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Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

Along with legendary champions, they were among the thousands who sacrificed during the era of change

spinner image photos of unsung civil rights heroes fred gray charles person and willie pearl mackey king
Left to right: Fred Gray, Charles Person and Wille Pearl Mackey King.

Martin Luther King Jr. Rosa Parks. Medgar Evers. John Lewis. These names ring through history as leaders of the vast, sprawling events that constituted the Civil Rights Movement, in which African Americans struggled for equality during the 1950s, 1960s and beyond. But the movement could not have succeeded without thousands of people of all races making important, if often overlooked, contributions, and without millions of people moved by their efforts deciding that it was time to do the right thing.

For Black History Month, we went in search of those men and women who did their part to change the history of America, without seeking fame or reward, simply because they saw the need to become part of the solution.

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Here are their stories.

Video: Secretary Recounts Typing MLK’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’

Willie Pearl Mackey King on the Birmingham Jail letter

82, living in Montgomery County, Maryland

King worked from 1962 to 1966 as a member of Martin Luther King Jr.’s executive staff

Where I lived, in Atlanta in 1962, the landlady rented her extra bedrooms to college students and working young ladies. Dorothy Cotton lived on the first floor. [Cotton is known as a pillar of the Civil Rights Movement.] One day she asked if I was looking for work. I had never worked in an office. Dorothy gave me an address and said, “You should go here and apply.” That is how I got hired at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

They put me at the receptionist desk, and I started reading brochures about this place where I was working. I had never heard of “civil rights” before. Then, one day, this gentle­man came in and greeted me, asking me about my church and my family. I realized that this was the man in the brochures! He was in charge of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and his name was Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King asked me if I would go with him on certain trips. I was elated! In December of 1962, I went with Dr. King to Birmingham, to organize a “people-to-people tour” of the state of Alabama. We visited towns all over the state, and this is how the Birmingham movement got started.

spinner image willie pearl mackey king holds up a black and white photo of herself working for doctor martin luther king in nineteen sixty three
Willie Pearl Mackey King holds a photo of herself working for Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963.

This was to be nonviolent protest in the heart of Jim Crow. The FBI told Dr. King, “There are credible threats against your life. We cannot guarantee your safety.” Well, Dr. King called us together. He said, “If you decide you don’t want to go on this trip, that it’s too dangerous, I will not be offended. Because we could be killed.” I looked around, thinking it would be canceled. But no one else said no. I went off and did my crying, then came back and said, “I’m going.”

On Good Friday in 1962, after the protests in Birmingham began, Dr. King was arrested. A group of eight ministers wrote an article, “A Call to Unity,” saying Dr. King was an outsider and urging locals not to participate in what he was doing. Dr. King decided that he was going to write an answer. He was in jail, and he asked the jailers for pen and paper. They said, “You’re not in a library! You don’t get anything to write with.”

He wrote on the edges of newspaper, on toilet paper, on sandwich bags. His attorney Clarence Jones hid the scraps under his suit jacket and slipped them out of the jail. We had to put together this jigsaw puzzle. We were on the floor, trying to figure it out, Scotch-taping things together. Dr. King’s handwriting was not the best. The lighting was terrible in his jail cell.

I was not allowed to leave the office for three days and two nights. I typed this document on an IBM Selectric typewriter, not a computer where you could cut and paste. If I made a mistake, I had to redo everything.

“If people read [‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’] today, they will understand what Dr. King was doing in Birmingham, and why he was fighting so hard for civil rights.”

Willie Pearl Mackey King

That is how we developed the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” When we released it, no one paid attention at first. Only when Bull Connor [the city’s commissioner of public safety] ordered fire hoses and dogs onto the demonstrators in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park did we start getting requests for the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I could not mimeograph enough copies. [The letter became one of the most important documents of the civil rights era.]

If people read that letter today, they will understand what Dr. King was doing in Birmingham and why he was fighting so hard for civil rights. In my opinion, none of his speeches or writings will give you a clearer vision of his mission.

My whole career was helping people. That was instilled in me by Dr. King and others that I worked with so closely. I can’t think of a better way to spend a life, than helping people.

spinner image charles person and his book buses are a comin
Charles Person shows off his book, "Buses Are A Comin'."

