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The Only Way Out Is Through: Journeying back in time to understand our Civil Rights work today

CSJ Senior Director Naeemah Charles (L) with Dr. Lilia Abron, PhD, and first African-American woman in the nation to receive a doctorate in chemical engineering

Earlier this year, I joined the GLIDE community as the new Senior Director of The Center for Social Justice. It has been a transformational experience to begin my work at GLIDE by participating in the Alabama Pilgrimage.

The Alabama Pilgrimage takes us to important sites of the Civil Rights movement, allowing us to learn from history as we work for a more just world.

The Alabama Pilgrimage changed my life. I grew up with a father who instilled in me the teachings of Marcus Garvey, Hewie Newton, and Malcolm X.

However, there is a special energy and understanding that only comes with being physically in the spaces where history was made. One space that shook me to my core was our walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. A place where Martin Luther King Jr. and so many other Black civil rights leaders sacrificed their bodies to advance the movement for social justice in America.

When we were walking and singing a Black spiritual along the bridge, a stranger joined us in song and added his own music. In that moment it served as a reminder that the work continues and that we are not alone. That there are people all around fighting for social justice and that our ancestors are always walking with us. A powerful moment that makes me emotional as I continue to reflect and process the trip. 

As a Black woman who has dedicated her life to social justice, I know there is a spirit and power greater than all of us that is set on creating a just world. It was this energy that brought me together with one of the pilgrimage’s participants, Dr. Lilia Abron, PhD and first African-American woman in the nation to receive her doctorate in chemical engineering.

Black women have often been the silent and invisible infrastructure of so much of American history. I was moved when I learned about the Mothers of Gynecology: Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsey; three Black teenagers who were enslaved and experimented under excruciating conditions and without their consent. So much of what we know about gynecology and women’s health is because of these three Black girls. 

As I move forward and begin my journey as the new Senior Director of the Center of Social Justice, I am grounded in the essential nature of our work. To ensure that those most impacted have a voice, to uplift the community to advocate for themselves so a movement cannot die due to a single person.

The work can seem daunting but as Martin Luther King so brilliantly stated, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards Justice.”






Naeemah Charles
GLIDE Senior Director of The Center for Social Justice