality.
“Civil rights came with the combination of litigation, legislation, and demonstration,” explained Jackson, who also marched alongside King in Selma a half-century ago.
After tracing the accomplishments and setbacks of black Americans from the time of slavery to the present day, Jackson portrayed the racial inequality that continues to plague the nation.
He had the audience repeat after him several times the refrain, “We are free, but not equal.”
“Poverty abounds, and for those persons there is a safety net called jails,” Jackson continued. “We must fight to wipe out hunger, not wipe out the hungry.”
García was another key speaker at the conference. In a special panel for pre-registered conference attendees called “Chat with Chuy,” García discussed his recent campaign for mayor of Chicago, which resulted in a runoff election between himself and incumbent Rahm Emanuel (García lost the runoff).
Garcia’s discussion was tinged with a mixture of disappointment and hopefulness. While he seemed somewhat bitter over the election outcome, Garcia expressed determination to continue fighting for working people and for families across Chicago and the nation.
The conference also featured performances by hip-hop activist artists—Jasiri X on Friday, and FM Supreme on Saturday—as well as finalists from Louder Than a Bomb, a Chicago youth poetry festival. Furthermore, a team of graphic artists from the Ink Factory Studio captured many of the sessions in posters that will be compiled into a “wall” to be displayed in the CTS lobby.
Cusick noted positive feedback from the two days of discussing, networking, and artistic showcasing. The conference hashtag, #CTSSelma, trended at number 10 nationally, she reported.
“People told us they did not want the conference to end, yet they were ‘full’ as one participant told me,” Cusick concluded in her statement. “‘Full’ with passion, ideas, strategy and motivation to continue the work of social justice activism—of making positive change…. I think we did what we set out to do.”