Veda Ajamu and Josh Spickler
DescriptionVeda Ajamu (52) and her friend Josh Spickler (45) share a conversation around their childhoods, passion for rectifying the criminal justice system, and personal observations on best approaches to discussions on racism.
Subject Log / Time Code
- Veda Ajamu
- Josh Spickler
Recording LocationNational Civil Rights Museum
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00:04 My name is Vida McNeil. A Jammu. I am 52 years old. Today's date is March 5th, 2020 location Memphis Tennessee. I am here with Josh spickler. Josh is a community partner and friend. My name is Josh spickler. I am 45 years old and it is March 5th 2020. We're at the national Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, and I'm here with my friend and Ally Vida to talk about our experiences.
00:43 So just let's just up go back a little bit. Tell me this, you know a little about yourself. Where were you born Josh? I was born in Nashville, Tennessee child of two. What would be two children? And I guess the mid-seventies during the Ford Administration which is funny but children don't have any idea that I'm not old and I grew up there in Middle Tennessee my father and mother met there because of my Dad's military service and my mom was born and raised there. I came to Memphis for the first time. I had to go to college when I was 18 and I haven't left so I've been in Memphis for longer than I've been anywhere else in my life, but then my family still lives in Nashville, and I love it here though. I'll never go back by here. So I was born in Memphis Tennessee. However, I was raised in Olive Branch, Mississippi until I was 16 years old.
01:43 I was indeed raised by Village. I was raised by my grandmother and my mother and my aunts and my uncles my mother was a 16 years old when she was became pregnant with me. Yeah, she was an honor student and that was the time that was the late sixties and there was a time when the community Sean and shamed teenage mothers in unwed mothers. So my family rallied behind my mother and supported her and made sure that I learned about one inclusion in to to work really hard. You know, my mom was 15 and my dad was 20 when they got married. They waited eight years to have me but they experienced a lot of difficulty. You know, she was 15. I can't imagine and my dad was already in the military and went away to Vietnam not long after they got married. So she was a junior in high school.
02:43 With a husband who was overseas fighting in Vietnam and they had to get special permission to get married. They also had trouble with things like getting my dad a ticket to sit on the field at her graduation and high school graduation. So it was a very strange experience for her but in a different way probably then then your mom's but a very very young wedding for my family. What? Yeah, that's that's pretty neat there with my mother actually she was she was put out of the school that she was on. That's how bad it was the school still segregated at the end and but she was able to go to another school and she graduated number to a night class. So I have to make sure that I said that and so she did great things after that. So that was just a wonderful wonderful memory and something that I hold on to in terms of obstacles and challenges and never giving up so
03:43 Tell me Josh. What are you passionate about? I like I think you maybe I'm passionate about about Justice about fairness about attacking systems that make those things more difficult for people. I've always been.
04:03 A big fan of The Underdogs of the story and my family and my sister laughs at me about it because it is true of a famous female get this family stories that everyone knows until they over and over again while there's this story about a time when my parents were pulling into the garage or coming home from church or something and we have a garage door opener. We live way out in the country in the house was my fancy house. But so I was the garage door opener so I get out of the car and we would get home and open the garage door and I did one night and there was a frog that had hopped in behind me as I open the door and it was in the way of the car and and I couldn't signal my father fast enough to stop and he ran over the Frog and it was horrified. I can remember it to this damn. It's just I can remember the feeling of like that frog not having a chance and I don't know what it is about that story. I mean, I live in a country in animals in the living dining.
05:02 So that when you live out of the country, but something about that frog on a garage floor that I have never forgotten and it's it it is just a really clear to me and my brain an image of so many of the things that I've experienced as an attorney and as an advocate now with the system, it's just the overwhelming force of something that you can't seemingly can't stop and and it can just Squish and we we have so many system is like this this Museum and your work at this where I'd museum is such a testament and tells that story so well and I don't know so let me not saying that that that frog inspired me by any means, but I just when I think about my experience and why I am passionate about the work that I do and why I do so badly want to even the playing field for people. It's it's there's just something about people that don't get the same opportunity as everyone else or as me particularly, but I just cannot stand by and I and I
06:02 So happy that whatever has happened in my experience has led me to this because I'm fulfilled by it. I'm exhausted by it frustrated by it. But I love doing it every day. And so that's kind of something inside me drives me to to want to do this and I'm so happy to have found the advocacy work at I do which maybe we don't worry about but you're you're you're on staff at the national Civil Rights Museum. What what drives you what are you passionate about here at this work and in your life?
