Alabama teen activist seeks truth, change amid protests
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – It began with a few texts, a flyer and a hashtag: #WeMatterMontgomery.
It ended with hundreds of people gathered downtown under the searing June sun, with as equal of a platform given to recent high school graduates as the city’s top leader and a civil rights attorney.
It happened because of Grace Jackson, an 18-year-old Montgomery student with a driving energy, powerful spirit and keen strategy to organize and effect local change amid the largest civil rights movement the United States has witnessed in a generation.
“We are the legacy of the civil rights movement,” Jackson said on Facebook in late May. “We need and deserve to be a part of this conversation.”
Jackson organized and helped lead a rally and march on June 3 in the wake of George Floyd’s homicide, an event centered on “truth and reconciliation” as millions across the nation grapple with police brutality in Black communities.
“The community is hurting, they’re angry,” Jackson said. “And their anguish is what needs to be heard in order for us to evoke change that’s going to last.”
Beyond Floyd’s death, the last three weeks have marked a boiling over of tensions and rage, seething for generations, amid systemic racism in the American justice system. From the era of lynching to Jim Crow laws, from National Guard troops meeting peaceful protesters in Selma with tear gas and billy clubs to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, it’s a system that has inflicted generational trauma in Black communities. It’s a system many advocates will say begins with over-disciplining and unfair treatment of Black children in schools, later bleeding into an unsteady framework of unequal court fines, bail and sentencing. Black Lives Matter protesters say the American criminal justice system is a structure that supports over-policing of Black communities, with disproportionately lethal force often leveled with impunity on Black Americans.
“I believe a lot of things can be solved through truth and reconciliation. But it is very important to have that truth a part of it first,” Jackson said. “When I say the truth, I don’t mean the cookie-cutter, not-step-on-any-toes truth. I mean the truth that might make you the most uncomfortable to your core. That’s when you get real change. That’s when it’s all on the table and when we know what we have to fix.”
Though the reaction to Floyd’s asphyxiation at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer may have surprised some Americans, it came as little shock to many who have been paying attention. And in Aundria Jackson’s mind, her daughter and her daughter’s peers – a generation which only knows news at their fingertips via smartphone – have been paying attention their entire lives.
The 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old Black teenager killed by a man who eventually walked free on a self-defense argument, was a touchstone moment for Grace. She was in fifth grade.
“Since then, it enraged me. The school that I went to, nobody was talking about it. ‘How have y’all not seen it?’” Grace remembered thinking at the time. “People are getting killed, people who look like me are getting killed because they look like me. I’m always going to stand up for Black lives. I don’t care if I’m the only person in the room.”
Aundria Jackson remembers when Martin died, and the subsequent acquittal of his shooter, George Zimmermann.
“A lot of people kept their kids away from the internet, but I kind of let her go,” the elder Jackson said. “All these events that have transpired since she was in fifth grade, she was very aware of what was going on. More aware of the news than I was coming up.”
That Grace would think up and organize a successful protest in just a few days time came as no surprise to Aundria Jackson, who hosted her daughter and a group of friends who worked tirelessly to put together the event.
Aundria Jackson said her daughter always had a “drive to take up for people.”
“Parents and teachers, even before she was in third grade, would tell me how she took up for this kid or that kid on the playground,” Aundria Jackson said.
Pride radiated from Aundria Jackson as she spoke of her daughter last week, named the Community Hero sponsored by Beasley Allen for June, though she said the path Grace is blazing – a budding, outspoken activist and grassroots organizer – was not always what she and her husband would have chosen.
The Jacksons enrolled Grace at an early age in Montgomery Academy, an educational experience that could offer their daughter premium academic and athletic opportunities but where she, as a Black student, would be a small minority in a largely white population. They worried what might happened if she didn’t keep her head down.
“I never really wanted her to be the way that she became, I wanted her to not make any waves, get through school,” Aundria Jackson said. “I’ve always told her that the reason I made the sacrifice to send her to Montgomery Academy was because I wanted her to be able to help the Black community in the long run. But my vision for the way she would help, and the way she has turned out to be is completely different. I wanted her to be a STEM person, become a doctor, all of that. But she’s more interested in the grassroots of getting down and helping the underdog. That’s her at her core.”
Grace’s focus sharpened the summer before her junior year, when she was awarded a coveted spot in an exclusive program held at Cornell University. The Telluride Association Sophomore Seminar is designed to “inspire young people to explore the histories, politics and cultural experiences of people of African descent and a variety of other topics,” according to its website.