Charles Person on the Freedom Riders

81, living in Atlanta

Civil rights activist, the youngest member of the original Freedom Riders. Later, a Vietnam veteran and the author of Buses Are a Comin’

My dad was a patriotic veteran of the Second World War. He was optimistic that change would come for Black people. “This is our country too.” That’s what my dad preached.

My journey began when, as a high school senior in Atlanta, I applied to Morehouse College [a historically Black university] in Atlanta and was accepted.

When I got to campus in 1960, the sit-in movement was beginning. I was there every day. The idea was to enter a restaurant, sit at the counter and shut the restaurant down, because we knew, as Black people, we would not be served. We would sit there and do our studies. Ultimately, I was arrested with others.

In 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality organized the first Freedom Ride. I submitted an application and they chose me. The idea was to challenge the nonenforcement of the United States Supreme Court decisions that ruled that segregation on interstate buses and in bus terminals was unconstitutional. The Southern states were ignoring these decisions. Our goal was to simply ride the bus south and sit where they said we couldn’t. This was not an act of civil disobedience. The law was on our side.

spinner image award with replica of a bus used by the freedom riders in nineteen sixty one it is inscribed for charles person as a civil rights legacy award
Charles Person’s 2018 Civil Rights Legacy Award for his sacrifice during the 1961 Freedom Ride.

I was 18 and needed a parent’s signature. Dad approved. Mom was reluctant. But I went. The first Freedom Ride bus left Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961. Aboard was a mix of Black and white activists, including future Congressman John Lewis. I was the youngest Freedom Rider on that first trip.

We were well-groomed, because how we presented ourselves was important. Each night, we stayed with members of congregations who fed us. We switched buses each day for safety. Media rode with us. We were ordinary people, trying to do things to make our lives extraordinary.

People taunted us all the way to Alabama. When we got to Anniston, on May 14, 1961, a group of men boarded the bus and came toward us. That is when the beatings started. In Birmingham, the next stop, a mob was waiting when we exited the bus. My fellow Freedom Rider James Peck went down almost immediately. I maintained my balance but had my scalp opened. I got away from the crowds and, as luck would have it, a city bus came by. I got on, and the driver had sympathy; he took me to a safe place. He said, “If you go across the tracks, there will be someone there to help you.”

I ended up in a church, where a nurse put a bandage on my head that pulled my scalp together. [The beatings made national news as a pivotal event in the civil rights struggle.] Using photographs, the FBI identified the men who beat us. I thought it was a slam-dunk case. But there was no way an all-white jury in the South would convict white men for beating up a Black person. I was very disappointed.

I made the entire ride to New Orleans, and when I got back to Atlanta, my mom thought I’d be killed if I stayed in the Civil Rights Movement. Like my father before me, I chose to serve. I entered the Marine Corps and went to Vietnam. I was exposed to Agent Orange and have cancer today. My brother, who went to Vietnam, died from his exposure, as did my cousin and the best man at my wedding. God just seems to keep me here.

Whenever I have the chance to speak to young people, I tell them they can change the world. I hope they listen, not only to me, but to anyone who tells them they have the power to make the world a better place.

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Attorney Fred Gray in front of an exhibit dedicated to his contributions at the Tuskegee History Center in Alabama.
Rory Doyle

Fred Gray on the Montgomery bus protest

93, living in Tuskegee, Alabama

A preacher and a civil rights attorney who argued some of the most important cases regarding race in American history

When I was growing up, there were two professions a Black man could take up: a preacher or a teacher. I studied to become a preacher in Nashville, Tennessee, and when I returned to my home state of Alabama, I enrolled at the Alabama State College for ­Negroes (now Alabama State University). There were serious problems with how Black people were treated on the buses, including one man who had been killed. E.D. Nixon, a Black leader and president of the local NAACP branch, told me they needed lawyers and I didn’t know any. So when I graduated college, I enrolled at Case Western Reserve [then Western Reserve] University law school in Cleveland, Ohio. I passed the Alabama and Ohio Bar exams in the summer of 1954.

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Six months later, on March 2, 1955, a 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat [on a public bus] to a white person. Claudette lived in an area in the northern part of Montgomery. There were two or three streets of Black families surrounded by whites. The Black schoolkids had to take two buses to get to Booker T. Washington High School.

On the day Claudette was arrested, the students had been let out early from school because of a teachers’ meeting. When they got downtown, a lot of white people were getting on the bus and they asked Claudette to get up from her seat. She was not sitting in what was called the white section, and so she told the bus driver she was not going to get up. She was arrested, and I agreed to represent her in juvenile court. Claudette’s was my first civil rights case. The judge was very polite, but he still found her a ​delinquent.

