“It begins with having conversations about what it means to be an American,” Pellom McDaniels III told the Wheel about civic education. “We have to have a foundation first, and the foundation comes from understanding what it means to be a citizen.” 

McDaniels, the curator of African American collections at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, launched the Rose Library’s Lift Every Voice 2020 initiative on Feb. 14, a yearlong project that aims to analyze what it means to be American through the lens of the Reconstruction era. 

To kick off the initiative, Emory students recited a speech by Frederick Douglass and reflected on his memory outside of the Emory Student Center in commemoration of the 19th-century abolitionist’s birthday.

McDaniels stated that the project will highlight voices from historical archives and hopefully encourage students to use their voices through voting and participating in the U.S. Census.

“We’re trying to help our students take the initiative in having civil discourse around politics and community,” McDaniels said.

McDaniels believes that the Reconstruction era is a great vessel to trigger these discussions.

“Reconstruction is a very fertile period of African American and American history. Black colleges and universities were being established; former slaves were opening businesses, … becoming congressmen and senators,” McDaniels said. “The possibilities for African Americans in the future of the country were realized in this time period.” 

When considering periods of American history, McDaniels said that Reconstruction is often forgotten.

“I’ve called it a time of great possibility,” McDaniels said. “You have people who were formerly systematically oppressed, and they are able to come out of it and [not only] develop a voice for themselves but [also] refute the lies that had been told about them.” 

At the Feb. 14 event, four Emory students, Zariah Embry (20C), Deen Whitaker (20C), Kassie Sarkar (18Ox, 21C) and Timothy Richmond (20C) took turns reading sections of Douglass’ speech from April 16, 1883, which commemorated the 21st anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. 

Jordan Bates (23C) highlighted the significance Douglass holds, both today and in history. 

“Today we come together to affirm the great abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass,” Bates said. “Since his death in 1895, African American communities in particular across the nation have recognized this giant of a man for his contributions in the fight for freedom and equality for people of African descent. For these communities, Douglass’ life of accomplishment was one worth remembering.” 

Richmond, who is the president of Emory NAACP, said that the sentiments expressed during the reading are relevant for students following Heather Mac Donald’s recent talk about diversity in education.

“A lot of the sentiments that [Douglass] was speaking about resonate today, especially at a university, considering what happened with Heather Mac Donald,” Richmond said.

McDaniels believes that becoming more civically educated will motivate and prepare students to participate in politics. Lift Every Voice 2020 has partnered with Emory NAACP and hopes to attract more students to their initiatives. The next event planned for Lift Every Voice 2020 is a public reading of the U.S. Constitution on March 30.

“If we are trying to have a conversation about constitutional rights, people should have read the documents before they get into discussions,” McDaniels said.

Richmond and McDaniels both credit Sarkar with laying the groundwork for the partnership between Emory NAACP and Lift Every Voice. The Emory NAACP hopes to have a continued role in the initiative throughout the year.

McDaniels believes that Lift Every Voice 2020 can also go beyond Emory’s campus to motivate people in the surrounding community to participate in politics at all levels. 

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Musa Ya-Sin (21C) is from Decatur, Georgia, majoring in history. Before transferring to Emory in Fall 2019, Ya-Sin attended Georgia State University. An aspiring law student, Ya-Sin enjoys video games, volunteering and cooking.