There comes a time in life when enough is enough. When circumstances dictate that you just can’t take it anymore. When injustice is so unjust that you are compelled to take a stand. Such was the case throughout the South until the second half of the 20th century. Water from high-powered fire hydrant hoses knocked thousands off their feet. Snarling dogs on loose leashes held by red-faced police with flashlights and billy clubs attacked peaceful marchers.
Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Negro boy, whose battered one-eyed body weighed down with a cotton gin fan and barbed wire was tossed into Mississippi’s Tallahatchie River for alleged speaking to and flirting with a White lady. With bold determination to gain justice, Montgomery Negroes — nameless maids, cooks and others — who Dr. King noted, substituted tired feet for tired souls, walked the streets with dignity rather than ride buses in humiliation for three hundred eighty-one days.
Three quiet heroes of that era were honored Friday, May 10, 2013, at the Max M. Fisher Music Center during the 15th Annual Ford Freedom Awards. The evening was nothing short of a history lesson and a vivid reminder that today, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the struggle continues.
Johnnie Rebecca Daniels Carr (January 26, 1911-February 22, 2008), one of three 2013 honorees, began her unrelenting support for civil rights at an early age. In 1931, when she was only twenty years old, she raised money during the Scottsboro (Alabama) Trials for nine young Black men, ranging in age from 13 to 20, who were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train.
Thereafter, Johnnie Carr devoted her life to achieving equal rights for blacks, succeeding Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1967 as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, a position she held until her death from a massive heart attack in 2008. Her son, Arlam Carr, Jr., who at 13 was the plaintiff in Carr v Montgomery County Board of Education (1969), which declared that the board had illegally operated a dual school system based on race, accepted the award for his mother. Arlam, Jr., became one of thirteen students to integrate Sidney Lanier High School and a classmate of “segregation now and segregation forever” Governor George Wallace’s daughter.
Viola Fauver Gregg Liuzzo, a California, Pennsylvania, native who spent part of her improvised childhood in Tennessee and Georgia before migrating to Detroit made the ultimate sacrifice. Responding to Dr. King’s call for any and all persons to travel to Selma after the March 7, 1965, “Bloody Sunday,” when 500 protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery were attacked by Alabama State Troopers wielding billy clubs and grenades, Liuzzo decided that she wanted to be part of it since there were “too many people who just stand around talking.” On March 24, after joining 25 thousand marchers, for the last four miles of the trek to the state capitol, she volunteered to drive civil rights worker Leroy Moton, who had used her car as an airport shuttle, back to Montgomery.
Halfway between Selma and Montgomery, while attempting to outrun members of the Ku Klux Klan and singing, “We Shall Overcome,” she was shot and died instantly. Her daughter, Sally Liuzzo, was 6 years old when her mother left Detroit for the last time, accepted her mother’s award.
U.S. Congressman John Lewis, who received the Ford Freedom Scholar Award, recalled that his parents admonished him to “ don’t get in trouble, don’t get in the way” but after “more than fifty years of getting in trouble” he was “going to get in more trouble.” The congressman, whose “quo vadis” haircut was often pictured covered with bandages from beatings by southern law enforcement officials, warned that President Barak Obama’s election does not represent the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream of reaching the mountain top, but was “just a down payment.”
These quiet heroes and many like them, remind us that we stand on the shoulders of forefathers and mothers whose experiences during the middle passage, slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow did not rob them of their hope for a better life for their families and future generations.
Will we just sit around and talk or will “get into trouble”?
The challenge, and indeed the opportunity, to “get in trouble” now is much different than it was 50 years ago when Dr. King, in Detroit and at the March on Washington, had shared his dream of an end to racist in America. The racial climate has changed, the challenges are different, and we bear an even greater responsibility to assist in affecting change in our communities.
It has been said that in order to experience change, the conversation at the community level must change. Twenty years ago, Brothers Also Read (BAR) was formed to foster conversation between young and old African-American men and to change the conversation about what was possible for African-American males and for the African-American community at large.
In September, as Congressman John Lewis’ guests, BAR will receive an inside look at the Civil Rights Movement and a history lesson during its bimonthly meeting in Washington, D.C., to review his new book, “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.”
Roy Roulhac is a former federal administrative law judge who has written extensively on Reconstruction and Jim Crow. His latest book book is “Slave Genealogy of the Roulhac Family.”
“The racial climate has changed, the challenges are different, and we bear an even greater responsibility to assist in affecting change in our communities.”