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Equality lawyer James E. Ferguson II laments slow change in Charleston Lecture

James E. Ferguson II speaks to students, professors, and Carolina Alumni in the Stone Center theater on Tuesday night. Ferguson focuses his lecture on the Voting Rights Act and its implementation over the past fifty years. He also discusses the topic of race in the American south and how "everything is different, but not much has changed."
James E. Ferguson II speaks to students, professors, and Carolina Alumni in the Stone Center theater on Tuesday night. Ferguson focuses his lecture on the Voting Rights Act and its implementation over the past fifty years. He also discusses the topic of race in the American south and how "everything is different, but not much has changed."

“We’re still dealing with the issues that started back in 1619,” he said.

Ferguson gave the 2014 Charleston Lecture entitled, “Fifty Years of Civil Rights Litigation: Everything is Different — But Not Much Has Changed.”

John Boger, who is stepping down as dean of the UNC School of Law in 2015, introduced Ferguson and spoke about the 50th anniversaries of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“The 1964 and ’65 acts, seen together, were one of the most profound congressional commitments ever made in this country,” Boger said.

Ferguson said he mobilized his high school classmates around the issues that he and his friends observed and faced daily.

He said in the wake of the Voting Rights Act, many Americans expected the 21st century to bring different issues, with race receding as an issue of significance.

“Although technologically, everything was different at the beginning of the 21st century — not enough had changed,” Ferguson said.

Though desegregating schools was an enormous leap for the U.S., schools that were once desegregated through court processes have now largely resegregated, Ferguson said.

“If our schools don’t become a melting pot, the world can’t either,” he said. “Education can have a negative impact if it separates us as children.”

Along with noting the disproportionate incarceration rates of people of color, Ferguson remarked on the American response to the 2008 election of Barack Obama that, in some cases, was negative.

“When we talk about the color line no longer playing a role in American life, we’ve got to ask ourselves the question: What about what’s happening at the highest level? Has the color line just shifted upwards?”

Ferguson said though racists might no longer be wearing white sheets, destructive attitudes toward race have not disappeared.

“Make no mistake about it, the challenge is there,” he said. “And the question to ask is: are we up to the challenge?”

Sophomore Victoria Hamby agreed with Ferguson’s opinion that increased technology has limited the ability of members in communities to commit to causes and to one another.

“It’s incredible to see (Ferguson’s) role pre-Voting Rights Act to today,” she said. “I think a lot of people get involved in things and then discover that they’ve had enough, and technology probably plays a huge role in that.”

Sophomore Allison Orman said the lecture was not what she had expected.

“I thought it was going to be more of a celebration – like, ‘here’s what we’ve overcome,’” she said. “But he wanted to make us aware of the fact that we’re still facing the same struggles. They’re still real, just happening in a different way and in a different time.”

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