“I am now 93 years old and still fighting.”

Fred Gray

Nine months later, Rosa Parks did the same thing. I had known Mrs. Parks from the time I was an undergraduate at Alabama State. When I opened my law office in late September of 1954 to the day of her arrest on Dec. 1, 1955, she would come to my office and talk about problems, about how even after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954, no schools in Alabama were desegregated.

We had talked about how a person should conduct themselves if they were asked to give up a seat on a bus. I had gotten the impression that, if the opportunity presented itself, she would not give up her seat. Which is what she did. She retained me to represent her.

I met with Edgar Nixon of the NAACP and Jo Ann Robinson, an instructor at Alabama State University, who was the president of the Women’s Political Council, an organization in Montgomery to help Blacks get registered to vote and to generally improve conditions. At her house, we planned the Montgomery bus boycott. [Black people stopped riding buses, threatening to financially cripple the city’s transportation system.]

spinner image tuskegee center exhibit wall dedicated to attorney fred dee gray one of the photos shows gray after winning election to the alabama house of representatives in nineteen seventy
An exhibit dedicated to attorney Fred Gray shows Gray (center) after he was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives in 1970.
Rory Doyle

Jo Ann Robinson said, “We will need a spokesman. My pastor, Martin Luther King, hasn’t been here in Montgomery long, but he can move people with words. We can get him to be the spokesman.” I had never met Dr. King. Few knew who he was at that time. He was selected to be the spokesman, and I to do the legal work.

We held a meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church. When the people heard Dr. King speak, we were convinced that important things were about to happen. And when the buses rolled on Monday morning, very few Blacks were on them. Dr. King and I were in contact almost on a day-to-day basis for the 382 days of the bus boycott. Only we did not call it a boycott because it wasn’t a boycott. We called it a protest. During that time, the world came to know his name.

Three months after the Montgomery bus protest began, Alabama indicted 89 persons. The prosecutors then decided that instead of trying 89 cases, they would select one, and of course they selected Dr. King. I had the responsibility of getting a legal team together. We tried that case for four days. We were able to get Black people to describe how they had been mistreated on the buses, including the wife of the man who had been killed. Notwithstanding, the judge found Dr. King guilty.

For the rest of my life, I have fought to ­destroy everything segregated I could find. I have fought for education rights, for Black voting rights. ... Inequality and the struggle for equal justice continues.

I am now 93 years old and still fighting.

spinner image doector clarence jones in his home
Clarence Jones, former personal attorney, adviser and speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr., at his home in California.
Gabriela Hasbun

Clarence B. Jones on writing speeches for Martin Luther King Jr.

93, living in Palo Alto, California

A former speechwriter, adviser and personal attorney for Martin Luther King Jr., who assisted MLK in the writing of his “I Have a Dream” speech

I tell everybody, for the record, I had nothing to do with anything that Martin Luther King Jr. wrote when he was preaching from the pulpit in his church. He was highly educated. He didn’t need me to write sermons. The problem was practical and logistical. There came a time when there were some big speaking opportunities. He was perfectly capable of doing it himself if he had the time, but as his stature grew, he didn’t have time.

That is how I got into being his speechwriter. He would turn to people like Stanley Levison, his dear friend, and to his personal lawyer, me.

I went to the Juilliard School of Music before I was a lawyer. One of the things that I learned was something called ear training, which you can learn but some people are naturally gifted at — what is called perfect pitch. Translated to a nonmusician, this means that you have the ability to hear or reproduce with your voice or your instrument a note that is supposed to be sung or played.

I had the ability to internalize Dr. King’s voice in my mind, so I could write the text in perfect pitch with his voice. It would be right on the money. Sometimes I would even write things like “pause and repeat.” He said, “You are freaky, man! Pause and repeat? It’s like you’re inside my head!” I said, “That’s what I am trying to do.”

