By Brad Hicks
In order to see where we are going, we not only must remember where we have been, but we must understand where we have been. Oppressed people, whatever their level of formal education, have the ability to understand and interpret the world around them, to see the world for what it is, and move to transform it. — Ella Baker, “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement”
Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. — Martin Luther King, Jr.
My travel bloggary today features a few stories about truly heroic events and extraordinary, little-known Americans whose uncommon determination, self-respect, and love for humanity (especially the marginalized variety) contributed mightily to bringing to their knees two notoriously stubborn, racially segregated American locales: Washington, D.C. and the Deep South.
While in Washington, D.C, a few days ago I visited most of the hallowed major memorials and statues heralded along the National Mall — Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, MLK, Roosevelt (Franklin and Eleanor), and the World War 2 and Korean War memorials. That was all accomplished in just a few hours, and I still had time to visit Arlington Cemetery on the outskirts of the city to observe the solemn changing of the guard ceremony at the iconic Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Finally, in the early evening, I went back into town and drove by the fenced-off, barb-wired, and heavily secured White House and Capitol building —what a weird feeling to be just a few hundred feet from the United States Capitol, where, just a couple months ago, a mob of marauders took the law into their own hands by violence and made infamous history.
Sadly, all the Smithsonian museums and galleries are still closed due to Covid-19, otherwise, I would have spent another day or two in D.C. Nonetheless, I left town and headed south with a nostalgic amalgam of senses and emotions about my country — pride, patriotism, possibility, potential, incompleteness, hope, fear, and futility — and about myself: smallness, blessed, privileged, disappointment that a narrow account of American history was presented to me when I was young. I also felt sadness that my time on Earth is short, and a deep sense of responsibility to contribute, while I still have breath, to the betterment of myself and to my relatives, those to whom I’m related by blood, by faith, and by citizenship on common soil.
When we think of renowned towns and cities where the American civil rights movement has beamed its light, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, Jackson, Greensboro, Little Rock, or Memphis usually come to mind. Washington, D.C.? Usually not.
86-year-old Mary Church Terrell tired of being fed Jim Crow at D.C. restaurants
Digging for stories about D.C. for my road trip series, it didn’t take much sleuthing to discover that D.C. was a hugely important civil rights player, particularly in the years just prior to the Supreme Court’s milestone 1954 school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. One such Supreme Court decision came in 1953 when an 86-year-old, smallish African-American lady, Mary Church Terrell, decided that she’d had enough of not being served in downtown D.C. restaurants because of the dark tone of her skin. She would have her day in court … and she’d finally win!
The 1953 ruling, District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc., is little-known now, but it was groundbreaking. It was handed down four months after President Dwight D. Eisenhower vowed in his first State of the Union address to end segregation in the capital. Terrell’s Thompson case was a standalone challenge to Washington’s Jim Crow restaurants, but its ratification into law was directly responsible for the passing of other important desegregation laws to follow, including Brown.
Born in 1863 in Memphis, Tennessee, Mary was an unlikely civil rights hero whose life spanned the Emancipation Proclamation and Brown. Her father was the son of a slave mother and a white master, and her mother was also born to a white master and a slave. Since both of Mary’s slave parents were born to white slaveholders, Mary was granted privileges in society that other post-Civil War slaves could not have possibly attained, including an elite education in northern schools. By the time Mary was an adult she was highly educated and went on to become one of the most noted and accomplished African-American women of her generation.
Terrell’s Thompson case began on January 27, 1950, when Thompson’s Restaurant, a cafeteria at 725 14th St. NW, a few blocks from the White House, refused to serve her and three colleagues because two of them were “colored.” Terrell had lived in Washington for 60 years; she was educated, she knew segregation, she knew the law, and the truth is, she and her colleagues went into the eating establishment to start this fight. Indeed, she was prepared for a legal battle, and knew she was in the right. The District was then 35 percent black, but schools, movie theaters, department stores, and other businesses were strictly separated by race. Most downtown restaurants denied service to blacks; some relegated them to a counter, where they had to stand. In fact, in a 1948 report by the National Committee on Segregation in the Nation’s Capital, a traveler from India said this: “I would rather be an Untouchable in the Hindu caste system than a Negro in Washington.”
