Synergy was achieved a few weeks ago when Lehigh played host to the most radical tea party since Sam Adams and friends got busy in Boston Harbor. Four women who have played leading roles in some of the most profound movements for social justice in the last half-century came together for tea and solidarity in the Zoellner Arts Center. Ericka Huggins, Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, Denise Oliver-Velez, and Sonia Sanchez shared from their wealth of life-stories and wisdom and answered questions posed by their wrapt audience over afternoon tea. Each woman has spent her life fighting racial injustice and economic inequality as well as challenging the limits imposed upon women within the historically male-dominated movements in which they have participated.
Ericka Huggins’ commitment to social justice began when she attended the landmark March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. In the late 60s she became active in the leadership of the Los Angeles Black Panther Party. She was left a widow with a three-month-old daughter when an assassin killed her husband John Huggins in 1969. In May of that year, she and Black Panther leader Bobby Seale were arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit murder in the killing of Alex Rackley. She spent two years in prison (including time in solitary confinement) before the charges were finally dropped. In the 1970s and 80s Huggins was the director of the Oakland Community School, a groundbreaking effort to provide education and support to racially marginalized and poor children. Since then she has persisted in her work as an educator and activist drawing awareness to the AIDS crisis, the plight of the incarcerated, and LGBT issues, as well as continuing her fight for racial and economic justice.
Joan Trumpauer Mullholland grew up in the South and was appalled by the treatment of African-Americans that she witnessed there as a young girl. Against her family’s wishes, she became active in the efforts of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to desegregate the South and eliminate racism. She was arrested as a Freedom Rider and spent two months in Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi where she was held in a cell on death row. Mulholland also participated in the 1963 Woolworth’s Lunch Counter sit-in in Jackson, Mississippi where an angry mob violently assaulted black and white activists during their challenge to segregation. In the interest of promoting universal inclusion, she became the first white student to attend the historically all-black Tougaloo College. Throughout the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Mulholland worked alongside many of the movement’s leading figures including Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Rev. Ed King, and Stokely Carmichael. She continues today in her work to promote education and end racism.
Denise Oliver-Velez was a member of both the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords Party. Founded in the late 1960s, the Young Lords fought to better conditions for Puerto Rican-Americans and achieve Puerto Rican independence. Oliver-Velez worked both on the ground as an activist and in the party’s national leadership. Her work with the Young Lords included the implementation of free-breakfast programs for children, health clinics, clothing drives, lead poisoning-detection programs, and combatting the forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women. Beside her activism for civil rights, Oliver-Velez has promoted AIDS awareness, voter registration, and worked in broadcasting, journalism, and documentary filmmaking. She is a professor of anthropology and women’s studies at SUNY New Paltz.
Sonia Sanchez is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning poet and author. She was a member of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. The BAM drew inspiration from Black Power political organizations and fostered new modes of artistic expression for the African-American experience. Sanchez was instrumental in establishing African-American Studies as a discipline in higher education. She has taught and lectured at schools and universities around the world and continues to write and perform her poetry as an integral part of her work for social justice.
Though each woman brought her own particular set of experiences and sense of style to the forum, each was adamant about the necessity of perseverance in facing the daunting struggle to win a more just and equitable society. Huggins stressed the need to cultivate humility and to practice self-care to help see one through the difficult work of activism. Mulholland cited the power of her enduring personal anthem “We Shall Overcome” to give her strength when her enthusiasm flags. Both Oliver-Velez and Sanchez reiterated the vital importance of spreading education and bringing the past forward to inspire and activate the next generation to continue the fight for social justice. The Revolutionary Sisters’ Tea was a rare convergence of four brave and powerful women who have given their lives to making the world better for us all. Here’s hoping the synergy that they generated multiplies itself fourfold!