Bus tour, memorial to honor Latino civil rights

GVSU helps community honor history for Hispanic Heritage Month, encourages Latino empowerment

By Stephanie Brzezinski | 9/15/13 5:27pm

Grand Valley State University and the Kutsche Office of Local History will host the first Latino Civil
Rights bus tour and memorial on Sept. 23 as part of Hispanic Heritage Month.

Melanie Shell-Weiss, Kutsche Office director, is coordinating the event and said it’s meant to
celebrate the 50th anniversary for the March on Washington, which affected African Americans,
Latino Americans, Asian Americans and more.

“It matters today because we are linking the past to the present,” Shell-Weiss said. “We are
celebrating what it means to be American.”

Shell-Weiss said the event is funded largely from faculty and staff donations and the tickets sold for
the tour, but GVSU also partnered with the community to plan the event.

The civil rights bus tour is part of a day-long celebration that starts at the Cook Library Center in
Grandville, where GVSU Provost Gayle Davis and Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell will speak to
introduce the collaboration with Grandville. Attendees will then be able to go on a historic walking
tour of the Grandville Avenue neighborhood, led by Tim Gleisner from the Grand Rapids Public

From there, the bus will depart in the afternoon for the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago,
where a memorial service will be held for the Rev. Bruce and Eugenia Johnson. In the 1960s, the
couple were murdered for their work with the Young Lords Civil and Human Rights Movement,
which provided services for the hundreds of Latinos who were forcibly displaced from their homes
because of the “urban renewal” policy at that time.

“The Young Lords movement connected people in an important way,” Shell-Weiss said. The
organization, which was founded by Jose Jimenez, was the first Latino civil rights movement in

Jimenez, who worked with the Kutsche Office to organize the program, said the group was a
“turned around gang” that fought not just for housing rights, but also for democracy, and the
Latino civil rights event is a good way to celebrate the Young Lords movement.

“We stress self-determination and empowering yourself and the community,” Jimenez said. “We
became an example for other cities nationwide.”

Jasmine Wells, a GVSU senior interning at the Kutsche Office, said the civil rights movement relates
to present students because it is about talking to people and getting out in the community to make
a change.

“We need to make waves for things to get done,” Wells said. “We question everything now. We have
to do something now because history is repeating itself.”

Recently, the People’s Church, which was the headquarters of the Young Lords in the 1960s, was
destroyed and a drugstore was put in its place. Jimenez said the city did not want to remember the
struggle, so it erased part of a people’s history. Shell-Weiss added that the church was the “last
physical reminder of this critical period in history.” They both hope the civil rights event helps
people remember the many decades of activism and fighting the Latinos did for their rights.

Andrew Bouwens, president of the Latino Student Union at GVSU, said members of the organization
will volunteer during the day to help make things run smoothly. Bouwens said the event is geared
toward people who want to learn more about civil rights movements and culture in general.

“There are many intricate and diverse traditions and values within the umbrella of Latino culture,
and just like any culture, they are worth something to somebody,” Bouwens said. “Every culture is
important in its own right.”

The Cook Library Center will also officially open an exhibit on Sept. 23 honoring Hispanic heritage,
which is part of a larger civil rights project.

“It launches a year-long work for young people to document their history,” Shell-Weiss said.
“Having history is powerful, and it matters not just for the past, but for the living.”

For more information about the Latino Civil Rights bus tour and memorial, visit
www.gvsu.edu/kutsche. For more information about the Young Lords movement, visit


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