Common Hour: The Making of an Activist

By Moriah Story

Common Hour was held virtually on March 8, and featured an interview with Pat Vail, a Wilson alumnae and long-time activist. Thirty people gathered on Zoom to hear Vail speak about her time as a civil rights advocate in the 1960s as well as her opinion on the social justice movements for racial equality today.

“I have a penchant for throwing myself into things that sound exciting. If there’s an afterthought, so be it,” says Vail. Whether it be spending a year abroad in France, or launching herself into civil rights protests, she has never been one to back away from a challenge. 

On her decision to participate in Freedom Summer, also known as the Mississippi Summer Project, in 1964, Vail says she knew it was time for the “Silent Generation” not to be silent any longer. Despite others saying things were “fine” and “equal,” she knew this could not be further from the truth and volunteered to go to Mississippi, along with several other Wilson graduates. 

The letter she wrote to her parents said “Try to stop me from going!” And it was this attitude and passion that carried her through the training in Boston and the frightening events to follow, including the disappearance of three men. 

She remembers saying to her friends, “Someday our children are going to be proud of us,” and saying to herself, “This is important. At least I have accomplished this.”

Vail and others did tremendous work in the 1960s to alleviate some of the racism overrunning the United States, but she would be the first to admit that the work is far from over.

Racism has been a problem for 200 years, she explains, yet, America would not have made it if not for the people from Africa and the Native Americans. “Our history is much fuller than we ever imagined.”

The time to educate yourself is now, according to Vail. Take advantage of history museums, read literature, and ask questions. There is a place for everyone to be involved, whether that be tutoring, volunteering at a food bank, or helping in local government. Being aware and knowing the true history of America, as well as actively participating in government, is so important, stresses Vail. 

She has been uplifted and impressed over the past year especially by the progress of the Black Lives Matter movement. Although at 80 years old she has not been able to march as she once did, she truly wishes she could. But she does have faith that “the young people will carry us forward.”

“Every community has its own civil rights story to tell,” says Vail. She was part of forming Chambersburg’s civil rights story 60 years ago and continues to fight for equality after all this time. Read more about Patricia Vail’s story here.

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