06:35 Thinking about how you talked about your childhood and what inspired you so I talked a little bit about me and raised by a village and being raised in Olive Branch until Olive Branch, Mississippi until I was sixteen so and coming here to Memphis is where I came it was very different from me and Mississippi the school. I went to look both black and white together going to school together when I came to Memphis. I moved into an inner-city School in the entire student body was black and Melrose High School. So it was actually a shift for me.
07:15 So I had a chance to experience what it felt like to be.
07:22 In an environment where they were black and white children at the at one school. However, although we were in Olive Branch High School at we still had separate. Mr. And Miz.
07:36 Senior or whatever grade let you know that went when they came for the competitions like homecoming queen or mr. Miss football. Mr. Miss senior those things so it was a black set and it was a white set and I remember winning Miss class freshman Beauty and that was a white set in a black suit and then sold to transition. I was really weird and that I don't even know if they're still going on there but to come to Memphis and just find that pride of a African American Pride everybody together and fill in the same, you know, it's is when I got a chance to to see and understand that Equity piece, right? You notice the difference between the schools and the quality of Education. Absolutely. I noticed I noticed a difference in the schools. I noticed it in so many in various ways what it was
08:36 Text books or the way that we were being told or the the additional programming that we had the opportunities that we had the field trips. All that was very different. Oh, that was very different. So, you know to fast forward as time passed by
08:55 It does something that always stuck with me because as I said it inclusion was a big thing in my family. So whether it was about people with disability or whatever, so I thought about Equity inclusion to all these different things because of my obstacles so fast forward here to be at the national Civil Rights Museum is like the perfect place to be to better understand my history and two
09:23 Really try to move them.
09:27 Try to move the the needle forward making sure I do my part at basically what I'm saying. So in everything that I do I think about all these different things I think about the Civil Rights Movement. I'm passionate about the Civil and civil and human rights. I'm passionate about Criminal Justice Reform, especially mandatory minimum sentence, right? So all these different things are so much that I'm passionate about and I can't
09:54 Do something about everything but I know I can do something about some things and so being here allows me to do exactly that you talk about the pride that you felt at Melrose when you transferred and it was an all-black school and maybe can you say more about have no gauge for that have no reference for that as a white man? Who's 45 years old. What is it like to what did that mean to you as a teenager? And what does it mean to you now and what explain that and saying when I first arrived there, I didn't know that that's what the school was the windows what it was going to be like
10:33 And I was afraid because I had never been in an environment like that. I had a grown grown up, you know differently so from Mississippi to Tennessee, so is the city from country to the city in Mississippi hours and working in the garden and doing things like that and now I'm in the city but going to the school to the environment was so different but then I saw how the teachers the teachers took the time to say, let's Okay. This is where you are. Let's work on getting here. So it was more of the teachers treating me like I'm their child.
11:14 The New School Melrose, so that's what it was important for the African American teachers at Melrose to make sure that the African-American students succeed.
11:30 And I don't remember feeling that I can't say that I felt mistreated per se in Olive Branch, but I never felt the type of love and care from a teacher.
11:46 A white teacher
11:49 Like what I felt from the teachers at Melrose, right? I think about Mighty. I mean I went to an all-white School way out in the country is a small Christian school and go to school with African Americans until
12:05 College and even then I went to a pretty wide College. I have nothing to compare that to and
12:13 I wonder the the work of the Civil Rights Museum is important to what is so but what's the dream? What's the mission? What where how should we as Americans understand that experience more? I mean cuz what you're describing is not something negative memory and yet I mean the disparities and the challenges that face this country around raised you should have raised me never been to Stocker have never been more clear. What are we missing that? We are what we are missing is treating people like people, you know, Josh, you know you and you and I the work that we're doing together and just beginning to talk as if
13:04 I really don't know.
13:07 How our paths would have crossed for us to have a conversation if it wasn't my involvement in criminal justice my been directly impacted.
13:18 But having more conversations not ignoring each other.
13:25 But it's it's it's a it's a huge problem and no kid should feel a different way when they go to a certain school or no kid should not know that there's another kid out there having a totally different experience read it to me. I'm 45 and up having conversation like this for the first time and I guess academically probably when I was a kid, I knew that, you know, there was structural problems in that that racism was a thing family would say things that I verified to me that there's racism but but I think you know the kids who like me who have opportunity, you know shovel the pain that don't don't have these conversations to either write and they don't understand that, you know that the need that for having conversations were having relationships for having an under better understanding of each other. The older I get on that and just talking about that with you.
14:26 Is a reminder even of how it was for my mom, you know for my grandmother that's taking the best of what they had while they didn't have a newest books in Melrose and the best of everything and all these programs. They did the best they could with what they had so much of what happened without ancestors that they took what they had and made the best of it and but it should be you know, we should work towards making sure everybody has the same thing, but it's just a reminder that we have come so far, but we still have so far to go so far.
