Speaking at the opening of the Memorandum of Understanding: “The struggle is not the same, but equality is always worth fighting for”
Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told graduates of Delaware State University’s opening in 2022 that every generation “has its battle to fight.”
William Bretzger, Delaware Newspaper
The Freedom Riders boarded their first buses in Washington, D.C., in May 1961. It was the heyday of Jim Crow, and the interracial group of activists ignored the enforced segregation of bus terminals in protest as they crossed the Upper South.
They faced violence throughout their journey, according to Britannica, and their bus was even set on fire in Alabama. But eventually they found success and the segregation of these spaces was banned.
Six decades later, former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told the story of the Freedom Riders to an overflowing crowd at Delaware State University’s undergraduate commencement ceremony.
Then, in her opening remarks, Bottoms compared the Freedom Riders to the DSU women’s lacrosse team, whose bus was stopped in Georgia and searched for drugs in what many called racial profiling.
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“Some may call it a stretch, but I dare say every generation has its own cross to bear,” Bottoms said Saturday morning. “The battle for equality isn’t the same in 2022, but it’s still worth fighting for.”
She recounted the incident that happened on the roads of her former state, citing the article that DSU sophomore lacrosse player Sydney Anderson ‘forcefully wrote’ for the student newspaper Hornet, published last week.
Bottoms described how the team was returning from a game in Florida on April 20 when their bus was stopped by Liberty County police officers and how what began as a routine stop for an alleged traffic violation escalated to drug trafficking charges.
Back-up and K-9 units were called in, according to student accounts, and officers spent more than 20 minutes inspecting team baggage and rummaging through players’ personal items. The Liberty County Sheriff denied personal items were searched despite video evidence.
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Activists have drawn attention to the fact that all of the officers involved are white, while most of the student athletes are black.
“I sincerely hope that, like the Freedom Riders, you will use … your experiences to empower communities, knowing that today will improve the lives of others tomorrow,” Bottoms said.
Bottoms did not address the DSU administration’s decision not to publicly address the incident prior to the publication of Anderson’s article — a decision that “concerned” the Delaware NAACP, which “subscribes to the theorem that “Justice delayed is justice denied”, according to their statement.
“They’re reacting because it’s been out on the news,” said Ron D. Handy Sr., first vice president of the NAACP Bear Chapter. “They should have reacted when it happened.”
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At a Friday press conference, DSU Chairman Tony Allen took “full responsibility” for the decision to delay an announcement.
He told Delaware Online/The News Journal in a previous interview that he was hesitant to publicly comment on the incident until the administration and student-athletes “understand [their] legal recourse”, as well as all the facts.
He did not specify what remedies the DSU would seek, but said the university plans to file a petition in the coming week.
Allen also said a Freedom of Information Act request was submitted to the Liberty County Police Department to obtain copies of body camera footage for all officers involved in the traffic stop; so far, only one officer’s body camera footage has been released.
The department was expected to respond to the FOIA request by Thursday, Allen said. As of Friday, the university had yet to receive a response.
Delaware Attorney General Kathleen Jennings on Wednesday requested a review of the incident by the US Department of Justice, saying in her letter that she was “deeply troubled” by what happened – especially given of DSU’s designation as a historically black university.
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Jennings isn’t the only Delaware government figure to speak out. US Senator Tom Carper and Governor John Carney – who both spoke at the DSU graduation ceremony on Saturday – wore badges with messages of support for lacrosse players. Badges were also attached to the chests of students, guests, professors and other government officials present.
Allen – who repeated his remarks about his speech being halted in circulation at the start of graduate school on Thursday – was not wearing one.
“We’re with you,” Carney told the lacrosse team.
“We have your back,” Carper repeated.
Three team members were in the crowd, including senior captain Aniya Aiken. The search of Aiken’s bag on the bus – which included officers unwrapping a gift given to him – was a source of outrage for many after reading Anderson’s article.
“The most important battles … often aren’t the battles we choose,” Bottoms said at the end of his speech. “But those whom life chooses for us.”
Journalist Esteban Parra contributed to this story.