These students (plus a few who couldn’t make it to the graduation party) have been meeting in Columbia at the historic Seibels House twice a month since March to learn a people’s history of South Carolina and tools to be more effective community organizers.
On Sunday, a third class matriculated from the Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights, a project of the SC Progressive Network launched in 2015 to help build and sustain a state-based movement for social change.
As they picked up their diplomas, the graduates shared their thoughts about the experience.
Lauren Greene said, “This class absolutely exceeded my expectations – the material, the presentations, the guest speakers. It was really phenomenal. There was so much I didn’t even know I didn’t know.”
Carol Singletary said, “The school helped me understand why we are where we are now and why we have not gone as far as we should have. I met some wonderful people who are as committed as I am to bring about change and continuing to work together to make sure that some good things happen in South Carolina.”
Richard Sylvester hadn’t planned on taking the course, but after dropping his wife off at the first class and seeing the curriculum, he decided to enroll, too. “I was hesitant to come at the beginning because I knew I would learn things that would just make me mad. I hope I can do something to help rectify the things that are less than they could be”
His wife, Shannon Herin, thanked him “for sticking with me. That made it extra special. It was an amazing curriculum – and if you’re like me you will still be reading that curriculum for many years. This is a very smart community of activists because we’re not just angry. This is a group that wants to get smart, stay smart, and to be intentional about their actions. That’s a great strength.”
She said the day included a personal point of celebration. “This little blue dress was worn on that day in November when I went to vote for the first female president. You can still see the tear stains on it. I put this on the back of my door, and wasn’t going to put it back in the closet until I did something. So it means a lot that I’m wearing it today.”
“The school opened my eyes to the fact that it’s no accident that we’re in the situation we’re in; it’s intentional,” Melissa Watson said. “Sometimes you feel like you’re not doing enough in the community, particularly when you compare yourself to the big names on the national stage. To see local icons’ work motivated me to want to work.”
Longtime political activist Tim Liszewski said, “Knowing there are people younger than I am who are actually taking up the cause gives me hope and makes me less angry. Let’s make some change that lasts.”
Donald Martin is not a South Carolina native, so was glad to learn more about its history. “I grew up in the era of Jim Crow, so that wasn’t surprising to me; what was surprising is to look across the room and see young people and older people, and I thought we wouldn’t still be talking about this. It just shows that the struggle is not over. I feel the spirit of Modjeska Simkins inside me. That’s why I came to join this movement – and this is a movement.”
Thomas Hammond said his father gave him the money to take the course. “I wanted to talk about him because the other thing he gave me was understanding how important it is to know your history, where you come from. So taking this class and being involved with the Progressive Network has been an extension of what my dad gave me. It would be easy to be ashamed about where you come from, but I feel like if you make the effort to overcome your history then you don’t have to feel ashamed.”
Beverly Frierson and her sister Delaine Frierson took the class together. They have long been very active in the Democratic Party. The class made them better understand the systemic flaws within the party structure, and the need for a more strategic approach to progressive politics in the Palmetto State.
“Throughout history,” Beverly Frierson said, “the powers that be have promoted an us-against-them philosophy for the benefit of the rich and powerful. It’s so ingrained that either people are too disillusioned to take action, or they act against their own interests or – even worse – sometimes they form alliances with the oppressor.”
She said the class made her feel empowered. “The most impactful thing to me is understanding that human beings are capable of transformation. We have to have faith in the capacity of people to change. It starts with us.”
Network Director Brett Bursey who, along with Modjeska School Faculty Coordinator and USC’s Caroliniana Library historian Graham Duncan, constructed the curriculum, said the school has been one of the most gratifying and promising projects he’s worked on in his 49 years as an organizer. “The Modjeska School is meeting a critical need for progressive leadership at just the right time,” he said. “I’ve been impressed with the students’ understanding that a revolution of social values is a lifetime commitment. They are the agents of change.”
Before leaving, the class split into groups to talk about next steps for the projects they have committed to working on in the coming months. Congratulations to them all!
We thank guest speakers Dr. Wil Goins, Dr. Bobby Donaldson, Tom and Judy Turnipseed, Tootsie Holland, Dr. Hoyt Wheeler, Lewis Pitts, and Jack Bass. Thanks, too, to former Modjeska School graduates Kyle Criminger and Daniel Deweese, who volunteered to set up and break down each session.