This page is dedicated to the men and women of The Movement who sacrificed so much in the name of justice and human rights.
Dr. King said of Rev. Shuttlesworth, “He was either insane or the most courageous man I have ever met.” After reading about Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth in Parting the Waters, I flew him to San Diego in 1999 and spent several days with him (even taking him to Mexico). It seems like a dream that I was able to have him all to myself for several days while I asked him every question that came to mind about “The Movement”, his faith in God, Dr. King, and his personal life. Reverend Shuttlesworth was beaten, whipped with a chain for enrolling his children in an all-white school, hospitalized when “Bull” Connor famously used fire hoses on the demonstrators, and his home was bombed (while he was inside) with 15 sticks of dynamite by the KKK. When I asked him how he miraculously survived, he said, “God was just updating the Bible.” His Birmingham church survived 3 separate bombings.
Because of his life’s work of fighting segregation in Birmingham and then inviting Dr. King to his civil rights-prepared city, Reverend Shuttlesworth is a big reason we have the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He graduated to heaven on October 5th, 2011. I miss him. What an amazing man of courage and faith. If you’d like to read a thorough account of his extraordinary life, I recommend A Fire You Can’t Put Out by Andrew M. Manis.
Other than photos of my wife and children, this letter from Emmett Till’s mother is perhaps my most meaningful possession. Many historians cite Emmett Till’s murder as the unofficial beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. To this day, I have never stopped thinking about Emmett and the men who were never brought to justice…even though he was murdered many years before I was born. I poured-out my heart in a letter to his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley expressing the burden I had about her son’s death. In the letter, I committed to telling others about Emmett. Receiving this response from Mrs. Till-Mobley did more for me than words can express. She passed away in 2003.
Marie Foster, known as “Mother Foster”, was someone that always made me feel especially welcome in Selma. Generous with her time and with anecdotes about Dr. King and the particulars of the Voting Rights Movement, she never failed to greet with a genuine smile and friendly conversation. Ms. Foster was one of the original eight members of the Dallas County Voters League, a group that came to be called the “Courageous Eight” and worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders to make Selma the center of a national crusade. She was later called ”the mother of the voting rights movement” by its local organizers. She tried eight times to register to vote before succeeding; she had already started coaching blacks on how to pass the deliberately bewildering voter registration tests. She was clubbed at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge when state troopers stopped the first march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7. Two days later, she tried to hobble forward in another march, one that was stopped peacefully. On March 11, when President Lyndon B. Johnson went on national television to announce that he would send Congress a strong voting rights bill, it was in Mrs. Foster’s living room where Dr. King famously watched and wept at the news. When the march was finally permitted to begin on March 21, two weeks later, Mrs. Foster walked 50 miles in five days with injured knees. Mother Foster passed away in 2003.
Joanne Bland is quite literally a God-send. In 1993, while in Washington, D.C. for the 30th Anniversary of the March On Washington, I picked up a flyer off of the ground for the 30th Anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma. I wouldn’t know until after developing a friendship with Joanne in Selma two years later that she was the person who had dropped that flyer in Washington, D.C.! Due to the flyer, I arrived in Selma, Alabama on my first of many visits in 1995. Joanne insisted that I stay with her in her home and told me that my presence in Selma reminded her of the whites who came from all over the country in response to Dr. King’s call (immediately after “Bloody Sunday”). I stayed several days and always stay with her when I am in Selma. During every visit, we stay up into the wee hours of the morning discussing the Civil Rights Movement and the people who were involved. Since my visits are during the annual commemoration of “Bloody Sunday”, these all-night discussions often include Selma natives, Freedom Singers, and Pastors who all participated in “Bloody Sunday” and other campaigns for justice during the 60’s (with me normally doing the listening).
Joanne is the co-founder of the National Voting Rights Museum and personally witnessed the famous “Bloody Sunday” attack on March 7, 1965 as a child.
Reverend C.T. Vivian will always be near and dear to my heart. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called him “the greatest preacher to ever live.” My introduction to this amazing man was when I first watched the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize” and saw him courageously stand for justice in front of the brutal Sheriff Jim Clark. On camera, reverend Vivian is punched in the face by Sheriff Jim Clark (who breaks his hand on Reverend Vivian’s face) simply because he is standing-up for basic human rights–specifically the right to vote. Reverend Vivian also rode the first “Freedom Bus” into Jackson, Mississippi in 1961.
In March of 2000, I entered a restaurant and saw Reverend Vivian waiting to be seated. Introducing myself, I asked if he would join me for lunch. He agreed and I had the honor of listening and learning from him for at least an hour. Of all the people I have met, there is a unique and loving spirit that exudes from this man that I cannot quite describe. I will never forget this precious man of God.
