Consequential Impact of the Civil Rights Movement: Implications for Advancing Social Justice in the 21st Century
November 20–21, 2015
New York University
I have spent the best years of my life in SNCC [“Snick”] and at Tougaloo. Tougaloo is the Civil Rights College. And we would want all of you to contribute to the endowed chair we’re trying to establish in Civil Rights. A second endowed chair we’re raising money for is for the Ernst Borinski Endowed Chair. Dr. Borinski was my mentor, a Holocaust survivor, intellectual, among those who did not find jobs at majority institutions, but who found common cause with African Americans during segregation in the 40s and 50s in the south. They taught at places like Talladega, at Tougaloo, at Fisk, even at Howard and other places. It would be a great honor, a signal honor, for us to be able to fund that chair. I would also encourage other institutions to establish endowed chairs in civil rights in order to not only bring attention to the importance of civil rights history to this current generation, but also to ensure in perpetuity that it not be lost.
I will speak on my personal experiences in the Civil Rights Movement and how they influenced my life as a scholar activist. I am a sociologist by training. I’ve spent a great deal of my life as a professor at Howard University, at Hunter College, and taught at a couple of other places. I served time as a provost at Howard and even one year as interim president, before I was summarily moved on, and a man got the job. We won’t talk about that, because it had nothing to do with my qualifications, of course, but we women in the academy have great difficulty ascending to those high levels.
We were that generation from whom much was expected. I think that there are several major influences on those of us who joined SNCC and other young people who joined the movement. My great uncle Archie served in World War I, in France. He spoke bitterly and with some bemusement about the French people who asked to see his monkey tail. And he came back home with the same problem of a lack of democracy. But it was with World War II veterans who went abroad to fight for freedom and democracy and came back to have very little—all the while they saw their white counterparts joining in the expansion of America, in the suburbanization of America, with the better jobs, with greater use of the GI Bill. And it was people like Amzie Moore, Medgar Evers, the father of H. Rap Brown and Ed Brown, and so many others, who told us that we were that special generation—a book needs to be written on that generation, our generation, in terms of the great generation, in terms of how so much was expected of us. It was unprecedented.
Many of the older people who were our role models, and with whom we worked in the communities in Mississippi, had been World War II veterans. And they clandestinely organized the NAACP chapters, because it was outlawed in the state. It was illegal in Alabama, Mississippi, and several other southern states for the NAACP to exist.
And they expected that if they imbued us with the support and the great expectations they had, that we could in fact deliver what they had not been able to in their own time.
We were also greatly influenced by the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation in public education . . . It was the first time in the Deep South that there was this crack, a legal justification for states abolishing the long-term segregated educational facilities. We were also influenced by religion, our own religion. We were mostly Baptists, a few Methodists. The Old Testament was very important to us in terms of justice and mercy. And we heard ministers on Sunday talking about how it was a lowdown dirty shame that these white people would not grant us justice. . . .
We were influenced by the decolonization movement in Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, with Mahatma Gandhi leading a struggle in his country. With Nkrumah and Kenyatta leading their nations of Ghana and Kenya to overthrowing the colonization of their people. When I was in college, Dr. Borinski organized an African study group, and we had a map on the wall, and I remember that we used to put Xs on those African nations when they changed names and became independent.
These were just some of the influences. But more than anything else, if there was a symbolic personification of what it meant to us—or the clarion call that went out to us to change things—it was, in fact, the lynching of Emmett Till. I have called ours the Emmett Till Generation. We were his age. He was killed at fourteen; I was twelve. We saw a child lynched for the first time. We had thought that children were immune, that it was only black men who were lynched. Isn’t it horrible to have to think that as a child, that you only expect a certain category of people to be lynched? And I think that the fact that this child, this boy our age, was lynched at a time when we were in the throes of adolescence, and trying to engage in our own self-empowerment and self-actualization, and in effect the society in which we lived had slapped us back down, and told us that we had no power and that we were as vulnerable as anyone else.