After Mary was refused service, she went to local prosecutors, seeking to enforce Reconstruction-era ordinances that banned Washington restaurants from discriminating. The laws, still on the books almost a century later, had long been ignored, but a trial judge initially dismissed the charges against the restaurant, finding that the old anti-discrimination statutes were no longer valid. The case would work its way through the courts for the next three years.
In April 1953, urged on by the Justice Department, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Mary’s case, and on June 8, 1953, the court ruled unanimously in favor of Thompson, finding that the decades-old provisions banning racial discrimination in public accommodations in the District remained “presently enforceable.”
After Thompson, the capital saw no bloodshed or rioting, no racial unrest. When the local black newspaper, the Afro-American, wrote about Terrell’s victory, its headline read simply: “Eat Anywhere.” Within days, Terrell returned to Thompson’s, which finally served her, in fact, the manager took her tray and carried it to the dining area. “It’s like another Emancipation,” said the Rev. Graham G. Lacey, a local minister who was there to witness the event.
Thompson sent a signal: The justices had all but rejected the culture of Jim Crow and race-based exclusion, of line-drawing, and whites-only dining rooms. Washington restaurants, once resistant, yielded to integration. So did movie theaters, which Terrell targeted after her win in the Supreme Court. To Mary, the decision meant she got everything she had fought for — a statement by the highest court in the land that she deserved to be treated like everyone else.1
A memorial to both infamy and honor
I started heading south from D.C. last Wednesday. My next stop was at the southeastern tip of Virginia to visit Fort Monroe, in Hampton, Virginia, on the Chesapeake Bay. Fort Monroe stands where a sea vessel called the White Lion landed 402 years ago. The proclamation by President Barack Obama in 2011 that made the fort a national monument reads, “The first enslaved Africans in England’s colonies in America were brought to this peninsula on a ship flying the Dutch flag in 1619, beginning a long ignoble period of slavery in the colonies and, later, this Nation.” The arrival of these Bantu people from Angola is considered to mark the beginning of slavery in colonial America.2
Fort Monroe has an ironic, topsy-turvy, almost comical, centuries-long story, if not for some of the certain horrors of slavery its walls and chambers must have seen. Not only was it the first landing place for African slaves in what was to become the United States, this set in motion the enslavement of both Africans and American Indians, and extended the Portuguese and Spanish transatlantic slave trade to North America.
And here’s the irony. Although Virginia was a Confederate state, Fort Monroe existed as a federal military post of the Union Army throughout the American Civil War (1861–1865). And just to twist the ironic a bit more, Fort Monroe, for over two centuries prior to the Civil War recognized as a slave-trade market, became what would later be called “Freedom Fortress,” a haven for “contraband” slaves, meaning escaped slaves from the South whom the Union would no longer return to their southern owners but were classified as “contraband of war” or captured enemy property. They used many as laborers to support Union efforts and paid wages to the former-slave workers.
And a final, stranger-than-fiction turn. Just weeks after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured at Irwinville, Georgia, and placed under arrest. He was imprisoned at Fort Monroe in a small unheated room called a casemate until the Union Surgeon John J. Craven recommended more humane care for Davis, who was eventually moved to more hospitable quarters. He was held at Fort Monroe for two years and released on bail in May 1867, though the federal government proceeded no further in its prosecution of Davis.