Diane Nash was part of the first successful lunch counter sit-in, she was a freedom rider, she co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and was involved in the Selma voting rights movement. Ms. Nash was jailed many times for the cause of civil rights and spent time in jail while she was pregnant with her first child; her crime was teaching nonviolent tactics to children. Few civil rights leaders were as militant as Diane Nash. When violence stopped the first Freedom Ride in Alabama, Diane Nash was insistent that the rides continue. “The students have decided that we can’t let violence overcome,” she told civil rights legend Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, “We are coming into Birmingham to continue the Freedom Ride.” She later led all the rides from Birmingham to Jackson in 1961.
Annie Lee Cooper
In 1962, Ms. Annie Lee Cooper moved to Selma to care for her elderly mother. Appalled by the fact that although she had been a registered voter in Pennsylvania and Ohio she was unable to register to vote in Alabama, Cooper began to participate in the Civil Rights Movement. Her attempt to register to vote in 1963 resulted in her being fired from her job as a nurse at a rest home. In January 1965, Cooper stood in line for hours outside the Dallas County Courthouse to register to vote until Sheriff Jim Clark ordered her to vacate the premises. Clark prodded Cooper in the neck with a billy club until Cooper turned around and hit Sheriff Jim Clark in the jaw, knocking him down. Deputies then wrestled Cooper to the ground as Clark continued to beat her repeatedly with his club. Cooper was charged with “criminal provocation” and was escorted to the county jail, and then held for 11 hours before being allowed to leave. She spent the period of her incarceration singing spirituals. Some in the sheriff’s department wanted to charge her with attempted murder. Following this incident, Cooper became a registered voter in her home state. In the 2014 film “Selma”, Cooper was portrayed by Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey said that she took the role “because of the magnificence of Annie Lee Cooper and what her courage meant to an entire movement.” Ms. Cooper passed away in 2010.
November 14,1960, six-year-old Ruby Bridges was first escorted to an all-white school in New Orleans by four Federal Marshals. When she enrolled, many white parents took their children out of the school. Because of daily threats, President Eisenhower sent Federal Marshals to escort her every day into the classroom for a year. Another woman at the school put a black baby doll in a wooden coffin and protested with it outside the school, a sight that Bridges Hall has said “scared me more than the nasty things people screamed at us.” At her mother’s suggestion, Bridges began to pray on the way to school, which she found provided protection from the comments yelled at her on the daily walks. She was taught in a classroom alone for an entire year. Bridges family suffered for their decision to send her: Her father lost his job, the grocery store the family shopped at would no longer let them shop there, and her grandparents, who were sharecroppers in Mississippi, were turned off their land. The event was commemorated by Norman Rockwell in his famous painting “The Problem We All Live With” (see graphic above).
On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to obey bus driver James F. Blake’s order to give up her seat in the colored section to a white passenger, after the white section was filled. She was arrested and jailed for this action. While Ms. Rosa was not the first person to resist bus segregation, many historians see her act of defiance as the official start of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Ms. Parks passed away in 2005.
An icon of the black freedom movement, Dick Gregory opened the door for Bill Cosby and other legendary African-American comedians by refusing to appear on the Jack Parr show unless he was able to sit on the couch for the interview (which no African-American was previously permitted to do). Although at one time making more money than Frank Sinatra, Mr. Gregory walked away from millions of dollars AT THE PEAK of his career to become one of the most active and visible participants in the Civil Rights Movement. Mr. Gregory passed away in 2017.
Reverend Al Sharpton
Reverend Al Sharpton is a legendary freedom fighter. I can’t help but go back to 1987; I love that Reverend Al put his reputation on the line to defend Tawana Brawley on the assumption that she was telling the truth. He also stood-up for the black men shot by Bernhard Goetz, the black men chased on Howard Beach, the black teens beaten in Bensonhurst, protested the horrific death of Amadou Diallo, and has organized many other marches and protests in the name of justice. Reverend Sharpton once said, “An activist’s job is to make public civil rights issues until there can be a climate for change.” He certainly has made these issues public. I recognize and admire his place in history as someone who has made an important difference.
Sheriff John Hulett
Sheriff John Hulett was an extraordinary man of courage. He worked full time for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and in violent Lowndes County, Alabama (nicknamed “Bloody Lowndes”). He would become that county’s first black office holder. Prior to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, there was not a single registered black voter in the county, though the population was 80 percent African American. Hullet co-founded the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO), an independent political party that would run Black candidates for county level positions. Because of the state’s high rate of illiteracy, Alabama law required political parties to have a symbol. The LCFO chose a black panther as their symbol and became known as “the Black Panther Party.” John Hulett was elected its chairman. In 1970, John Hulett was elected sheriff of Lowndes County on the LCFO ticket. Visitors to Hulett’s small office in the Lowndes Courthouse after he had become sheriff were startled to see hanging on his wall a vicious-looking wood-handled whip that he had inherited with the office. He kept it there, he said, as reminder that it had been used by his predecessors to beat Lowndes’ blacks for years. He served in public office, first as sheriff and later as probate judge, for 22 years. He passed away in 2006.