The fact that Mrs. Till refused to allow the embalmers at the funeral home to do cosmetic surgery on the face of her son, who had bloated beyond human recognition in the Tallahatchie River, because as she said she wanted the world to see what they had done to her baby, her child.
And so Jet magazine dispatched its photographer to take a photograph of him lying in that coffin and placed it on the cover of Jet. And that’s the photograph that we children who came into SNCC saw. And it was that photograph that mobilized a generation, because we were determined to avenge his death. I don’t know that we were able to articulate it in precisely those terms, but somewhere in our subliminal consciousness—I mean, I was very aware of it; other people were. We were all aware of it. It was not so subliminal, but very forthright. I can remember telling my great uncle that when I get big, when I get grown, when I get a bit older, I’m going to do something about that. What I was going to do about it, I wasn’t so sure. But I would do something.
So I grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a place that was rigidly segregated. Even Alabamans considered Mississippi to be worse and more violent. I was a second-class citizen. I attended racially segregated schools, lived in an all-black community, attended an all-black church, rode segregated public transportation, attended all-black football, baseball, and basketball games, dances, and other social functions. I could not try on clothes or shoes in the stores where I bought them. Only white people could do that. I could not use the all-white public library, or escape the wrath of segregation’s most vile side when I was called a nigger. My father made one-third the pay of his white co-workers. Even though he was a highly skilled diesel engine mechanic and worked at the local dealership, his pay was $35 a week. He received no pension, no vacation, or sick pay. And with that $35 dollars a week for the eight of us (there were nine of us, but one older brother lived with my grandparents), six of us went to college. Not all of us finished, but there is a PhD and an MSW and others who finished. How did he do it? Divine intervention—well, with the help of a lot of relatives, and others who extended themselves not only to us, but to other families as well.
One day my older sister Dorie and I were at the small white-owned grocery store a block from our house. She had just bought a bag of donuts and we were looking through the magazine rack. We were just entering puberty; we were 11 and 12. A white cashier at the store, a Mr. Patten, walked up behind her and tried to touch her breasts, like this. She turned around and beat him over the head with the donuts. We ran all the way home, frightened and worried at what mother would say or do. When we told her what had happened, she replied in all seriousness: “You should have killed him. Don’t ever let any white man touch you.” The clerk, Mr. Patten, never mentioned the incident to my parents; and my father never mentioned it to him. There were no threatening phone calls or Ku Klux Klan fiery crosses burned on our lawn. That was because my mother was a strong, tough-minded, respectable woman, who didn’t take any stuff from white people, or black people. In other towns in Mississippi my parents may have been run out of town. But maybe not. Both were known to be highly respectable people who had never been in trouble. And the white clerk was wrong for attempting to molest a young girl.
Still we endured a lot of oppression. Can you imagine growing up in a city or a town where all the media is censored? Where the only national news you hear is the half-hour news of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC? Seeing the names and pictures of black people in the newspaper only after they have committed a crime, for the most part? Can you imagine not being able to try on the clothes or the shoes that you buy, even if you take them home and they don’t fit, or they look horrible on you? (Tough luck.) Not being able to eat in the white restaurants? . . . Or escape the wrath of the white people’s anger? This was my environment and that of every black child for the most part in the Deep South in the 50s and early 60s. I was twelve years old when Emmett Till was killed. And, as I said earlier, when I saw his mutilated face on the cover of Jet magazine, I knew that I had to do something about it. So the face of Emmett Till burned somewhere deeply in my subconscious until I found a way to fight back.
Against this backdrop, my parents still taught us to have dreams, no matter how far-fetched they may be; they taught us that our dreams were valid, and that there would be ways, somehow, to achieve them. For my parents and most of the black parents of that generation, of that era, education was the key to our success. Because as my mother always said, “If you get an education, no one can take it from you.” That was the one tangible quality in life, acquisition in life, that we could have, and it would be removed from the white people. They stole the labor of black people by not compensating them for working on the plantations, or from my father. They stole the land. They stole everything they could. But if you had an education, it was one thing that they really couldn’t get; it was out of reach for them.
