Xavier student attends Civil Rights Act ceremony

Xavier University student DeVon Pruitt was one of 18 students in the country sent to represent their colleges at the 50th anniversary ceremonies of the 1964 signing of the Civil Rights Act, held July 2 in Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia.

For Pruitt, a junior majoring in political science, the highlight of the trip was being able to spend two hours on a bus traveling between the ceremonies in D.C. and Virginia with six original freedom riders — the civil rights activists who rode buses into the South in the 1960s to challenge segregation laws.

“The other students and I got to hear their stories, why they came to the South, how they were beaten and attacked for their beliefs,” Pruitt said. “And most importantly, they gave us advice.”

One particular freedom rider, Joan Trumpauer, told a story Pruitt said he’ll never forget.

“She talked about how she is still strong in her beliefs today, but that even when we’re being strong, we need to remember to respect each other,” Pruitt said. “Then she told us about how when (Barack) Obama was running for office she had some pro-Obama signs out in her yard. Her neighbor had McCain signs. But whenever a wind would kick up and knock one of her signs down, her neighbor would come over and fix it for her. She said that’s the kind of respect we need to show even when we have different views.”

Pruitt said the experience reinforced for him that everyone has something to fight for. His cause, he said, is education.

“I’m big on the importance of access to higher education,” he said. “I came from a single family, low-income household and for me, the only escape other than my religion was in education. Formal education opens your mind to life education.”

It is Pruitt’s success in both forms of education that led him to be chosen by Xavier University Vice President of Student Services Joseph Byrd and Dean of Students Nedra Alcorn for this unique honor.

The Meridian, Mississippi, native has racked up an impressive résumé. In addition to serving as the grand marshal and keynote speaker for Meridian’s Martin Luther King Jr. parade and celebration, he is a Presidential Scholar, a Ronald E. McNair Scholar and a James S. Kemper Scholar. The latter means that he is one of 20 students selected nationally for a business leadership program at Xavier.

Pruitt is spending the summer interning with the National Finance Center of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He said he hopes to work in public policy at the state or federal level after he graduates in May.

“I love learning how the government works and how policy is used to influence social, political and economic change,” he said.

His fascination with the workings of government paired with a passion for education made the setting for the first of the day’s ceremonies particularly exciting for Pruitt.

Pruitt was one of more than 200 people who attended what he called a “high-spirited and charismatic” ceremony to mark the anniversary at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. The ceremony included a proclamation from the President’s Office as well as art, music and spoken word performances by other students.

“One student created what he called a ‘Black Rushmore’ that included depictions of Martin Luther King and Obama but also featured his own face,” Pruitt said. “The message is that we all can build our own Rushmore.”

While a good portion of the focus of the ceremonies was on the African-American experience, Pruitt said there was an obvious effort to be all-inclusive.

“The real message of the day was that the struggle for civil rights wasn’t just for African-Americans, it was for all people of all backgrounds,” he said. “And by celebrating our differences, we can all be united.”