Archive for February 23rd, 2012
We’ve all heard of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman and the great things they accomplished to advance the rights of blacks, but today I’d like to focus on a few lesser-known people who also were instrumental in the fight for abolition, and later for civil rights. These people embody strength, bravery, and perseverance but are often overlooked in the history books.
William Wells Brown – born into slavery in 1814, Brown went on to write Clotel, The President’s Daughter: a Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, believed to be the first novel written by an African American. He was also the first published African American playwright. Brown became a powerful orator in the anti-slavery fight, but was often overshadowed by his contemporary, Frederick Douglass.
Emmett Till –A Chicago native unfamiliar with the ways of the South, Emmett Till was murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi, for reportedly flirting with a white woman. Even more horrendous than the brutal way he was killed is the fact that his murderers were acquitted, partially due to difficulty in identifying Till’s body. The perpetrators admitted to taking the boy from his uncle’s house, but insisted they later returned him. Months after the murder they admitted in a magazine interview to killing him, but they could not be prosecuted since they were protected by “double jeopardy”. When Till’s body was returned to Chicago, his mother insisted on having an open casket funeral so that the world could see the horror inflicted on her son – severely beat, eye gouged out, shot in the head, weighted down with a 70-pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire, and tossed into the river – this 14-year-old unwittingly helped spark the Civil Rights Movement.
Claudette Colvin – 9 months before Rosa Parks became known for not giving up her seat on the bus, 15-yr-old Claudette Colvin decided it was time to stand up for her constitutional rights, and refused to obey the bus driver who commanded her to move. Arrested and thrown in jail, she eventually became involved in the lawsuit challenging segregation that ended up in the Supreme Court. Even though Parks became the face behind the movement, Colvin deserves credit for being one of the first people to resist bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama.
Ruby Bridges – This brave little girl was the first African American child to attend an all-white elementary school in New Orleans. Escorted by federal marshalls, and only 6 years old at the time, she didn’t understand what all the fuss was about and thought the crowds of loud, shouting people were some sort of Mardi Gras Party. Most of the parents subsequently took their children out of the school, and even the children who remained were segregated. In Bridges’ book, Through My Eyes, she gives her account of the time, including the memory of the protestors displaying a child’s coffin with a black doll in it. http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7049731n
Clyde Kennard – In the 1950’s Kennard returned to his parents’ farm in Mississippi from Illinois where he was enrolled at the University of Chicago. He tried to complete his degree by applying for admission to Mississippi Southern, which at the time was an all-white institution. Even though he was denied, he persevered, writing letters to the newspaper, and even meeting with the governor at one point. His attempts to enroll in the university were permanently blocked when he was convicted of being an accessory to burglary and sentenced to seven years in state prison (years later documents showed he had been framed & falsely accused). While in prison he developed intestinal cancer, and after many appeals and protests was finally released. He died soon after, at the age of 36. It took another 43 years(!) for this decorated Army Veteran to finally be fully exonerated. http://mshistory.k12.ms.us/articles/349/clyde-kennard-a-little-known-civil-rights-pioneer
I hope you take some time today to reflect on the lives of these people and how they stood up to adversity. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like to be that tiny little girl surrounded by the chaos of shouting people, men in uniform, prejudiced teachers and principals, being isolated from the other children, not fully realizing at the time that it was all because the color of her skin. I applaud them and all those who have stood up and stood together to achieve equal rights and liberty for all.