Editor’s note: This is the first in Policy Watch’s new series of profiles of the up and coming progressive activists in North Carolina.
The movement to remove Silent Sam, the only Confederate monument on a UNC campus, is decades old. But in the last year it has gained new urgency and momentum, bolstered by young activists who have used social media and old-school coalition building to rally students, staff and faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill and the surrounding community.
One of the most prominent voices in the movement in Michelle Brown, a senior at Chapel Hill majoring in Hispanic Literature and Culture and Women’s and Gender Studies.
Brown became aware of the Silent Sam statue during her freshman year, when there were student rallies against it. But over the course of her four years on campus, she said she’s seen the movement to remove the statue become better organized, tighter knit and more effective in planning its demonstrations for maximum impact.
“This year I could really tell it was different – the first day of school, the protest was so large and the community was so supportive and tightly knit,” Brown said. “I went early in the morning and then went again in the afternoon and it was still going and strong.”
Brown, 21, is now finishing up her senior year and looking toward graduate school, where she hopes to study public administration. But she’s also committed to her activism and community building, which extends well beyond the movement around Silent Sam.
This month marks her fourth year helping to organize the annual Catalyst Conference, which brings 100 select high school students to UNC for a weekend-long discussion of social justice issues.
“We spend the weekend talking about social justice issues, all day and all night,” Brown said. “This year our issue is privilege. We talk to them about the issues, they get to know people and how they can become real social justice agents in their communities.”
The event is so popular that it got more than 500 applications this year, Brown said – a good sign for the future of progressive activism in the state.
There was no real tradition of activism in her own family, Brown said. She and her identical twin sister were raised by a number of different family members from her mother’s side of the family in Maryland, Virginia and Ohio. They moved around a lot, but the issue of racial and economic identity was a constant.
As a mixed-race child, Brown said she constantly felt like an “other.” Going to predominantly white schools she felt not Black enough to be Black in some circles, not white enough in others.
“I always felt judged, whether they were defining me by the money my family had or my racial identity,” Brown said. “I always knew I was worthy. But I was continuously reminded that some people thought I wasn’t.”
Even in her family, she said, conversations around her identity centered around her black family’s discomfort with her identifying as multi-racial and their concern that she be a good representation of a young Black woman, setting a good example.
As a young girl she saw and was inspired by the 1999 film “Selma, Lord, Selma” – a telling of the “Bloody Sunday” attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. The story is told from the perspective of 8-year-old Sheyann Webb, who Martin Luther King Jr. called his “smallest freedom fighter.”
“She was a young, light skinned girl like me,” Brown said. “And I rarely ever saw somebody on TV who looked like me and I identified with. She looked like me, she was determined and she marched. She knew she was doing the right thing and her goal in the movie was to get her family to march with her. They couldn’t convince them, even though she was Black, because of how unsafe it was. I probably watched that movie 100 times when I was younger.”
Getting involved in multi-cultural student groups and leadership conferences in high school helped her to examine how people tend to find differences in other people and focus on the arbitrary things that separate rather than the things about which they can come together.
“Right now I think the greatest threat to democracy is the power structure,” Brown said. “Specifically around Silent Sam, being able to express our opinions; and not just opinions, sharing facts with the student body about Silent Sam, its history, what it stands for, what it means to us. One of the obstacles we face is that the administration pushes against us – the chancellor, the administration and the Board of Governors.”
“They put on this facade that they want to help us and work with us,” Brown said. “That’s what they sell to the community and to the newspapers – but then they take all these other steps to keep us silent. They send out police officers to statue to protect the statue during rallies. Not to protect the students, which attracts terribly violent crowds and could cause another Charlottesville incident. The BOG has new regulations now to so-called protect freedom of speech, but basically what they do is silence protesters.”
But Brown has still has plenty of hope.
“Right now I’m finishing up my degree and taking a bunch of classes I’m interested in that are centered around the Civil Rights movement and that era,” Brown said. “Learning about how much harder I feel like people had it then than I do right now – I feel like I have fear, but not in the same way people then did. Honestly, I feel like knowing there were people who had it harder than I did and they fought and they got me here, to this position where I can also fight. Knowing people got this far, that’s something I’m holding onto right now.”
In the current political environment that reminder is sometimes needed, Brown said.
“I love my community, but it can be exhausting to expect students – especially people of color – to want to keep fighting this every day,” Brown said. “It’s draining. But I know that people came before us and did it. I know we can too.”