15:11 Let's talk about your brother. And you mentioned you're you're passionate about working against mandatory minimums. Let's let's dive into why my brother Robert it was this is really strange how I got involved in the criminal justice system. I knew nothing about it. My brother is he's my paternal brother and I got this call from my dad screaming begging me to help my brother, you know, you got to help him if anybody can you can and they won't let him go and when he share that with me and then he told me that they giving them life.
15:54 You at the time he was 20.
15:58 And I have to be honest. I didn't know anything about the criminal justice system nor did I know anything about my brother's case my father as I stated. My mother was unwed my father moved away. He was older. He was three years older than my mother he move away with his family to Chicago I grew up down south and they grew up up north and so I didn't get to see him a whole lot and to be quite honest. I felt a little salty that he was calling me crying about my saying about my brother and my dad is on the phone and what are you screaming about it but it was a cry of hurt a cry of pain of cry that like you mention about that frog that how you remember feeling that it comes up in my heart is a lump in my throat when I think about I can still hear the sound.
16:54 Because I said the words came on and then I grown.
17:02 I knew I had to do something. So I I got busy in finding out about this the laws and I was thinking surely he had to have done something more than you know, selling drugs a nonviolent crime of conspiracy. Then the to get a life sentence Shirley, right but after I started digging and looking and I learn about the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and I saw how unfair it how just unjust and I learned his case backwards and forward and I set out to fight for freedom and justice for him. I'm so glad I did it and I became super super close. We call each other twins. He graduated. He number number two in his class and he should have been going to college instead of going to prison and end up in a bin the piece about that Josh. The sad part is people don't understand the facts.
18:02 Dory and they don't care about the backs or what's going on. What took a person to that point. How do they get involved? How did it under student get involved with a group of people selling drugs, you know, right again, we going to talk about inequities. We going to talk about the neighborhood that he lived in where there was crime on outside of you know, every door every corner every are you all these things that I'll children are faced with that people are not talking about but even if you did ship out to a different school, they still have to come back to the neighborhood there in the neighborhood when they're out for the brakes there in the neighborhoods on the weekend there in the neighborhood after school and they're still in the same environment no matter what but
18:49 One of my brother. I'm the oldest and my brother under me. He was murdered when my brother Robert was 16 years old that literally sent him on the Orioles fan and some guys in the neighborhood. So with your brother will take care of you, you know, we'll take care of you and that's how he got involved with that. So I'm grateful that I felt for him. It's all good news, please write. So yeah, so this life sentence was reduced to 30 years after Amendment.
19:24 All drugs minus two
19:27 Amendment to the law and after serving 25 years 10 months and 12 days
19:37 He's now a free man. And so he's doing great things. He's doing things to better his community. He still he had to go back to Chicago. That's what his mother is is where his daughter who was two years old and help me. I keep saying to write but his daughter was 2 years old when he went to prison and so he stayed with his grandchildren and trying to rebuild a life with his daughter that she's so angry about him leaving her and that's another part of this mass incarceration that generational problems that it creates. I'm not to say that he should have been punished by getting a life sentence for 5 months involvement in a non-violent drug conspiracy was just out of this world. So but he's doing great things. So he's working with doing consulting work with the organization by the name of cure violence. And so he's traveling and I'm talking to people about a veteran of non-violence and all these different things and then he's he and I we made of all that we will continue to fight for
20:37 Justice Reform together so he and I have been traveling as well and it says he will be here in March and I was talking about this yesterday with some college students about the thing you said about the kids in the neighborhoods. And and I don't know if I should have one of the students said it but we react only in the criminal legal system to the crime. We don't react to the person and when we do that, this is what happens right? You send a young man away for 30 years of his life without really understanding what that means or why or what we're trying to accomplish. We don't want drugs in our communities. That's all been but we only respond to someone having drugs in our community. We don't respond to why that person might have had drugs in it and in our community or anything else about that person.
21:37 And if we just we just keep hearing the story over and over and over again of people like Robert like your brother who who were robbed of a half more than half his life, but hopefully less than half of his life. Hopefully he lives a long time and has other experiences but it's just it's it's essential that we begin to see people and not crime. Like you said people have to face accountability for doing things that are harmful or or not legal, but
22:11 But if we is you said it already is going to see people as people in this system is the Ashley worse that it I can't think of another system. Do you know modern system that that fail so miserably at at that end and I'm just so happy when I hear stories like Roberts and then meet people like you who who have forced the system to see the person. I mean, that's what you did you basically just pried the eyes of the system open and said look at this man look at this unfairness and fix it and eat it.
