Civil rights pioneers remembered at MLK event
GAMBIER — The brave women who laid much of the groundwork for the civil rights movement in America, before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington in 1963 and his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, were remembered Monday inside Kenyon College’s Peirce Hall.
The well-attended event, held despite sub-zero temperatures outside, was the 16th annual Knox County Dr. King Celebration Breakfast. The theme this year, “Sisters in the Struggle: Pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement,” featured keynote speaker Leslie Harris, a professor of history at Northwestern University, and an expert on King’s legacy as well as slavery, including urban slavery in the northern states before emancipation.
The audience listened intently as speakers discussed women of impact during the mid-to-late 20th century whose courage in bringing equality to not just African-Americans, but to women as well, was unwavering. The annual event unites speakers from both Kenyon College and Mount Vernon Nazarene University, and includes the efforts of local churches known as the Dr. King Legacy Committee.
Harris said the civil rights movement centered on dismantling “Jim Crow” segregation, unjust laws which permeated every facet of African-American lives. They were laws designed to limit African Americans’ access to fair labor, education, equal housing opportunity, voting rights, transportation, and acquiring wealth.
“Segregation claimed white supremacy,” said Harris, who worked as a graduate student at Stanford University on the Papers of Martin Luther King. Jr. “It claimed that black people were more ignorant, (and) were lazier than other people who make up this nation.”
Harris also said Stanford served as her formal introduction to the study of women’s history and feminism, offering, “Sexism so often follows along with racism, and the struggle to bring equal rights to women is a struggle that has often emerged in tandem with the struggle to end racism.”
Harris noted that as a 26-year-old, relatively new Baptist pastor in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr., joined forces of a moral scale with fellow Baptist pastor Ralph D. Abernathy, also of Montgomery, and E.D. Nixon, President of the Montgomery NAACP. The three led the Montgomery Improvement Association, and were arrested for organizing a boycott of racist bus policy. Such was brought to the public’s attention by Rosa Parks and her “sit-in” on a Montgomery bus in 1955.
During her 20-minute slide presentation, Harris also noted four other women who were arrested on a bus March 2, 1955, and became defendants in the resulting Browder et. al. v. Gayle case. This was a few months before the more-famous Rosa Parks bus “sit-in.” The four women were Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Mary Louise Smith, and Susie McDonald. A fifth woman was also involved, but she was harassed and feared for her life so was removed from the case, Harris said.
Colvin, who became a civil rights heroine, was just 15 at the time. A U.S. District Court panel ruled 2-1 that Montgomery’s bus law violated the 14th Amendment, which was upheld later that year, 1956, by the U.S. Supreme Court.
McDonald was in her 70s when staging the civil disobedience, Harris said, making their case “an all-ages effort.” At a time when many families owned just one car, if fortunate, the economic stakes including the right to be transported to work without fear of racism and its evil child, segregation, were high stakes indeed. It’s not surprising that bus transportation put African-American women on the front lines of the civil rights movement, she said.
Harris also talked at length about Parks, who was a secretary with the NAACP and was used to hard work every day. Parks was raised by a family well versed in black history, and her husband, Raymond, had been involved in a case aiding nine African-American male teens falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama.
“In the summer of 1955, Rosa Parks attended the Highlander Folk School, a training ground for activists who were continuing to fight against Jim Crow segregation in the South,” Harris said. She added that the school’s hallmarks were civil disobedience and non-violent resistance.
So, some of the common misimpression’s about Parks are false, Harris offered. She was well trained in what she was prepared to do on that bus “sit-in,” despite knowing the personal risks to her — including threats of physical violence. There are those who also viewed her as an older woman, and yet she was only 42 at the time. Interestingly, the bus driver who ushered in police for his disobedience had also had a run-in with her back in 1943, Harris said.
Harris also remembered Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, an Alabama State University professor who sent letters home with students to their parents, encouraging bus boycott participation following Parks’s arrest. Gibson was also arrested. A one-day boycott turned into an entire year of civil rights resistance. Even the taxi drivers helped the effort, Harris noted, taking 10 cents as cab fire, just as the bus charged, instead of the usual 45 cents. A total of 89 African-Americans were charged with a conspiracy under an Alabama law for disrupting businesses. But the brave women who made the boycott happen were committed to the cause and had strong leadership.
Of course, the leader most important to their cause — King — was with them from the start as a pastor, Harris noted. Dec. 21. 1956, Montgomery buses were desegregated for good. Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King Jr., took on his work following his death, and gave his theology strength moving forward in founding a center for peace and activism. She was also a proponent of LGBT rights and feminism, Harris said.
Kenyon College President Sean Decatur lauded the civil rights and women’s rights contributions of Pauli Murray, a woman who became an accomplished lawyer, educator, Episcopal priest, and author. Born in Baltimore and raised in Durham, North Carolina, inspiration for Murray came from the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and his non-violent civil disobedience used in India toward independence from the British.
A full 15 years before Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to leave the whites-only section of a bus in Montgomery, Murray and a friend had done essentially the same thing. They violated state segregation laws aboard a bus in Virginia in 1940 and were arrested, Decatur noted.
Murray gained strength from the injustice to attend law school at Howard University and was first to graduate in her class — but due to the sexist laws of the time, she was not allowed to complete post-graduate work at Harvard University. Nevertheless, her accomplishments in civil rights and women’s rights were remarkable, Decatur said. Murray became a co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and was a policy maker for President John F. Kennedy’s “Status of Women” project. She also became the first African-American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest.
“From my perspective, Murray was light years ahead of her time,” he said of a woman born in 1910.
Decatur also noted that Murray was given credit by then-lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg for co-authoring a brief that laid the successful foundation for expansion of the 14th Amendment and its equal protection clause. It did so by prohibiting discrimination based on sex. The overall 1971 case, Reed v. Reed, centered on an Idaho law that had allowed sexual discrimination favoring a man in an estate case.
Murray was also ahead of her time by using the phrase, “richness of individual identity,” Decatur said. She knew that in order to have a truly integrated, diverse community in America, three things were necessary — “equality, mutuality and reciprocity.” Equality speaks to our right to belong, mutuality denotes things that bring people together, and reciprocity is a state of accepted interdependence among people in a community — yet also having an obligation to the well-being of one another, he said.
Decatur offered that today we “are living in harrowing times,” where those who express their individual identities are accused of applying identity politics to their plight.
Decatur was one of three community response speakers during the breakfast. The other two were Henry Spaulding, President of Mount Vernon Nazarene University, and Kachen Kimmell, mayor of Gambier. Spaulding noted the courage of King, who even after having his home bombed in 1956, was steadfast to his cause.
“As you and I know, he remained true to his convictions,” Spaulding said. He added that involved King suffering through hounding by the FBI, and threats from the KKK.
The breakfast also included awards that went to area students in middle school and high school. Close to 40 students wrote essays concerning civil rights and King’s impact. In the high school category, first place went to Marta Croche Trigo, who read her essay. Second went to Mithchell Jessup, and third to Zoe Goldner. In the middle school category, first went to Olivia Stein, second to Mary Grace Richardson, and third to Andrea Holland.
The Beaulah Apostolic Award of Excellence winners were Sharon and Steve Metcalfe, professors of education at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. Among their accomplishments: An all-day faculty institute with lectures, workshops and speakers on topics including racism and micro-aggressions; organizing an all-campus book study and dialogue using “Race Talks” by Derald Wing Sue, and initiating a faculty forum with dialogue between students of color and MVNU faculty members, followed up with round-table discussions and solutions.