I was fortunate to have been born during the time when there were such great expectations. So that when we joined the civil rights movement, we became the first children of the post-war era—and our parents had suffered through the Great Depression and experienced poverty first-hand. People like, as I said earlier, Medgar Evers, who came back home from the war and became a field secretary for the NAACP, which was the most dangerous job in the world. I never imagined how he drove up and down those dark roads at night by himself, fearless. Eventually, he was taken out by a bullet, but not before many years.
They taught us that we had a special responsibility to bring an end to discrimination, to achieve economic justice, and, most of all, to find ways to uplift those who were left behind.
Uncle Archie used to have us kids sit on his back porch as he listened to the Brooklyn Dodgers, and each time Jackie Robinson stole a base or hit the ball, we jumped up and down with him, infectious with this great sense of pride and joy—because he said to us afterwards, “you girls will have to be the Jackie Robinsons of your day.”
In 1958, two years before the lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina, I was a founding member of the NAACP youth chapter in Hattiesburg. Medgar Evers, who was murdered for his civil rights work, was at our founding meeting, and from then on he became a mentor to me, until his death in 1963.
But if I should digress for just a second—when I was 11 years old or so, I went to statewide NAACP meetings in Jackson, which was 94 miles away, because of my mother’s best friend, a woman named Eileen Beard—her brother, Vernon Dahmer, who was murdered for his civil rights work, was head of the NAACP in Hattiesburg. He and Clyde Kennard and Eileen Beard took these two little girls, Dorie and me, with them to Jackson because Mrs. Beard knew (she was a member of our church and my mother’s best friend—that’s how I got to go)—she knew that we always tried to talk to her about what Negro rights were like when she lived in Cleveland, Ohio. She saw something within us, and so she took us with her on these excursions. And they were so incredible, because I had no idea as a little kid that there were all these people in Mississippi who also were fighting and wanted Negro rights.
I participated in my first civil rights demonstration in 1961 at Jackson State College. We students organized a sympathy prayer demonstration on behalf of the Tougaloo College students, who had just staged the first sit-in in Mississippi, not at a lunch counter, but at the public library—because blacks paid taxes too, and it was the taxpayers who supported the library, yet we black people were denied the right to go. There were nine Tougaloo students who were arrested that day, and Medgar Evars told my sister and me on one of our frequent visits to his office to ask him, “Mr. Evers, what’s going on with Negro rights around Mississippi?” And he said: “You know what? I’ll tell you a secret if you don’t tell anyone. We’re going to have a sit-in. And the Tougaloo students are going to sit in at the public library.” And we asked him: “Can we join, can we join?” We wanted to be in the sit-in. And he said “yea,” and then he said, “Let me think a minute. I don’t think so, because I don’t know what I’d tell your mother if you got expelled, and you will be expelled.”
You see, the society was so small then. He had been in Hattiesburg a week earlier and met my mother in a grocery store. He came back on campus and brought us some money that mother had sent. And he said: “You would definitely be expelled because you go to a state college.” Tougaloo was private. So, he told us that we should get with the other students and organize a sympathy prayer protest after we would have heard that the Tougaloo students were in fact in jail. And that evening we did so. And one of the students, Emmett Burns, who was a minister, was in the middle of his prayer, and we heard this loud voice saying—”What’s going on here? What’s going on? Stop it, stop it!” And then we turned and looked and it was the college president, believe it or not, and he was going berserk. For some strange reason, he landed beside my two roommates and me, and he grabbed Eunice, one of my roommates, on the shoulder and knocked her on the ground. And then he sent the dean over to the dorm that night to tell her she was expelled and she had to be off the campus by daybreak. Cruel. It was lethal. She didn’t want to go and we told her she shouldn’t go. But she had no choice but to. She called her parents, who drove from the Gulf Coast up to Jackson that night. They tried to see her and the president of the college the next day, but he refused. Presidents of colleges back then were, essentially, heads of plantations, and their only job was to keep the peace.
