Civil rights activist McLemore / Catholic Bishop Kopacz issue challenges on racism and social justice

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McLemore and his son Leslie McLemore II pause for a photo with JSU President Thompson and Robert Luckett, Ph.D., after being honored at the “For My People” Awards luncheon. (Photo: Charles Smith/JSU)

One began the week of Martin Luther King’s birthday and the other closed out that week offering King-like challenges to this generation of Mississippi residents. Bishop Joseph Kopacz, who is Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, and Dr. Leslie McLemore, a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement who has served as a city official in Jackson and Walls, both issued challenges relative to the annual celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday

Dr. Leslie McLemore at Jackson State University 

The Margaret Walker Alexander Center at Jackson State University presented McLemore as the keynote speaker for the university’s MLK celebration. He and his son, Leslie McLemore II, were chosen to receive the For My People Award this year.

Although McLemore expressed some disappointment that there were not many members in the audience from the university’s freshman class, he proceeded to issue his challenge to all students in attendance. (The student audience was small due to weather; JSU was providing virtual rather than on site class instructions.)

Using the famous quotation from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” and the opening lines from “Open Up My Heart” by the Dells, he exhorted the students in the audience to rise up and make a difference here by challenging the negative conditions / circumstances characterizing much of contemporary society, including Jackson, Mississippi. In particular, he pointed to things like Jackson’s water crisis, JSU student housing, the city streets, and the national threat to the existence of American democracy.

 McLemore pointed to his own life and that of other civil rights era youngsters as examples of what can and needs to be done. He talked about the boycotts and marches staged at his high school, at Rust College, and in other parts of the state. Among the events he personally experienced and used as illustrations of efforts helping to bring about changes are the Congress on Racial Equality-led freedom rides, the organizing by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee. Freedom Summer, and the work of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

In clear and plain terms, McLemore informed students that they are in the center of gravity for change – JSU and other such colleges are most ideally located or situated to challenge the negative things around them. He, therefore, urged them to get to know the members of their city, county, and state governments in order to get invited to their venue and to invite the officials to their institutions, all with the intention of changing/improving the society in which they are living.

He closed his address by quoting from the protest song, “If I had a Hammer,” indicating to the audience that they indeed have a hammer, that they have a bell, and that they have a song to sing about freedom, justice, and love. 

It was noteworthy that he issued the challenge to students. The geographical diversity of the student-body was reflected in the fact that the student government president came to JSU from Michigan, Miss JSU from Louisiana, and Mr. JSU from Arkansas. Diversity among the other program participants was reflected in the fact that there was an Alcorn alumnus, a Mellon Visiting Scholar, and a local white professor. A large portion of the audience was comprised of veterans of the civil rights struggle, if not the movement itself, of faculty and staff members, and of community supporters.

Bishop Joseph Kopacz at the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle

The second Sunday of January had been set aside by the Catholic Church in Mississippi to honor Dr. King as well as Sister Thea Bowman, Servant of God. For the occasion, the bishop himself gave the homily, in addition to being the main celebrant of the Mass.

The congregation was comprised of Black Catholics from around the diocese, including Jackson, Canton, Camden, Greenwood, and Natchez. There was also a small sprinkling of white Catholics in the congregation.

In his homily, which was centered on King and Sister Thea Bowman, Bishop Kopacz stressed the fact that King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was one of the world’s greatest documents on the struggle for racial justice and called King and Bowman outstanding examples of elders for faith and the confrontation of social injustice. He declared that they both were lifelong disciples on the side of justice.

Bishop Kopacz challenged Catholics to resist evil and racism. He challenged them to continue to work for the fulfillment of the dream of true racial justice in America. He closed by pointing to the press conference several years ago that supported the changing of the old state flag, promoting the widespread celebration of MLK and the elevation of Thea Bowman to sainthood, and challenging us all to be faithful servants of peace and social justice. 

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Civil rights activist McLemore / Catholic Bishop Kopacz issue challenges on racism and social justice

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
February 5, 2024