He gave a lot of speeches. He gave a hell of a speech five days before he was assassinated, at the Washington National Cathedral, called “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Magnificent! He gave a hell of a speech the night before he was assassinated — at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. Of course, that was the speech in which he says, “I’ve been to the mountaintop … [and] I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”

That was sadly prophetic. He was almost speaking as if he knew he was not going to be alive for very long.

spinner image clarence jones hand holding an old photo of him sitting next to doctor martin luther king junior at a press eent
Clarence Jones holds a photo of him sitting next to Martin Luther King Jr. at a press event.
Gabriela Hasbun

But if someone forced me to choose two of his speeches or writings that would bookend his life, I would choose “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and his speech opposing the war in Vietnam. [These were two works that MLK composed on his own.]

The circumstances of his writing “Letter from Birmingham Jail” are well-known. During the five-day period starting from Good Friday, April 12, 1963, I visited him twice a day as his lawyer in the Birmingham jail. He was using blank spaces of old newspapers, paper towels, anything that he could use as a writing surface. I took what he was writing in that cell out under my shirt, so the guards would not see. What he wrote became “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

At the time, I was so busy I didn’t read it right away. When I read it for the first time, I said to myself, “Oh my God, this is absolutely incredible!” He had no access to books or any third-party sources. Yet he quoted apostles, poets and philosophers, word for word. Everything in that letter came from Dr. King’s academic memory. He blew me away.

His speech opposing the Vietnam War — called “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” — was given on April 4, 1967. I regard the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. to be something very sacred to me. I was not surprised when he was assassinated. It was not a question of whether or not, it was a question of when.

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Gordon “Gunny” Gundrum was working for the National Park Service during the March on Washington.

Gordon “Gunny” Gundrum on the 1963 March on Washington

85, living in Grafton, New York

A retired New York State Trooper and former Ranger for the National Park Service

I had just returned from the Marine Corps and I ended up in Washington, D.C. I needed a job, and the National Park Service hired me. I was assigned to the March on Washington, to be positioned on the stage at the Lincoln Memorial. That is how I happened to be there. Until I got to Washington, I had never had any in-depth contact with Black people. Not even in the Marine Corps. I came from a family of poor, rural farmers and there were no Black people where I grew up. 

At the time, the riots were going on. The Park Service thought this March on Washington [the full name was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom] may turn into a riot, rather than the peaceful march it was intended to be. My job was to stand next to the podium in my uniform, to protect the speakers and try to maintain order.

“I had never been involved in something so spectacular. The way the speech moved; it was like watching a rosebud bloom in fast motion.”

Gordon “Gunny” Gundrum

On Aug. 28, 1963, there were thousands and thousands of people in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The sight from the stage made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Bob Dylan played. At the time, I did not know who he was. Peter, Paul and Mary sang. Joan Baez was amazing. I met Charlton Heston and shook his hand. Next to him was Marlon Brando. I saw a Black man coming closer. You were supposed to have a ticket to get up on the stage, so I asked. He smiled and said, “I left my pass in the hotel room.” It was Sammy Davis Jr., and I let him through.

When I first saw Dr. King walk on stage, he wasn’t as big as I thought. You would see him on the television news, and in the newspaper stories about the demonstrations, the demands for freedom, Dr. King getting arrested and spending time in jail. He seemed nervous. But as hot of a day as it was, he wasn’t perspiring like most of us. The crowd saw him and really came alive.

When he began to speak, the crowd became so quiet. I was standing next to him, on his left, our shoulders nearly touching because of how crowded it was. His words were like poetry. [The speech began: “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”] I was worried about the television cameras, so I adjusted the microphone while he spoke, so the cameras and the crowds could see his whole face. The TV cameras saw my hand; I was wearing a pinkie ring of all things, and my family later kidded that I had the most famous hand in the world.

I had never been involved in something so spectacular. The way the speech moved; it was like watching a rosebud bloom in fast motion. It just grew and the beauty developed right before your eyes. The crowd praised Dr. King and I heard the word “amen” again and again. One of the Black leaders — later I learned that it was [gospel singer] Mahalia Jackson — said something to the effect of, “Tell them your dream, Martin!” This was the moment he deviated from his notes and went into his “I Have a Dream” speech that is so famous today.