In his 1968 speech, ‘‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,’’ Martin Luther King spoke of Lawson as one of the ‘‘noble men’’ who had inﬂuenced the black freedom struggle: ‘‘He’s been going to jail for struggling; he’s been kicked out of Vanderbilt University for this struggling; but he’s still going on, ﬁghting for the rights of his people’’.
When Lawson and King met in 1957, King urged Lawson to move to the South and begin teaching nonviolence on a large scale. Activists Lawson trained include Diane Nash, Marion Barry, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette and James Bevel. Lawson was involved with the Fellowship of Reconciliation from 1957 to 1969, SNCC from 1960 to 1964, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from 1960 to 1967. For each organization, he led workshops on nonviolent methods of protest, often in preparation for major campaigns. He also participated in the third wave of the 1961 Freedom Rides. In 1968, at Lawson’s request, King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to draw attention to the plight of striking sanitation workers in the city. It was during this campaign that King was assassinated on 4 April 1968.
Albert Turner was Alabama field secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. He was toward the front of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama with John Lewis and Hosea Williams on March 7, 1965. Due to the brutal beating the marchers endured, this event came to be known as “Bloody Sunday”. He was also chosen to lead the mule wagon that carried the body of Dr. King at his funeral. On a personal note, he was always kind to me and always had a gentle smile. He passed away in 2000.
James Gildersleeve was 11 years old when his father was shot and killed at a gas station. The owner of the station claimed the senior Gildersleeve drove off with the gas nozzle still attached to the car (leading the owner to shoot him). James Gildersleeve would become one of the “Courageous Eight”, a group that helped destroy the system of segregation in Selma, Alabama. Mr. Gildersleeve passed away in 2004.
Rep John Lewis
John Lewis is simply a legend. He was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1960, Lewis became one of the 13 original Freedom Riders. He was one of the “Big Six” leaders of groups who organized the 1963 March on Washington. He co-led the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama (known as “Bloody Sunday”). During that march across the bridge, his skull was fractured. The bloody beatings the marchers endured (with its subsequent international condemnation) paved the way for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. John Lewis is currently a Congressman for the state of Georgia.
Wyatt Tee Walker
Wyatt Tee Walker is an amazing unsung hero. He was the chief strategist and tactician for “Project C”, the detailed plan for confrontation with local police and city officials that is widely regarded as the blueprint for the Civil Rights Movement’s success in the South. Project C was the heart of the first phase of the Birmingham Campaign in 1963 (made famous by photos of the firehoses and dogs being used against the young Birmingham protesters). Walker meticulously researched protest targets, timed the walking distance from the 16th Street Baptist Church (the campaign’s headquarters) to the downtown area; surveyed the segregated lunch counters of department stores; and listed federal buildings as secondary targets should police block the protesters’ entrance into primary targets such as stores, libraries, and all-white churches. He ensured the campaign would receive national attention and build support for the cause. The events captured important national media attention and coverage and played a major role in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He was also chief of staff for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in 1958 became an early board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He helped found a Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) chapter in 1958. As executive director of the SCLC from 1960 to 1964, Walker helped to bring the group to national prominence. Wyatt Tee Walker passed away in 2018.
Joan Trumpauer was involved in the lunch counter sit-ins (and is in the most famous sit-in photo from the era). After her first sit-in and since she was a white southern woman, she was branded as mentally ill and was taken in for testing after her first arrest. She was also a Freedom Rider and was arrested for refusing to leave a bus waiting area in Jackson, Mississippi. She and others were put inside a paddy wagon to be taken to Parchman, the most dreaded prison in Mississippi where she spent more than two months behind bars.
While in graduate school at Fisk, Mr. Barry was arrested several times while participating in the Nashville sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters and other Civil Rights Movement events. After graduating from Fisk, Mr. Barry continued to work in the Civil Rights Movement, focusing on the elimination of the racial segregation of bus passengers. In 1960 Mr. Barry was elected as the first chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He would go on to win many elections to varying political posts. Marion Barry passed away in 2014.
Bernard LaFayette participated in the Sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, was a member of the Nashville Student Movement, and was a key leader in the Selma Voting Rights Movement. When I asked him how he processed his grief when Dr. King died. He said, “I didn’t.” He also told me that he still has his key from his room at the Lorraine Motel. His was Room 206, the room directly below Dr. King’s room (306), where he was assassinated.
Reverend Jesse Jackson
Much has been said about the Reverend Jesse Jackson. I honor him for his civil rights work as a part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Operation Breadbasket, PUSH, The Rainbow Coalition, and especially the unforgettable inspiration he gave to millions when he ran for President of the United States in 1984 and 1988.
[Apart from my personal observations and experiences, thank you to the New York Times, the King Institute Encyclopedia, and Wikipedia for additional historical details provided on this page]