Many of the men and women advancing meaningful change all over the South were children or teenagers when Martin Luther King delivered his How Long? Not Long speech in Montgomery, Alabama, 50 years ago this week. On March 25, 1965, they might’ve watched television coverage of Dr. King telling 25,000 people, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” They might’ve drawn inspiration from the crowds of weary marchers who’d just arrived from Selma.
While many Americans still picture that address and other milestones of the civil rights movement in grainy, black-and-white footage, others experienced the harsh reality of the era in garish color – vivid images that would direct the long arcs of their lives.
For Sophia Bracy Harris, Executive Director of the Federation of Childcare Centers of Alabama, a dedication to education began when she and her siblings encountered obstacles on their path to college. “We recognized that while our teachers were very dedicated, they didn’t have what was necessary in our school: equipment, biology equipment and various other resources to help us succeed at places like Tuskegee Institute,” Harris said. “We had a number of things to happen to our family and to my sister being arrested two weeks after we had entered this school…and being expelled and put in jail for hitting a white boy back who had hit her with a slingshot rock. And then after four months, when the Justice Department was brought in through the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the American Friends Service Committee, the eve of her return to school, our house was firebombed. … The feeling of injustice and violation was strong.”
Harris won a scholarship to attend Auburn University, where she honed her passion for early childhood education. “I just discovered again in a very powerful way what the impact of adults could be on the life of a child in terms of who they are – the sense of themselves, self-esteem.”
Teaching gave way to advocacy when Alabama’s legislature passed new licensing requirements for preschools. “Sitting in that Tabernacle Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama, listening to these people talk about their fears…a number of these people were displaced schoolteachers from the desegregation of schools. So there was a great deal of paranoia, a great deal of concern about what this meant, having our very young children placed in the hands of individuals who didn’t care about them, didn’t consider them to be fully human – what that meant to their communities.”
Harris is one of many leaders whose dedication to a cause began in childhood. Now Lead Organizer at Jeremiah Group, Jackie Jones’ lifetime of activism also began with strife in the classroom. “I didn’t know that I was organizing. But as a person of color who integrated one of the first Jefferson Parish public schools, I experienced and walked into an environment of injustice,” Jones said. “I realized I never wanted people – my children or my grandchildren – to experience what I had experienced as a seventh-grade student in the public school system.”
For Self Help Credit Union CEO Martin Eakes, racial violence and economic segregation in his North Carolina hometown triggered his life’s work: “I grew up in an all-black community, and what changed me was that I saw my friends be destroyed, just simply because of their financial circumstance and the color of their skin,” said Eakes. “A group of my friends started the Community for Self Help while I was still in graduate school. We chartered it in 1980 and started two months after the Klan shootings in Greensboro in November of 1979.”
Eakes and his friends looked to the previous generation for guidance. “The original goal that we had was to take the gains from the civil rights movement, of which there had been many, and translate them, along with the women’s movement, into the economic arena,” Eakes said. “Legal rights without economic opportunity and economic advancement would be very hollow and almost counter-productive. If we didn’t enable families to send their kids to school or to buy a home or to have savings that would keep them from the door of outright impoverishment whenever some accidental thing happened in the family, the families wouldn’t be able to be stable.”
Scott Douglas was a teenager when Dr. King stood before the capitol in Montgomery. He began his career working with the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice alongside icons like Fred Shuttlesworth and Anne Braden. Now he’s Executive Director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, which was formed after the peak of the civil rights movement to mobilize the faith community to tackle ongoing problems, particularly poverty. Begun by the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church, it now includes 18 Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith communities.
Douglas outlined the organization’s most basic function: “Our really long-term goal is to contribute to the building of society where no one is needlessly disconnected from the necessities and the amenities of life, the bread and roses of life. Enough food, enough housing, enough health care, enough jobs, enough income, enough recreation and enough education for a full, sustaining life. … To be denied that is to have your own humanity denied. To deny other people that is to have your own humanity denied.”
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