Civil Rights era activist discusses "My Legacy and Yours"

On Tuesday, April 2, noted organizer and civil rights activist Maria Valera spoke at the College Union, giving her own personal account of the Civil Rights movement.

Valera's speech, entitled "My Legacy and Yours," focused squarely on her experiences while working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), as an organizer and teacher first with African-American church parishioners in Selma, Ala. and later with Hispanic farmers in New Mexico.

Varela began her speech by admitting that she very rarely lectures to large groups, preferring instead to teach through small question-and-answer sessions, or what she called "the Socratic method." Despite this warning Varela went on to deliver a very well-structured and informative presentation, which was nonetheless filled with personality and warmth.

Throughout her time on the podium, Varela amazed her audience with her tough and realistic account of her experiences. This small, elderly woman spoke laughingly about spending nights in jail for protesting or facing armed and violent opposition from the sheriffs of Selma.

Varela was also candid about being a woman and of Mexican-American ancestry during this volatile period in American history. She related some interesting stories about gender relations in SNCC, and expressed a deep admiration for Ella Baker, an emotional and ideological cornerstone of the group.

Varela also spoke about an issue usually ignored during discussion of the Civil Rights era: the divisions within the movement itself. Varela's own group, SNCC, was often at odds with Martin Luther King's forces, both in practice and ideology. Varela explained that while King's movement valued a charismatic leadership approach to uniting people for justice, SNCC advocated a more relationship-based approach, as well as a greater distrust of the government establishment.

She also addressed questions on why MLK remains such a powerful figure of the Civil Rights era. Varela recognized his greatness, yet also commented on the tendency of the media to create a figurehead just for simplification's sake. She also made a point about how vulnerable a charismatic leader-led organization can be when faced with the possibility of assassination, which was ultimately illustrated by King's death.

Varela ended her lecture with the simple but powerful words of an aboriginal leader: "If you have come to help me, go home. If you have come because your salvation is bound up in mine, then stay and let us work together."

Sophomore Elaine Lyga expressed her satisfaction with Varela's presentation. "It meant a lot to me to be able to hear a firsthand account from someone in the movement," she said.

Lyga was also impressed by the way Valera approached her audience, saying, "She seemed very concerned with our perspective as students, and also with making sure we understood. She was also very candid, and had a great sense of humor."

Varela came to Geneseo to take part in a portion of a series of lectures commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. She was introduced by associate professor of history Emilye Crosby. Rosemary McEwen, an associate professor of foreign languages, also took time before Varela's speech to advertise a series of documentaries about immigration that will be completely free and open to the public.