This Jefferson Davis imprisonment twist of irony is significant to me. The President of the Confederate States of America — the last bastion of America’s ongoing 250-year sin of slavery — imprisoned and left to die in a room where African slaves, fresh off the ship, were in years past being held prior to being sold on the auction block at market. A little over two weeks after the Confederate bombardment of Union troops at Fort Sumter in South Carolina — considered the first military engagement of the Civil War — Davis stated in a message to the Confederate Congress on April 29, 1861: “In moral and social condition (Africans) had been elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers, and supplied not only with bodily comforts but with careful religious instruction. Under the supervision of a superior race their labor had been so directed as not only to allow a gradual and marked amelioration of their own condition, but to convert hundreds of thousands of square miles of the wilderness into cultivated lands covered with a prosperous people.”3
Friends, to me, if there was ever a more twisted excuse for evil ever uttered or written, I cannot think of one. Davis was justifying the kidnapping, the erasure of culture, the destruction of familial heritage and ancestry, and the arbitrary license to subjugate, brutalize at will, sell and buy, and dehumanize men and women he knew nothing about; all of this in the unconscionable facades of morality, religion, and white supremacy … and all of this in just two sentences. Two sentences from a larger document agreed upon and ratified by politicians of the Confederacy who would soon conspire to engage in what would become America’s bloodiest conflict. To defend their states’ rights to own and enslave human beings with black and brown skin, over 700,000 Americans would die in the line of duty, which is more American deaths suffered in all other wars fought by Americans combined. And if the Confederacy would have won this bloody engagement, just imagine in horror what our American landscape would look like today.
Descending deeper into the South
I wasn’t aware a few days ago how my next stop in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the lady about whom I’d be researching, would be tied to the Chesapeake Bay region of Virginia where I had just visited. Ella Josephine Baker, called by those who knew and worked with her, the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” was born in Norfolk, Virginia, just twenty miles from Fort Monroe. Since Friday, I’ve been using Raleigh as a hub from which to visit other historic U.S. civil rights sites in North Carolina, including:
• The F.W. Woolworth Building in Greensboro. On February 1, 1960, four black students from North Carolina A&T State University sat down at the lunch counter inside Woolworth department store and ordered coffee. The young men were refused service, but they remained sitting at the counter until the store closed that night. Over the next three days, the sit-in continued to grow, and on February 4, more than 300 students participated in the sit-in, which expanded to nearby businesses. The sit-ins extended into July of 1960. This first sit-in at Woolworth in Greensboro inspired a larger sit-in movement across North Carolina and the rest of the country. Today, the original Woolworth Building has been remodeled and converted into the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, truly a spectacular educational and visual foray into all the battlegrounds of the civil rights movement.
• The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Gardens in Raleigh, a beautiful park where on Sunday morning I sat under a pavilion next to a life-size statue of Dr. King and got a little writing done.
• Estey Hall at Shaw University, also in Raleigh, which was the first building constructed in the U.S. for the higher education of African-American women. Founded in 1865, Shaw is the oldest HBCU school — historically black college or university — in the South. The last couple of days I’ve been researching and writing this blog in the James E. Cheek Learning Resource Center at Shaw University. The building is named for the 1955 Shaw graduate who became the 13th president of Howard University in Washington, D.C. Shaw is also the alma mater of Ella Baker, who graduated valedictorian in 1927.
Meet Ella Baker, Mother of the Civil Rights Movement
Ella Baker (1903-1986) was the granddaughter of slaves, perhaps descended from the first Africans about whom I wrote above, from the ship that landed in Hampton, Virginia, in 1619, as here birthplace, Norfolk, is located just twenty miles from there. Ella spent nearly half a century raising the political consciousness of Americans, and played a major role in three of the 20th century’s most influential civil rights groups: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, commonly referred to as “snick”).
Always an outspoken critic of Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised blacks throughout the United States, in 1960 the SNCC, “snick,” was organized, mobilized, and led by Ella from the campus and buildings of Shaw University. During that time, Dr. King visited Raleigh, meeting with Baker and the young members of SNCC. The group’s activism expanded across the South, organizing the sit-in movements and participating in the 1963 March on Washington.
Dr. David Forbes, a 1962 graduate of Shaw and one of the original SNCC members under Baker’s leadership, in a film called Shaw Rising said, “No ‘snick’, no civil rights act, no voting rights act, no Obama. It’s just as clear as anything. So, what we did as young college students was revolutionary in changing the condition of things in this nation.”