And he had failed in that job—the governor and everyone else was on his back about “why you got your natives so restless over there?” The next day we were marching to the arraignment of the Tougaloo students at the courthouse. We met a roadblock. The police started shooting something at us—”Oh, Lord! Now they’re killing us,” I thought—but it was tear gas. And they had these dogs, police dogs, chasing us. That brought back the most primal fears. It’s like being a slave and hunted by a dog. But anyway, by the end of all of this, my sister and I were expelled, as was the student government president. And the dean called us in to tell us we were expelled because we had been the impetus for organizing this demonstration, and he said, “I know you have been slipping up to Medgar Evers’s office.” I don’t know how they knew, but we were not to be outdone. We were 17, 18-year-old kids. I was 17, she was 18. He said, “You’re expelled; you can’t come back here.” And I said, “I don’t care; I’m glad, because I hate this place. You’re more strict than mother.” And my sister jumped up and said, “And we’re transferring to Tougaloo.” We had no idea—because Tougaloo cost twice as much as a public college. But it all worked out. It was all good—it was all good.
Transferring to Tougaloo was like dying and going to heaven. It was the only liberal arts college for African Americans in the state. It was the ground zero for people who came to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement and wanted to have a place where they could go. The first day I arrived on campus, the fall of 61, I saw all these people, whites and blacks, sitting on the lawn, and I asked someone, “Who are those people?” And they said, “Those are the freedom riders; they had to come back for a court hearing.”
And it went on from there. Tougaloo was the place where I finally felt that I could—to use an overly worn phrase—exhale, where I felt free to explore ideas. And to be challenged, and to be encouraged to challenge professors. And not to keep quiet. It was the place where my mentor, Ernst Borinski, saw in me things that I didn’t see in myself, and pushed me to become a sociologist, and paid for every graduate school application I filed, because I didn’t have the money. He did it not only for me, but—if you wanted to go to medical school—for anyone else. He had a grant from the Field Foundation, and he just wrote checks, wrote checks. He said, “Miss Ladner, do you want to apply to Minnesota?” “No,” I said, “it’s too cold up there.” “Michigan?” I said, “It’s too cold,” but he said, “Let’s try Michigan.” But I ended up going to Washington University and never regretted it.
But the Civil Rights Movement was the most important influence in my early life beyond my parental socialization. It helped to shape my view of the world and influenced the kind of university professor I became, and scholar I became—one who had a unique understanding of the broader human condition, and one shaped not only by living in the United States, but by being able to live abroad, having enough curiosity about the world to do a postdoc in Tanzania, and to live in Senegal and to travel extensively. The Movement stoked my curiosity in large ways and small. It taught me that I had an obligation to fight for those whose voices were silenced. And it shaped the way I conceptualized my first book, Tomorrow’s Tomorrow: The Black Woman. I would not have been so bold as to agree to name my edited volume The Death of White Sociology had I not been in the Movement, because it gave me the courage to be bold when necessary.
Some young people have asked me if it wasn’t a burden to be in the Movement, and my response is that if I had not been in the movement, particularly in SNCC, my perspective that enables me as a teacher and a writer to influence people in a certain way that I now have would not have been the case. SNCC provided me the context and the background and the forum for my enlightenment. It was through SNCC that I was exposed to other blacks and whites my age that felt the same way about justice and equality as I did. We all shared the common dream that one day we would create a society in which racial oppression and poverty would be eliminated. We literally risked our lives for our beliefs, even though at the time we weren’t thinking a lot about risking lives. It was a danger, but we tried to figure out how to minimize the danger to the extent possible.
