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Voices of Civil Rights

YOUR CIVIL RIGHTS STORIES

Tami White

Chicago

My grandfather, James M. Howard Sr., left me with the clear understanding that everyone can contribute considerably, if they just stand up for what is right. I searched many years trying to understand what Dr. King did to cause such an uproar in this country when he was killed. I was about 5 when I saw my mother shed a tear. I wanted to do something that would be as great as Dr. King's work so that people would miss me after I passed as well. After following and studying many leaders that contributed much to the many marches and boycotts during the civil rights era, I still felt empty. Little did I know that within my own family was a great courageous man by the name of James M. Howard and he happened to be my grandfather. He did things for the citizens of Kankakee, Ill., well before all of the national organizing took place in the ’60s. He was one man in one small town that stood up for young blacks to formally learn to swim when whites did not want them in the high school pool. One man that built his own soda fountain/burger place, so that black children could buy their food from the front of his restaurant (The Wagon Wheel) and drink root beer from glass mugs and not paper cones like the white children. One man whose car was riddled with bullets because he refused to allow the black community to be a red-light district, where young women could not freely walk the streets without being harassed by white men looking for prostitutes. When I asked him what made him do these things, he stated simply, “When individuals came to me with problems, I felt I could help. I could stand up for what was right.” Thank you for the opportunity to share. God bless us all.

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Becky Figgins

Green Bay, Wis.

My story may not be huge to anyone but me but here goes: My father was a racist bigot pig. When I was little I remember watching on the news about black American being washed away by fire hoses because they were marching for rights. My father acted like he was watching a huge comedy show and he never stopped making fun of black Americans. I always said to myself I will never be like him. I’m proud to say that soon I will be 64 years old and when I hear people talking that way I always say my piece. Some times it comes back on me but I am not my father’s daughter. Just my little part in the ongoing effort for rights for all.

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Santos Sandy Ruiz

Texas City, Texas

My mom and dad would take us to town on Saturdays. I vividly recall seeing the water fountains at the Woolworth. One of the fountains was labeled "colored." I always chose the colored fountain because I expected the water to be colored and to probably taste like Kool-Aid. I would always be disappointed that the water was always just water. My mom never told me the reason. I didn't find out why they were labeled colored until I grew up and saw the demonstrations on TV. I watched live the people being hosed down on the news. I also watched Dr. King give his famous speech.

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Louis Wesler

Tulsa, Okla.

My father was stationed in England from 1953 to 1956. Racial bias was blatant, in food labeling, radio programs, printed advertising, so I was aware that racial hatred existed before my father was posted to Hunter AFB, Savannah, Ga. I had been told by my parents that America was the best place in the world. I was dumbfounded by the signs for "COLORED" pointing to the outhouse behind the white building. The outhouse was in such poor shape I would have been afraid of the damn thing collapsing on me. I attended the Episcopal church. During the services there were two families with children that did not squirm, wiggle and make noise, My sister and I, because our parents would smack us, and a black family with three kids, the youngest maybe 4-5 years old. My father drove past this family and stopped and offered them a ride, I will never forget the words the black gentleman said. "Oh thank you, good sir, but I can’t put your life in danger; just talking to you can get me beaten and my family, but I thank you for the offer.”

Next page: More civil rights stories. »

Civil Rights Voices: Share Your Story

VOices Of Civil Rights

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On Aug. 3, 2004, AARP set out on a 70-day bus tour, through 22 states, to gather the extraordinary stories of ordinary people who played a role, both big and small, in the civil rights movement. The effort resulted in a collection of thousands of personal stories, oral histories and photographs. Through the collaborative effort of AARP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) and the Library of Congress, the collection was donated to the Library of Congress to create the Voices of Civil Rights exhibit. Housed at the American Folk Life Center of the Library of Congress, the exhibit documents key moments in the civil rights movement.

 

In honor of the upcoming 50th anniversaries of the assassination of Medgar Evers (6/12/63), the March on Washington (8/28/63) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (7/2/64), AARP revisited the vast collection of amazing civil rights stories housed within the Voices of Civil Rights exhibit. Of the thousands of eye-opening stories, we selected six poignant recollections to share with the public in a nationwide campaign.