Last Friday, 7th graders sat at the edge of their seats as they listened to Lynn French, a member of the Black Panther party from 1968-1973 and, and Jeff Haas, a civil rights attorney, tell their stories.
Lynn French grew up in Washington, DC, during segregation. As she spoke to the students, she recalled driving by a park on King Street with her father every day. The park had tennis courts and a pool, and she often asked her father if they could go to the park. Each time she asked, her father had to come up with an excuse until finally, French declared, “There must be a day when I can go to that playground!” Finally, her father explained, and at the tender age of five Lynn learned about segregation and racism.
She was a child who always asked, “Why?” “Why didn’t we [African-Americans] have the power to change these things?” In contrast, Jeff Haas grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and spent most of his formative years not asking questions or voicing objections. He rode on buses with African-Americans who sat in the back and swam in pools where African-Americans weren’t allowed to swim.
Reflecting on the injustices and this stage in his life Haas said, “Whites growing up in the segregated south sort of became cowards.” Haas entered a new period of awareness when he began law school in Chicago in 1964 and saw the local African-American community pushed out as the university took over neighborhood after neighborhood. In 1969 he started the People’s Law Office to represent groups including the Black Panthers, who sought equality and were committed to bringing about change.
French spoke passionately about her time in the Black Panther Party, working in Chicago, Berkeley, and Oakland. In the Party, she worked in newspaper circulation, labor, and finance. She also developed programs to meet the basic needs of the people, such as breakfast programs for African-American school children, community food and clothing giveaways, and even child and health care centers in underserved communities. “Racism bred a basic inequity that was self-perpetuating where people were restricted from having more options in life simply because of circumstance in which they were born,” French told the students. Most appealing to French was the Party’s 10-point program designed to foster equality among its members, including women who could become leaders. Today, French serves as the executive director of Hope and a Home, a non-profit providing transitional housing and a path to more stable lives for low-income urban families.
The visit from French and Haas was timely. The 7th graders have been studying the Civil Rights movement and preparing for their Civil Rights trip to the South, which begins next week. In fact, students had just finished watching the PBS documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
. Students learned about Fred Hampton, someone Lynn had a direct and personal connection to. They also learned about Hampton’s murder in 1969. Haas was one of the lawyers representing the families of Hampton and Mark Clark who filed a civil rights lawsuit aimed at holding those responsible for their deaths accountable. Haas told the students about the 13 years he spent uncovering the conspiracy behind the murders. Ultimately, the case was settled in 1982 for $1.85 million dollars, which was paid by Cook County, the City of Chicago, and the federal government.
At the end of French and Haas’s presentation, the students were eager to know more. They probed, “Did you see the apartment where Fred was murdered?” “What was the day like for you when Dr. King died?” “How did you react when Huey Newton was freed?” “How did you feel when Obama got elected?”
According to Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Michelle Belton, students can sometimes feel as though history—even the relatively recent history of the Civil Rights Movement—is far removed from their lives. But students could relate to the guests, who are “the age of many of their grandparents—so not that long ago.” The visit “felt fresh, relevant, and a real connection to a pivotal time of history,” she elaborated.