Emory community unites against racist violence

By Laura Douglas-Brown and Jen King | June 5, 2020


From the Emory Quadrangle to hospitals to homes around the world, thousands of members of the Emory community came together Friday to protest racist violence and recommit to working for a more just future.

Wearing masks to protect against the coronavirus pandemic, the crowd that filled the Quad at 1 p.m. for the “White Coats for Black Lives” vigil knelt in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the length of time George Floyd suffered under the knee of the Minneapolis police officer charged with his murder. Spearheaded by students in the School of Medicine, similar events were held simultaneously on campus and at Emory hospitals.

Later in the day, more than 3,300 faculty, staff, students, parents, alumni and others joined in the online Vigil of Solidarity in Remembrance of Victims of Racist Violence, hosted by the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life (OSRL) and Campus Life. The vigil can be watched in full here.

Speaking during the online vigil, Carol Henderson, Emory’s chief diversity officer and vice provost for diversity and inclusion, said she chose to come into the space “as the black mother I am … who has a son that she worries about. 

But while “exhausted, afraid and apprehensive,” Henderson said she is also hopeful “that at this moment, this time will be the time we change.” She spoke the names of the most recent victims of racist violence making national headlines — Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor — and noted how “they are calling us to move into action.” 

“I reclaim that hope,” Henderson said. “I reclaim the humanity of beautiful black people who every day must put one foot in front of the other to make sure that they can live and bring to Emory, and other spaces where they exist, their whole selves.

“Today let us leave knowing that we need to be hopeful, that we need to be committed to do the work — self work — to educate ourselves about anti-black racism, about hatred, … and to educate ourselves so that we can change the narrative.” 

Olivia Johnson, a PhD student in sociology in Emory’s Laney Graduate School, began by wishing a happy birthday to Taylor, who would have turned 27 today if she had not been killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 13. 

“We have been quickly reminded that the all too familiar, all too American anti-black racism does not take a break, not in times of war, not even during a pandemic,” said Johnson, who encouraged vigil attendees not to get lost in “an overload of information” but to “lean into your emotions.” 

“It seems like this time people are ready to have the hard conversations,” she said. “When you are feeling uncomfortable, lean into that. Don’t shy away from it. When people are uncomfortable, change starts to happen …

“Like black lives, black joy, black grief, black hurt and black rage matters.”

Standing for justice

Brought to tears by Johnson’s reminder that today is Taylor’s birthday, professor Jericho Brown, director of Emory’s Creative Writing Program, offered love to those who are now protesting “under threat not only of violence but also of illness” before reading his poem “Bullet Points,” a haunting indictment of police brutality. The poem is from his collection “The Tradition,” which just won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

LaNita Gregory Campbell, director of Emory’s Office of Racial and Cultural Engagement, then spoke about “acting with intention,” stressing that anti-racism work “is not neutral.”

“We urge our students at Emory and beyond to dig deep into this challenging work and to engage in dialogue that may be uncomfortable for many, because we need these dialogues to better combat anti-blackness, white supremacy and racism,” she said. Because students can’t be together on campus right now, her office has created a Resistance Resource Guide that includes information for mental health, protesting, donating, listening, reading and watching.

As attendees were encouraged to light candles, the Rev. Gregory McGonigle, university chaplain and dean of spiritual and religious life, offered prayers and Maury Allums, music director for OSLR, performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Emory President Claire E. Sterk was the final speaker. The vigil, she said, is “a call to put Emory’s commitment to equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging into action” because “now more than ever, we must stand for justice in all aspects of our mission and when confronted with hatred and prejudice, we must speak out.”

“Eliminating the plague of racial injustice will push us to ask questions about the ways in which our university is organized as well. It will require a focus on creating a safe and welcoming environment for all who are part of our community — a truly equitable environment,” Sterk continued. “We have made great progress, but we also know that we have a long way to go. While we cannot change the past and the present, we have an opportunity to define the future.” 

McGonigle, who began and ended the vigil, noted that the event “is not a stand-alone opportunity, but is just one of many gatherings there have been and will be at Emory to find community, share inspiration and find support for action.”

Future opportunities being developed include anti-racist reading and discussion groups, healing spaces in the black community and opportunities for social action. McGonigle also noted that those who want additional information and support can access campus resources including the Office for Racial and Cultural Engagement; Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; Counseling and Psychological ServicesOffice of Spiritual and Religious LifeFaculty Staff Assistance Program; and Advancement and Alumni Engagement, among others.

“White Coats for Black Lives”

“I recognize that we shouldn’t be here today,” said first-year medical student Jasmin Eatman, as she presented opening remarks at a vigil of solidarity planned by Katie Sharma and other first-year Emory medical students in remembrance of Floyd, Taylor, Arbery and countless other victims of racist violence. “We shouldn’t have to kneel for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in remembrance of a black man who was murdered.”

The event on the Emory Quad was part of a nationwide day of recognition called #WhiteCoatsforBlackLives. More than 1,100 people also joined virtually, and health care providers kneeled at the same moment at hospitals across the Emory Healthcare system, including Emory University Hospital Midtown, Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital, Emory Johns Creek Hospital, Emory Decatur Hospital, Emory Hillandale Hospital, Emory Long-term Acute Care and Grady Memorial Hospital.

Students, faculty, staff and health care providers poured onto the Quad in the moments before the event began, steam still rising off the lawn from a thunderstorm that gave way to sunshine shortly before the event. Many held signs stating “Black Lives Matter” and “I can’t breathe”; a “Happy Birthday Breonna” sign acknowledged the birthday she did not live to enjoy.

First-year medical student Matthew Brown also spoke, noting that he was encouraged to see the outpouring of support. He also reminded the crowd that this work must continue.

“We need to carry this momentum into everything we do — into advocating for our patients, and reminding them that their lives do matter,” he said. “As physicians, it’s our role to use our privilege and our power and our social capital to change this world for the better.”

The crowd kneeled and bowed their heads. Those 8 minutes and 46 seconds felt both powerfully long and woefully insufficient to honor the many lives affected and lost to racism.

In her opening remarks, Eatman shared her hopes for everyone who joined the vigil. “At 8 minutes and 47 seconds, what I want to see is every single person here who kneeled to get up at 47 seconds with a newfound understanding of what this movement means to you …

“This isn’t where it ends, this isn’t where it’s begun, but we each have a part to play in what it looks like moving forward.”