Story by Breanna Reeves | Images by Aryana Noroozi
Fifty-four years ago, Dr. Tommie Smith raised his fist during the 1968 Olympic games, an iconic image and action that became a symbol for racial justice, a struggle that Black Americans continue to face today. Dr. Smith will be the keynote speaker at the opening of the Civil Rights Institute of Inland Southern California (CRIISC) on Saturday, Oct. 22.
In addition to being a record-breaking athlete, a historic figure and a coach, Dr. Smith is now an author of his new graphic memoir, “Victory! Stand. Raising my Fist for Justice,” co-authored by award winning writer Derrick Barnes.
“I hope these young folks will read it and understand that this is them, especially the young Black student or student athlete. They have to realize — because I came from a much more uncultured life [than] they’re living now — they [have to] realize that they are blessed to be living in these times where people have died, so they could have the freedoms that a freedom fighter never had,” Dr. Smith explained.
Dr. Smith spent 32 years as an educator, and now he is proud to turn back and educate outside of the classroom. Dr. Smith explained that as a small child, he was always excited about the idea of “putting something on paper,” and with his graphic memoir, he is doing just that.
The celebration for the Institute begins at 5:30 p.m. at 3933 Mission Inn Avenue, Riverside where the public can participate in outdoor live entertainment, an introduction by Barnes, a book signing by Dr. Smith and browse the “Still I Rise: The Black IE Fight for Justice” exhibition inside the Institute. There will also be a dedication ceremony for Assemblymember Jose Medina and a walk of fame that features 27 Inland region leaders.
“We’re excited with this launch, excited with this opening. We want exposure. The hardest thing is sometimes when you have this community space, you don’t have the visibility for people to know it exists to utilize it, so we want to increase our visibility, have a very engaged board and lots of volunteers,” said Sabrina Gonzalez, who joined the Institute in June as the first executive director.
Barnes has published dozens of children’s books and said working with Dr. Smith on the graphic novel was the perfect opportunity. As states continue to ban books about Black experiences in America such as “The Hate U Give,” Barnes said he’s optimistic that this won’t last long, and that books and spaces like the CRIISC will teach kids about history.
“We don’t learn history to enrage people, to make people feel guilty or to point fingers. We teach history so that we won’t repeat all the negative things that have happened,” Barnes said. “And we teach history so that we can learn from all the good things that actually worked. I think it’s important for children and adults to see these images, to learn as much American history as they possibly can.”
The “Still I Rise: The Black IE Fight for Justice” exhibit will demonstrate the struggles of the African American community of Inland Southern California, with a sub-theme that focuses on the intersection of struggle among people of color and Black people in the Inland Empire. The inaugural exhibition “Still I Rise: The Black IE Fight for Justice” was curated by Dr. Vince Moses.
Also included among the CRIISC exhibits is a series of three story maps sponsored by the Riverside African American Historical Society (RAAHS). The RAAHS project, stewarded by Shirley Coates, founder of the Society of Extraordinary Women and the Ignite Leadership Academy for Girls, was developed by a team of volunteers including Catherine Guidis of the University of Riverside; Candice Mays of Mapping Black California (Black Voice News); Jennifer Tilton of the University of Redlands; Dr. Vince Moses, Curator at CRIISC; and project lead, Stephanie Williams of Black Voice News.
The three interactive maps tell the story of how Blacks came to the IE in two waves of the Great Migration, the first occurred in the early 20th century and the second after WWII. In addition, they tell of how migration to the region continues today as Blacks move inland in the ongoing search for affordable housing. The maps also highlight the stories of many who fought the local battles for equity in housing, education, jobs, leisure and politics told as often as possible through audio and video of those who lived the experiences.
Staffing the institute
“Another big goal is to program, to make sure that we build out staff, [that] we’re being intentional about how we hire, how we treat our employees and the work that they’re doing. And then we can build that programming so that we can continue to educate and capacity build, especially for the region or areas that have sometimes been systematically excluded,” Gonzalez explained.
“We want to make sure that this is a space for all. I’m looking forward to being on that end of it, too, like building up these programs and getting our oral history set up.”
Developed through a partnership between the Wakeland Housing and Development Corporation, Riverside Fair Housing Council and the Civil Rights Institute, the site will be a mixed-use community space that will be an avenue for historical and cultural education in the community, the centerpiece of the new, five-story Mission Heritage Plaza, 72 units of affordable workforce and veteran’s housing and a new home for the Fair Housing Council of Riverside County.
The plaza will be the center of cultural discussions and social history exhibitions that highlight local Inland Empire activists and utilized as a space for educational programs and performances in partnership with local organizations and school districts.