[King: “So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …’ ”]

It was a momentous day, a day that changed my life. What I learned that day inspired me in my 25-year career as a New York State trooper. I went out of my way to help people. I kept people from harming others, to keep peace. I respected all minorities. The things in my life all seem to go back to that day and Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. And I am not alone.

spinner image joan mulholland poses with a dress she wore and memorabilia from during her time as a freedom rider
Civil rights activist Joan Trumpauer Mulholland with a dress she wore and memorabilia from her time as an activist.
Shuran Huang

Joan Trumpauer Mulholland on the Jackson Woolworth’s sit-in

82, living in Arlington, Virginia

Activist, educator, later established the Joan Trumpauer Mulholland Foundation to educate youth on the Civil Rights Movement

I was the first white student to attend Tougaloo College near Jackson, Mississippi. By that time, I had already been arrested three times for nonviolent protest, and I was involved in the Freedom Ride movement early on. Where I grew up in Arlington [Virginia], everything was segregated. Churches were segregated, and yet we had to memorize Bible verses that said to treat people the way we wanted to be treated. I took that seriously. Then, there is the Declaration of Independence, which says that all men are created equal. I took that seriously too.

I also had an experience when I was about 10, visiting my grandmother in Oconee, Georgia. My playmate and I snuck off and went where we were forbidden to go — down a dirt road to the Black section. When we got to the “colored” school — that was the polite term, then — it was a one-room shack that never had an ounce of paint on it. There was no glass or screen in the windows. No electricity or running water. On the other side of town was a fancy new school for white kids with all the amenities, the nicest building for miles around.

I knew that this was wrong, and that when I had the chance to make things better for everybody, I would seize the moment.

At Tougaloo College, when they saw me studying just as hard in the library as the other students, they knew I was OK. Eventually I was invited to join Delta Sigma Theta sorority. That’s a pretty good sign of acceptance. The Klan was not happy. They would drive down the road next to campus and shoot the faculty housing near the road. Metal sheeting had to be put up on the sides of the housing. Every once in a while, a Klansman would get on campus and burn a cross.

Tougaloo was a place where anybody interested in civil rights who was coming to Mississippi would visit. It was a big gathering place. Medgar Evers was on campus quite a bit. When Dr. King came to speak, me and my roommate Joyce Ladner were put in charge of getting him around.

On the day of the Woolworth’s sit-in — May 28, 1963 — a group of Black nonviolent protesters sat down at the lunch counter in this five-and-dime store, figuring they would be arrested pretty quickly. This was Jackson, Mississippi. When I went down to see what was happening, it was turning ugly. An ex-cop named Benny Oliver was kicking a Tougaloo student named Memphis Norman to the point that he was bleeding severely out of his head. A TV cameraman was knocked to the ground and his camera busted.

spinner image joan mulholland taking part in the jackson woolworth lunch counter sit it
Joan Mulholland at the counter during the Jackson Woolworth sit-in, facing away from the camera.
Fred Blackwell/Getty Images

Memphis had been sitting with two girls on the stools, named Perlina and Anne Moody. The girls got pulled off and dragged to the floor. They made it back to their stools and I went and sat with them. Anne and I were pulled off the stools again. There was quite a mob. It kept getting uglier. A professor from Tougaloo College named John Salter came and sat with us.

One of the heroes of this event was a second-string white photographer for the local paper named Fred Blackwell. He wasn’t any older than we were, and as far as I know, his sympathies were with the mob. He got permission to stand on the lunch counter to take pictures. By the time things were over, his sympathies had shifted to the nonviolent protesters.

A photograph he took became the most used sit-in photo of any, and I give him a lot of credit. You can take your issue to the streets, to the lunch counters, the lawyers take it to the courts, but the press takes it to the world.

I am the one in the middle, in the photograph, sitting at the lunch counter. You can see the mob of people pouring sugar and condiments, dumping everything on us — just clearing the counter on our heads. They were yelling at us: “communist,” “traitor.”

We eventually got rid of legal segregation, but we didn’t get rid of the underlying racism and discrimination. Hopefully we can learn from what we did in the past to help make the future better for all of us.

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Myrlie-Evers Williams, former chairwoman of the NAACP and widow of Medgar Evers.

Myrlie Evers-Williams on the movement, yesterday and today

90, living in Los Angeles County, California

Widow of Medgar Evers, murdered in 1963. A former chairwoman of the NAACP and author of the book Watch Me Fly

When I was growing up, Mississippi was HOME in capital letters. We grew our own food. We shared food with each other. We were a very poor neighborhood, but we were rich in a sense of community. Parents told their children that “you are somebody. This life you have will not be yours forever.” Our parents would say, “We’re going to work very hard and make things better for you. We expect you to take advantage of every little thing that we do for you, and remember to reach back and help others.”

