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2024 Greener lecture brings Barbara Phillips and Nikky Finney to Allen University

Phillips’ asks audience to “Ripen the Time for a Third Reconstruction.”

Barbara Phillips grew up in a home that championed the rights of all. Born during segregation, Philips became the first student to integrate a previously all-white school. Her grandfather founded his county’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and her parents became involved in some of the first campaigns to elect Black officials to public office in Memphis, Tennessee.

“The idea of working to advance the position of Black people in this country was something I grew up with,” Phillips says. “I was one of the students that brought Brown v. Board of Education to life. I learned firsthand that the language ‘with all deliberate speed’ written in the decision was quite slow. The freedom of choice plan I participated in 1965 helped me make the promise of Brown a reality.”

Phillips’ attention to the legal system and language grew as she studied history in college and began getting involved in community organizing. She became one of the last group of trainees of Saul Alinsky, activist and political theorist, before he died. Her first major assignment was to organize voter registration campaigns for John Lewis and Julian Bond in Mississippi. She then worked on Charles Evers' 1971 gubernatorial campaign and continued that work for two years.

“These experiences really introduced me to the world of civil rights lawyers,” Phillips says. “Participating in community organizing showed me that the legal system, embedded in a community, was a way to bring about social change.”

Phillips became a civil rights attorney and returned to Mississippi to work for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. She began specializing in voting rights litigation in 1978 and worked to expand the Voting Rights Act of 1965. She continued her career in California pursuing voting rights for Black and Latino communities.

“My whole career has been dedicated to this cause,” Phillips says. “My passion has been democracy and full engagement in citizenship. I want to continue to explore the phrase ‘We the People’ that we use in our Constitution.”

As Phillips pondered the focus of her Richard T. Greener lectureship, she thought back to Reconstruction.

“As a voting rights lawyer my career has been devoted to advancing democracy and political participation, and that, of course, takes me back to the era of Reconstruction,” Phillips says. “I thought about the very long struggle for civil rights and the rights of full citizenship in this country.”

This thought process led Phillips to Dorothy Height, considered the ‘godmother’ of the civil rights movement and the President of the National Council of Negro Women.

“Dorothy said to me that the leaders of the major civil rights organizations were agonizing over their decision to march on Washington, D.C.,” Phillips says. “She said they were procrastinating, and she let them know ‘if the time is not ripe, you must ripen the time.’ I loved that concept and compared it to our situation today.”

Phillips shares that she believed our country is sitting at an inflexion point and our citizens need to come together and decide what we want our country and society to become.

“We don’t live in a black and white world anymore,” Phillips says. “Issues are more intersectional, and we need to contemplate issues that were not thought of during the Civil War or during the passage of early civil rights legislation. How can we ensure our fellow citizens have the opportunity to live into their full humanity?”

Phillips shares this is where she finds her hope.

“This is about decisions that we make about who we are and what we want to be. As a society, we get to decide,” Phillips says.

Barbara Phillips details her engaging career in her essay, How I Became a Civil Rights Lawyer [pdf].

Along with Barbara Phillips, 2011 National Book Award recipient, Nikky Finney, will also speak at this year’s lecture. Finney is a University of South Carolina Distinguished Professor and the Director of the Ernest A. Finney, Jr. Cultural Arts Center. Finney is the author of On Wings Made of Gauze, Rice, The World is Round and Head Off & Split. Her new collection of poems, Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry was released in 2020.

The 2024 Richard T. Greener lecture will be held March 14, 2024 at 5:00 p.m. in the Chappelle Auditorium at Allen University. Please RSVP for the event. This event is co-sponsored by the History Center in the USC College of Arts and Sciences, Allen University and the USC College of Education. Free parking is available on the Allen University campus and on surrounding streets.


About Richard T. Greener:

Richard T. Greener (1844-1922) was the first African American man to serve on the faculty at the University of South Carolina. The Greener Lecture series continues his legacy of teaching at USC by focusing on a topic relating to his life as an educator, philosopher, librarian, lawyer and diplomat.

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