22:47 My father in 2012 my father he died unexpectedly, but I received the call. I woke up to a call from my brothers my phone as soon as I turn my phone on it ding ding ding ding ding and I answered I want to check my voicemails and each each other brother left me a voicemail saying you need to get here. And did you get here now mind you I'm I'm in Memphis and my father's in Chicago. So they told me that they had revived him three times already. So of course the first thing I do is get a flight out and I get there. This is for my father, but I was thinking about my brother Robert. How could I tell him what was going on with our father but when I got there my father was so restless. So so so restless and and
23:38 He was fighting trying to get out of the bed and it's hot as hands and everything that I said to my father nothing comfort him. Nothing at all confident and I saw and I even if I did when I told him I loved him, you know, he just nothing confident. But when I said to the was said two words to him that I would never stop fighting for us, which is my brother. That was the only thing that come down in tears roll down his eyes.
24:05 A few hours later he died and
24:17 The system doesn't know what care.
24:21 What it does the family Sprint and you said this to me before about this the family serving the time just as much as the person if not more. Sometimes we heart.
24:37 It is, you know, and I use a hashtag all the time Family serve time to.
24:43 It's difficult and again is creating a cycle you taking mothers and fathers away from their children just struggling.
24:57 It's difficult. I'm happy to story turned out.
25:03 That my brother is home. My mother wasn't his mother, but she was my biggest cheerleader and his cheerleader.
25:12 And she was the last person he was the last person she talked to before she passed. When was that she passed in 2012 April on cancer and
25:24 Did you get a chance to go visit him about six months prior to she begged her doctor to let her go and at the time he was in Greenville, Illinois. And so the doctor said only if you drive and if if they drive and you have to stop every hour and take a 15 or 20 minute break and so that trip turn into the super long trip, but we we made it and she got to see him, but when she when she passed with right before she passed she had a really stopped responding, but when he called
26:00 She talked to him and she said to him I won't see you on this side or make me proud and he cried.
26:12 Is she cried when we cry and I'll but that type of love in these are
26:21 I don't know people people think that if you have a loved one that's in prison that the family is bad or they came from a bad family or you know, they didn't teach didn't raise their children. Well, they don't think about all the other other things that come into play and so and another thing we need to do is get rid of the stigma for a long time. I didn't talk about my brother been incarcerated because of the stigma and still know how people talk people think if you got them as I said, if you have a loved one in prison that me and what's wrong with your family. What's wrong with your mother or father or whatever but that's not the case. Oh my father a pass. I made a decision that the world was going to know about the injustice.
27:07 They had done to my brother. They may not remember my name but I was going to make sure that they knew his name and who his case.
27:14 And I got busy. What was it? Like, I don't think I've ever been able to ask you this question. What was it? Like when you first saw Robert on the outside tell us about that moment. Wow, so he had to go to the halfway house first. And so I went to the halfway house to see him and to just see him.
27:38 Without khakis and his clothes was so funny. He had a ear buds in his ears something he had a phone right? And so he's learning how to use this phone and he's got the the earbuds in and they want his phone with ring. He holding the phone up, but it wasn't nice until it was just so funny. But when I saw him, we just embraced and it was a feeling of relief for both of us.
28:06 We were both very emotional.
28:09 Because we knew that it was over at this was the end of it. So I have been there several times. I have stayed every time I go to Chicago I stay with him. This will be his first time coming down here just to have him in my home just to have him.
28:31 I can't even describe it. It's like that first time I was touching on him and then he was coming into my room and I was going into his room. We were like kids. It was like, I don't know it was it was the craziest thing but grateful just see the love when they see us together and
28:52 When we went to DC together, in other people, we've was like, oh my goodness, you know that they say we look just alike, but they said that they love to love it. They see that we have for each other the bond.
29:06 And there's something to that I want to encourage other family members to do and that's what I do do encourage them not to give up on your loved one. My brother used to say that I was his Lifeline but he had become mine is well how crazy I can remember it's been a few clients and Williams said this but I'm an attorney there's been a few clients in my experience that I have got gone really gotten really close to it during the during the case and like fought really hard for and I can I can feel the hugs feel like there's something about some of those hugs and I think the one you're describing the Embrace that I can still feel and it was it's a lot of the same feeling totally different experience. You know, what these are not my relatives but just the relief and a sense of finality like this is done there's more to do but this thing is done and that's really that's really strong.
30:06 What let's talk about the national Civil Rights Museum.
30:15 Museum I have been at the Museum since 2010. I came to the museum as the executive assistant to the president to the past president. So I have served as a executive assistant to two presidents.
