Pulitzer Prize nominee Mary Stanton encourages students to ‘take flight’

Photo by Jay Stancil Mary Stanton speaks at Union College's Spring Convocation.
Photo by Jay Stancil
Mary Stanton speaks at Union College’s Spring Convocation.

By Andy Powell

For the Mountain Advocate

Union College alum and Pulitzer Prize nominee Mary Stanton likened one’s course through life to that of an eagle “riding the winds of change” and urged students to take flight in the world.

Stanton was the featured speaker at the spring convocation at Union College. She returned to campus after 42 years, the latter of which have been spent as a civil rights journalist and author. Her 1998 book, From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo, was nominated in 1999 for a Pulitzer Prize.

Stanton told students that in order to fly, eagles are poised with great flexibility while in air. As the current of wind changes, so does the eagle’s pattern. Eagles soar, they drift and they glide, she said.

“Life demands the same flexibility from each of us,” Stanton added, and that, “riding the winds of change can be both exhilarating and terrifying.”

When exiting college, Stanton found her time to soar. She and her husband left Union College and headed back to New York. There, she would enter the workforce and continue her education. Her husband started a business. They strived to have children and follow the American dream.

The winds of change, however, abruptly halted her soar through life in the 1990’s. She lost her job, lost her husband and encountered “terrifying change.”

“All of a sudden, and against my will, I entered a period of drift,” Stanton said.

It was the drift that defined the next period of her life. Stanton took the time to reflect upon her early life in New York in the late 1960’s. Most of those recollections brought her back to the evening news and continued stories of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement and violence-wrought demonstrations regarding the two causes.

It was then she recalled the nightly news accounting of the death of Viola Liuzzo, a white housewife who was murdered for answering Dr. King’s call. Liuzzo joined the Selma marches and was killed by the Ku Klux Klan for her involvement. A massive FBI cover up of the crime, as well as defamation of Liuzzo, followed.

“President Johnson said she went to Alabama to answer the call of justice,” Stanton told the student body. “And, at that point, she became one of the most controversial of all the Selma martyrs.”

This began Stanton’s foray into writing and a process in which she “wanted to clarify recollections of those news events.” She wanted to share a forgotten moment in civil rights history, but encountered so much more.

Stanton finished the book on Liuzzo’s plight and again entered a period of brief soaring. However, no publisher would touch her book; what Stanton described as a biographical account of Liuzzo. A publisher from the University of Georgia Press offered to help Stanton publish the book, but only after she made substantial changes to the narrative. He wanted to know more than Liuzzo’s story; he wanted the book to reflect Stanton’s personal struggle and perspective reliving the account of Liuzzo’s murder that night in 1965.

“My lesson in flexibility had arrived,” Stanton said describing her reluctance to change the body of work she had pored over. But, ultimately, she gave in to the publisher’s demands and moved forward with From Selma to Sorrow as it is now known.

What was Stanton’s reasoning in the change in her course of flight?

“My point is, that after 25 years of doing something else entirely, I now had found what made truly made my blood flow,” she said. “That is all that matters to me now.”

Stanton is now under contract working on her fifth book. All of her works are centered on social justice and the demanding attention those involved with those struggles deserve. She urged Union students to be more like Viola Liuzzo and to “focus on justice and ignite young hearts.”

“There you have my testament to flight,” Stanton said. “Now, it is your turn.”

During her visit, Stanton also returned a Robert Frost book, one that she has held overdue from the library for 42 years. She joked that a library annex could be built in her name using the late fees. She also spent time meeting with faculty and participating in classroom activities with Union students.

In addition to Stanton’s speech, spring convocation also featured a recognition ceremony for Marie Cirillo, Co-Founder of the Clearfork Community Institute. Cirillo came to Appalachia in 1967 helping local families thrive through education, construction of homes and businesses and self-sustainability. Cirillo was recognized for her support to the Appalachian region by Union President Marcia Hawkins, Ph.D.

Cirillo told a story of taking several Appalachian students, whom had never been out of the mountains, to Washington D.C. for a conference. One of the students was astounded, upon his arrival in the nation’s Capitol, that there were more people than trees.

“So, if as students you are not doing service learning, please get out there where there are more trees than people,” Cirillo said, noting we can find ways to learn within varying environments. “There is just so much out there to learn.”

To close convocation, Union College was presented the Golden Can award on behalf of the Kentucky Harvest Southeast. Each year through the program, Union competes against area colleges in a food drive to support needy families. Union College collected more than 4,000 pounds of food this year, once again contributing greatly to the community’s cause. This was the fourth continuous year Union was presented with the award.

“You’re achievement is so much more than a trophy,” said Kentucky Harvest Southeast Treasurer Jim Revoir. “It’s about caring, a community and coming together to help those in need.”