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Voices of Civil Rights

YOUR CIVIL RIGHTS STORIES

Willie Anderson

Carmel, Ind.

Growing up as a little boy in my native city of Gary, Ind., I would often sit at my grandmother's knee and help her and my grandfather pick peas and clean fish. Sitting with my elders doing chores was a Saturday ritual where everybody would tell jokes, and talk about politics and family issues. One Saturday afternoon, a news flash came over the radio about the 10th anniversary of the freedom march in Washington D.C., and just like that, everybody got real serious.

I asked my grandparents to explain the freedom march and why everyone's attitude suddenly changed. My grandmother was the first one to speak up. She said, "Well, baby, the freedom march was a march that was organized by Dr. Martian Luther King Jr. and other organizations so that black people could receive equal treatment." She stated that, "Growing up in the South back in those days was a different time; black people were treated with scorn and contempt."

That's when I asked my grandmother what was her life like growing up in the South and whether she participated in the civil rights movement. My grandmother, Mrs. Elouise Taylor, told me about her role in the civil rights movement. She was born in Union Town, Ala., and was raised in the Jim Crow era. My grandmother was denied a quality education and the basic rights of a human being. Her everyday lifestyle and the lifestyle of other African Americans were filled with fear and a sense of being considered a second class citizen. She was determined at an early age to be treated with dignity and respect by her white neighbors, but because of current laws and sharecropping she was forced to drop out of school. My grandmother moved to Gary, Ind., to avoid the drama in the South, only to find out that racism was being practiced in the Northern states as well. She was determined to be a fighter in the second wind of the civil rights movement.

The civil rights movement had been fought in the United States since slavery was abolished, but the movement didn't get into full swing until Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white patron. That act alone was the springboard that got national attention, not all the lynching, the fire bombings or the outright disrespect of an entire race of people. My grandmother was ready for action. She went back to her native Alabama and joined the Freedom Riders. One of the first marches she participated in was the civil rights march of Washington D. C., where Dr. King delivered one of history's most famous speeches, the "I Have a Dream" speech.

My grandmother got silent for a moment, and I could see the tears start to well up in her eyes. Then my mother told me that my grandmother would leave my mom and her siblings with my grandfather and ride down south with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the rest of the Freedom Riders to rallies, sit-ins, boycotts, marches, voter registration drives and funerals. My mother said that she and her siblings would watch the events on TV and sometimes they would be scared and cry. They would see the dogs biting the marchers and the police beating on people. Life for my family was very hectic during those times because people were getting killed. My mother said she didn't know when or if my grandmother would lose her life for the struggle. My mother told me that whenever my grandmother would come home, she would tell them everything that happened and what the news wouldn't or didn't show.

My grandmother said the march that she was most proud of was the Selma to Montgomery march. She stated that, "The march from Selma to Montgomery was like taking a breath of fresh air." My grandmother would cry with pride every time she would see news clips of the march. She said that march was the most important march in world history since the Exodus from Egypt by our Hebrew ancestors. I asked her why that march was more important than the civil rights march on Washington, D.C. 

She looked at me and said with a sigh, "Well, baby, the March on Washington was a peaceful march, whereas the Selma march was full of hardships. Many people black and white were beaten by the Klan and the police. Some people even lost their lives." She stated, "The first march we tried was on a Sunday, and when we got to the Edmund Pettus Bridge there was a wall of state troopers waiting for us on the other side. The police brutality was so bad that the news dubbed that day as "Bloody Sunday."  She said, "I had never been so scared in my life; the police sicced the dogs on us and beat us senseless."

My grandmother looked to the sky and said, "Over 700 people were arrested for trying to participate in a nonviolent march. The only good thing that came out of 'Bloody Sunday' was that the whole world got to see how the Alabama state troopers treated the protesters. That act of violence shifted the way people looked at the civil right movement."

She stated, "It took us three attempts to finally march from Selma to Montgomery. We got a judge to give us the right to march. We could only march during the day, we could only have 300 marchers on the highway at any giving time and by the third attempt to march, there were 25,000 people in attendance." I could tell that even though she was proud of what the marches achieved, she was still saddened at how they were treated, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and she heard it when Dr. King delivered the speech "How Long, Not Long."

She said, "Because of the way they treated us, President Lyndon B. Johnson met with Governor George Wallace in Washington to talk to him about the civil rights situation in his state. They couldn't come to an agreement so President Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act."

I would watch the news clips and try to see if I could spot my grandmother. Watching the news clips was very intense; I often wondered how people could treat each other like that. Because of Dr. King, the Washington D.C., and Selma marches, and what they represented, I participated in the Million Man march years later. I could never fully understand how my grandmother felt when she marched on Washington D.C,. and Selma, but I understand her quest for freedom and equality. These are the things I leaned sitting at my grandmother's knee.

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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.