In the same film, Dr. Valerie Johnson, dean of arts, sciences and humanities at Shaw, stated of Baker, “Every time I look at the mural of her that is on Blount Street, what it represents to me is strength and determination and resiliency, because what she was fighting for, justice, is something that is ongoing, as we can see today.” (The mural that Dr. Johnson is referring to is shown under the headline at the top of this article.)
The civil rights movement, a selfless, courageous, nonviolent American war
As I’ve submerged myself in civil rights history and its various strategies to achieve its goals and objectives, I am beginning to believe that — particularly the peaceful, nonviolent directives organized and implemented by Dr. King, Ella Baker, and many others — is one of the most selfless, heroic, and successful wars ever fought in American history.
The movement was and continues to be fought by a people group who had been truly oppressed and disinherited — in many respects, not unlike the Hebrews during numerous periods in history and similar to the lowest “untouchable” Dalits of India. Their battles have been against laws, systems, institutions, and their own government (local, state, and federal) that proclaimed to include, protect and provide for them but that insidiously and deliberately did not. Worse, at various times in our history these institutions legally permitted discrimination, abuse, violence against, and even murder of the subordinate group by the dominant group.
The movement is not a war for independence, but one being fought by American citizens-made-subordinate for the same Constitutional rights that their fellow American citizens-made-dominant enjoy and benefit from. This war is being won, inch by inch, year by year, with battles yet to be fought by and for this people — this black and brown skinned people — until they are justly considered unalterably equal with America’s hierarchical “dominant caste.” Historically, this “dominant caste” has yielded its supremacy only when the “subordinate caste” has risen up, fought, and demanded its rights.
The war is not waged with weaponry that destroys the body, but make no mistake, the weaponry used is effective. The war was systematically mobilized, highly organized, and involved a committed, intelligent, articulate, and courageous network of women and men of all ages and levels of education. At its most effective zenith in the 1960s, the movement had at its philosophical core principles from the teachings of Jesus and Paul in the New Testament, the overarching vision of the Kingdom of God in the Old Testament prophetic writings, and Gandhian principles of peaceful, nonviolent protests, sit-ins, freedom rides, and well-negotiated legislation. Many thousands of adherents to this peaceful, nonviolent strategy were willing to expose their bodies to abuse, brutality, and for some, death. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that 41 non-violent civil rights activists lost their lives — most of them violently murdered — between 1955 and 1968.
The movement proved on several social levels that peaceful, nonviolent direct action is the most effective means to overturn societal injustice and oppression. Some of the successes achieved as a result of the civil rights movement include:
• In 1964, Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize for his use of non-violence and his social justice work for black Americans and oppressed people around the world.
• The Civil Rights Act (1964) outlawed segregation in schools, public places and jobs.
• The Voting Rights Act (1965) made it illegal to do anything that might limit the number of people able to vote.
• The Fair Housing Act (1968) banned discrimination in housing.
• The Equal Opportunity Act (1972) sought to ensure African Americans were better represented in certain industries.
• In 1964, 100 African Americans held political office, by 1992 the number had reached 8,000. (I couldn’t locate recent figures, but the number must certainly be higher.)
A great many more reforms have been made in the U.S. and around the world because of the civil rights war, including, of course, the elections of President Barack Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris.
In the words of Dr. King, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”
Stay tuned as I travel through the South — South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi — and to towns where nightmares were not long ago a daily reality for black people, yet where the vision of the Kingdom of God is seen taking hold on a grand scale.
1 This section has excerpts from: Quigley, Joan. “How D.C. ended segregation a year before Brown v. Board of Education.” The Washington Post, January 15, 2016, and Tappan, Nancy. “Plucking out Jim Crow in the nation’s capital,” http://www.historynet.com, April 2017.
2 Waxman, Olivia B. “The First Africans in Virginia Landed in 1619. It Was a Turning Point for Slavery in American History — But Not the Beginning,” Time, August 20, 2019.
3 Davis, Jefferson. “Confederate States of America – Message to Congress,” April 29, 1861.
4 This section has excerpts from: Scelfo, Julie. “On MLK Day, honor the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement, too,” Time, January 16, 2017.