30:30 What a huge responsibility. It is executive assistants are not given as much credit as they should be giving because they truly truly. It's not just an admin position is truly a job where you have to be able to do a lot and have a lot of input lot of say-so into things and it's been so rewarding because I've learned so much I learned so much from the past president Beverly Robertson and I've learned so much from Terry Lee Freeman the current president. They have two different styles of leadership, but it allowed me to see that I could I could be a leader in various ways. So I'm in a couple years ago. I was promoted into a position of manager of community outreach and that's so rewarding because I'm able to
31:30 Do my advocacy and this work at the same time in Paris really? Well, I'm able to talk about the Civil and human rights that I'm passing about as well as the criminal justice stuff. What do you think the national civil rights Museum's greatest impact on this community in this country has been
31:56 Wow, I think the impact this space in this place is so special again. It shows it it it provides the history of the past and it shows how much how far we've come but yet it reminds you of how far we have to go but what's different about this place and what how it has an impact it talks about the past but it also pairs it with what's going on today. So the issues with Parvati the issues with economic Justice racial Justice all of these things that we talked about then we're still talking about now so we can use current events current issues current social problems.
32:42 And compare them to what happened then and it's sad to say these things are still going on but the museum has a way of telling the story is not over in the story is not over that the struggle is real is still true is still exist, but we have opportunity to make a difference.
33:06 Yeah, we can move the needle forward and you know, if we just do what we have to do our part It's going to take all of us to do something.
33:16 And that's why we have to keep talking about it. I think my favorite part about the museum. Not like a particular thing about the museum, but is it the place is the ground that it sits on another that's there been criticisms about turning the hotel into the museum and charging admission and all those things. But I think the most powerful experiences I've had at this Museum and vicinity have been about recognizing what it what the ground represents and and the event that happened here and obviously will never ever forget the time that you had us on a tour that we had someone in town and you swung the door to the hotel room open assertive unexpectedly to the balcony and the two people that I was with first immediately. I
34:07 Waited till I got my car, but I'll never forget the power of stepping out onto that balcony and and remembering what what happened here. And I mean, I don't think that there's not a spot on the planet that could better capture the importance of vaccines work in the importance of continuing that working and honoring and having a place to come and learn and it's just it's a really incredible place. You're really lucky to get to work here.
34:39 When I am discouraged or I'm feeling that I've hit a block or a challenge what obstacle or even when I would be tired of fighting for something some type of Justice?
34:53 I was I was toothless two places in this Museum that I come to
34:58 To get a boost to be reminded of how far I've come.
35:06 To be reminded of what that the king did for us and one is going on the balcony and I am reminded even if I don't go on the balcony, I'll go up to the room or I go outside and take a look at it and I reflect about how tired he was but he still fought for us so I don't get to be tired, you know, he was frustrated too, but he didn't stop so I can't be tired. And the other space that I go to is the area where it talks about Ole Miss where I went to college and Once Upon a Time black people could not go to Ole Miss.
35:42 And I'm a fourth-generation Ole Miss alumni, you know, so.
35:50 Even that even my aunt Stella went to Ole Miss in my Grand Ole Miss. It wasn't the best experience going to Ole Miss. But yet I withstood whatever it was and
36:05 You know, I'm grateful for the opportunity.
36:08 This is Off Script feed at what I'm a 45 year old white man, and I get to do really important work and sometimes I win and sometimes I lose sometimes I get to have conversations like this and I get invited to the spaces that I don't deserve to be in which frankly this is one of them. What what do 45 year old white men need to be doing to help heal the country to help heal the wounds of racism and slavery and civil rights abuses and second question. Absolutely that and the work that you do when you talk about the work that you do with that. I know that you are out there and you are fighting for rights for up.
37:01 For a African-American you see those black boys that are going to prison for something that a white boy wouldn't go to prison for and then you are out there you bailing them out you're creating programs to help and so I think for me honesty is the best thing and having those conversation just saying that to me like that and us talking about it that dialogue so, you know what feed I don't understand that, you know, I didn't experience that. Can you tell me a little more about that? And how do you suggest that I do that and I should do the same with you to better understand why you think like you think so, I just think that you should do what you can but then again it goes back to communication to see what the need is always say that when I that
37:54 Well, and I always say I heard someone say it and I've repeated it is those is closest to the problem are closer to the solution to talk to the people that are impacted. You're very kind to say those things about me that I was not fishing for a compliment. But I really appreciate it. I think what I heard you say is that 45 year old white men need to listen and I think we do a terrible job at listening just generally so what you're trying harder than others, but most of us don't listen when we should listen to each other.