By David Perry
When Fania Davis was 15 and growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, she lost two close friends in the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young Black girls and injured more than 20 other congregants.
White supremacist hate-born violence was so pervasive that the city became known among residents as “Bombingham.” Davis, now a civil rights attorney and activist, said her neighborhood was called “Dynamite Hill.”
Those experiences led Davis to dedicate herself to fighting for social and racial justice in America.
As UMass Lowell’s 2021 Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies
, Davis shared her perspective on the history of racism in America, the inequities of the justice system and paths toward healing in the university’s annual “Day Without Violence” address, which she delivered via Zoom from her home in Oakland, California.
“April is the season of renewal, rebirth and fragrant and fresh beginnings,” Davis said.
The time is ripe for restorative justice, which seeks to heal conflict caused by crime, rather than perpetuating further harm, she added.
“To shift from a culture of violence to a culture of peace and justice, we need multiple, concurrent reckonings, happening on national, state, regional, local and institutional levels,” she said. “We need to recognize history’s harm, take responsibility for it, take action to repair it and prevent recurrence.”
In her 70-minute talk, Davis described her journey from Birmingham (where she grew up with sister Angela Davis, the political activist and scholar) to her work with the Black Panthers, the decades spent adjudicating in the courtroom and her search for healing energies. In restoring herself, she also embraced restorative justice.
“Finding restorative justice was a life-changing moment, an epiphany,” she said. “I no longer had to choose between being either a warrior or a healer. I could be both.”
Though she is now retired from it, Davis founded and directed Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), which works to use restorative justice in schools and juvenile courts.
Her goal was to help youth, “especially historically marginalized youth to embrace their sacredness and power through cultural and community leadership,” and to “interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Davis spoke of the importance of honoring indigenous people, the urgent need to overhaul the criminal justice system and the responsibility of higher education institutions, particularly land-grant universities, to rectify historical ills.
“For centuries, we have been in collective denial about our biography, and because we have not faced history’s pain, we are trapped in it,” she said. “Until we face and reckon with our history, these cycles of racialized trauma will continue ad infinitum.”
She sees glints of progress. She is encouraged by the participation of whites in Black Lives Matter marches in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, and that reparations were debated during the 2020 presidential campaign. Monuments honoring slave traders have fallen. Systemic racism is now a household term. Colleges and universities are studying their pasts and ways to repay the harmed.
“I want to acknowledge you, UMass Lowell, for the work that you are doing,” she said.
Looking ahead, much remains to be done, Davis counseled.
“Beyond tinkering, we must build anew. Nothing less is required to assure non-recurrence,” she said.
Whites need to “wake up” and “educate yourself,” fight systematic racism, model anti-racism and “educate your own people; don’t count on people of color to do that,” she said.
At the outset of her address, Davis led her audience in a few minutes of mindful exercise. When she was done, she said something that set the tone for the rest of her talk:
“If your eyes were closed, open them.”
Davis will lead a virtual event, “The Spiritual Roots of Restorative Justice: Resources for Cultivating Peace in Our Communities,” on April 15, at 6:30 p.m. The event is presented by UMass Lowell and the Greater Lowell Interfaith Leadership Alliance. Those interested can register online.