We fractured family ties with parents who were terrified that we would be killed and in some cases bring dishonor to them. My mother was not a civil rights activist by any stretch of the imagination, but she had taught me to stand up for what I believe, and she never ever told my sister and me not to participate. My younger sisters told me recently that mother used to sit and wonder where her girls were. We could have been anywhere in the country fighting for civil rights. But that was not just the way for us, but for all of us. We were out there, doing things. We lived on nine dollars and sixty-four cents a week after taxes (when it was available, that was SNCC’s salary). So my commitment to civil rights did not begin with SNCC, but somewhere in my DNA, passed down through my mother’s lineage, we were told that we were as good as anybody, and that we should not allow anyone to walk over us. I was in elementary school and I remember crying when mother explained that we couldn’t go to the new red brick school, because that was for whites only. We had to continue to go to the dilapidated frame school with its white peeling paint that was built for blacks only, in 1922.
Growing up in the South caused blacks and whites to suffer from the inability to express themselves freely, to associate with whomever they wanted; to have their intellectual development stifled by parochialism, and by the censorship of books and newspapers and films. In some ways white youngsters were as deprived as I was. They couldn’t decide such things as who their friends could be, what books they could read, or whom they could marry. In my segregated public school, I was given the used hand-me-down books from the white schools. After the white kids had used the books for five years, they were then sent to the black schools. I used to wonder who were the people whose names appeared in the books. What did they look like? What were their interests? Sometimes we played a game called “Guess Who,” as in “Guess who got Mary Simmons’s book this year?”
Another reason I joined the Civil Rights Movement was because racial segregation made absolutely no sense to me. Why should there be three separate public toilets for white women, white men, and colored? Or why should my entire existence be determined by my skin color? Why should my father make one-third the salary of the white auto mechanics at the dealership where he worked? And, as I said, receive no benefits whatever?
Our parents could not fortify us against the knives of injustice, and the knowledge that our skin color and our poverty were reasons for our oppression, but we in the movement felt we had to fight to keep our children from having to go through these experiences. I was fortunate to have been closely mentored by several Mississippi heroes—three men who had a profound influence on my life, [who] all died for their beliefs. Vernon Dahmer was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan when they shot and firebombed his home. He got his wife and daughter out and went back in and got his shotgun and started shooting, but he was burned, had smoke inhalation, and he died later that morning. Medgar Evers was assassinated by Byron De La Beckwith. And another man, Clyde Kennard, who was one of the people who drove that car up to Jackson when I was a little girl—he tried to enter the Mississippi Southern College, he was arrested for receiving stolen property: five dollars and sixty-five cents worth of chicken feed. He was sentenced to six years in Parchman Penitentiary for that crime. He got colon cancer when he was there, and died. I went home to see him soon after he got out of jail, and two things I remember. All the walls of his rooms were lined with books. I had never seen that before. And the second was that he had no bitterness toward anyone.
So, in closing, I can say that all of us here—the three of us—participated in the sit-ins, and we were arrested. I spent a week in jail, by the way, for going and trying to integrate a white Methodist church. I didn’t go to church again for years—twenty years. I was wasted. I worked on the March on Washington staff along with another SNCC member, Courtland Cox. We were organizers under Bayard Rustin, and what a treat that was. We were contemporaries of people like Julian—Julian Bond—and Stokely, and all the other friends of ours, some living, some passed on.
And if I should find one thing to say in closing, it is that when young people ask me today, “What should we do?”—I was on a panel at the national archives back in March, and a young woman from Chicago said, “At our staff meetings, sometimes, a lot of the times, we ask, ‘What would Ella Baker do?'” I started laughing. And she said, “Why are you laughing?” I said, “Because I don’t know what Ella Baker would do. Even she probably didn’t know at the time.” And she said, “Well, what would SNCC do?” I said, “I have no idea.” Because our process was such that it was so dialectical, back and forth, and a staff meeting could go till three in the morning and then pick up again at ten the next day after we slept a few hours and started the process all around again. But what I was trying to get her to understand, was, to paraphrase Fanon, is that each generation must define its own mission, and fulfill it or betray it in its own way.