“She had the opportunity to be around other students with similar viewpoints with her,” Aundria Jackson said. “She came back a different kid. Whereas before, she knew her worth but was shunned, in a way. When she came back, she was renewed and she knew who she was as a person. And there wasn’t going to be anybody who could stop her after that.”
Her junior year at MA, Jackson spoke at a seminar with other students about the experience of being a Black student at the school.
Jackson said she answered some “tough questions” on the panel, including queries about why Black students might socialize together at lunch and what her MA experience was like, as well as a question about using the “N-word.”
“Yes, we faced backlash. It didn’t get to everyone what we were trying to say,” Grace said. “But for the most part, the wheels were turning. That’s the important part, that you get people talking about it and you get people thinking about it. Then we can start that narrative, we can change that narrative, and we can evoke change.”
But after the panel, Jackson and others decided they didn’t want to let their momentum die. The Cultural Awareness Society was born, which acted as both a support group for its members and an educational group for the broader school population.
“We checked in with everybody, made sure everybody’s mental health was OK,” Jackson said. “It was for everyone who was an ally, who was a minority in school in general.”
“Being at MA and having that ability to practice those moments in smaller settings, that’s why I can translate it into large moments when the time came,” Jackson said.
The large moment came June 3, as Jackson handed off her megaphone to Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed, the first Black mayor of the city at the heart of the civil rights movement.
“Most change has come because of young people,” Reed said of watching people like Grace organize major events over the past month. “When we think about those who led the modern civil rights movement, most of them were very young.”
Reed pointed to the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who at only 26 led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and college students like his own father or others involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other protests.
“That change has been brought about by the energy and, I think, the lack of patience of young people,” Reed said. “They want to see a change now. They want to see a change tomorrow. That keeps us in leadership and that keeps us in society really pushing and really on our toes, and not allowing us to be complacent.”
David Lamb, a local business owner, attended his first march ever because of Grace. Lamb described Grace, who is an employee at his store, as a “bright light of hope, strength, charisma and yes, grace.”
And just like at her panel at MA in her junior year, her speech at the downtown march got the “wheels turning” for Lamb.
“In her speech on the steps of the Capitol … Grace said something that broke me,” Lamb wrote in a social media posting he shared with the Advertiser. “She said she was tired. She’s tired of feeling scared and worried every time her dad and brother leave the house for fear of what could happen to them solely due to the color of their skin. And as she spoke, it hit me, her and her mom and her whole family are tired because they are carrying a weight they should not have to carry alone.”
“It changed me being at that march yesterday,” Lamb said. .”
For now, Grace Jackson is leaning on the support of friends, who are volunteering their own time while making sure their friends keep a check on their emotional and mental health.
“I play volleyball, I’ve been an athlete all my life. All I know is to go hard. It doesn’t matter what’s going on, go hard,” Grace said. “It’s important to make sure your mental health is in check in this type of field. It is very exhausting, repeatedly seeing people dying, having to speak on it, having to relive those experiences. It’s work that needs to be done. But in order for it to be done, we have to be sure to stay healthy.”
A group of Montgomery teens continues to congregate in her home and backyard, a sight that nearly brings tears to Aundria Jackson’s eyes.
“It’s so refreshing. I get chills when I think about it, to see kids who want to do something positive,” she said. “It’s refreshing to see them volunteer, to understand that what they are doing is necessary. They’ve put away childish things. I think all of them have been watching this in HD since they were in fifth grade. And they have a different viewpoint of the world than we do.”
Grace says young people in the city are very aware of divisions among neighborhoods, between public and private school kids, and hope to organize a series of small, targeted meetings to open the lines of communication between the different groups, find common ground and set collective goals.
In the fall, given the coronavirus pandemic cooperates, she will begin college at Tuskegee University, playing volleyball and studying political science. She hopes to eventually go to law school and pursue civil rights law to address inequity within the criminal justice system.
“Leadership is not easy,” Mayor Reed said. “It’s great leaders like Grace and others that have stepped up at an early age to do that. There will be mistakes made. There will be things you look back on maybe as recent as yesterday and say, ‘I wish I had done something a little different.’ You’ll second guess yourself. But the main thing is that you lead with a sense of moral clarity and a sense of purpose. If you do that, whatever steps you take will be steps in the right direction and they’ll have a positive outcome. It may not come as soon as you want, but it’ll come.”
Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.