It was a wonderful place to grow up, to have a sense of self-worth, a sense of what you could do not only then but what you had to do for the future generations to come.

I met and fell in love with Medgar Evers in my junior year of college. Medgar was a few years older and different from anyone I had ever met. He was very mature, a protector type of man. An outstanding student and an outstanding football star. He later told me that he was “cultivating” me. I’m not sure I liked that because cultivating sounded like he was cultivating cotton. But it was good and it lasted, and it still lasts even though he is no longer here with us.

It was a time when the entire nation was paying attention to race relations. We had moved from a period in the United States where murders against people of color were very common. People of color had no rights at all. But you found people such as Medgar, veterans who had returned home from World War II and who were refusing to put up with Jim Crow laws. Medgar was right there in the open, saying, “I served my country! I am not here back at home to be treated like a second-class citizen!”

It was very dangerous. When I talk to my grandchildren now, I see the fascination on their faces. They find it almost impossible to believe that things were as they were and have come back to haunt us. [The Evers home in Jackson, Mississippi, was firebombed in 1963 in reaction to an organized boycott of white merchants. Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s field secretary in Mississippi, was assassinated on June 12, 1963, by a member of the Ku Klux Klan, who was found guilty more than 30 years later of the murder.]

spinner image old black and white photo of myrlie evers williams and her family with then president john f kennedy
Myrlie Evers-Williams and her family with President John F. Kennedy.
Philip Cheung

I hope that today, as we look at the progress that we have made in American race relations and the progress yet to be made, that some way we all, regardless of our age, find a way to be involved in improving things for us and our generations to come. When I read in the newspapers and listen to the news on television and talk to friends who have walked the same path as I, we look down the road and see how much further we have to go. We shake our heads and ask, “Will we make it?” Somebody yells out, “Hell yes! We have to!”

I am not as active physically as I used to be, as I am 90 years old, but my heart and my spirit are still there in the fight. I can look at the younger generation and say, “Go get it! Do it!” I might not be able to keep up with the march, but I can drag my tired and weary feet on with you until we get to the end. And I do believe there will be an end to prejudice and racism. When? I don’t know. There are enough people who are strong and determined enough who will be able to enjoy the freedom we all should have and share it with others.

The interchange I have with the younger generation is so inspiring to me. It gives me a glimpse into where we are now and where we are going. I have lots of hope for the future, thanks to those who have kept the flame burning.

20 years of civil rights

The two decades between 1950 and 1970 were a crucial time in the advancement of civil rights. Here are some of the landmark events.

  • Brown v. Board of Education (1954): In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not be segregated by race. But the practice would remain common for many years.
  • Rosa Parks is arrested (1955): Her defiance and arrest prompted a yearlong boycott of buses in Montgomery, Alabama.
  • Coordinated nonviolent protests (1957): In January, about 60 Black pastors and civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr. met in Atlanta to plan protests against segregation and racial discrimination.
  • The desegregation of interstate travel (1960): The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in December that interstate buses and bus terminals were required to integrate. In 1961, Black and white volunteers, known as Freedom Riders, tested the law by riding Greyhound buses to the deep south.
  • The Supreme Court orders the University of Mississippi to integrate (1962): In early 1961, James Howard Meredith, a nine-year Air Force veteran, began a legal fight when denied admission to Ole Miss, a fight that ended up before the Supreme Court, which ruled that Meredith should be allowed to attend the state-funded school.
  • The March on Washington (1963): On Aug. 28, an estimated quarter of a million people rallied on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. gave one of his best-known speeches.
  • Birmingham church bombing (1963): Four young girls were killed and several other people injured by an explosive device planted in a Baptist church, prompting widespread outrage.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964: President John F. Kennedy had introduced the bill before his assassination. His successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, signed it into law on July 2. It barred discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in restaurants, hotels and other public facilities.
  • Bloody Sunday (1965): A protest march in Alabama, from Selma to Montgomery, on March 7 was blocked by state troopers and local lawmen, who brutally attacked some of the marchers.
  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965: On Aug. 6, President Johnson signed the act banning discriminatory practices adopted in many Southern states to discourage Black voting, like literacy tests.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated (1968): King was shot and killed in Memphis in April, the day after giving a speech calling for economic justice for sanitation workers.
  • Fair Housing Act (1968): Just a week after King’s assassination, President Johnson signed a law protecting people from discrimination in the sale, rent or financing of housing.

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