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 / Winter 2005 / Issue 41(originally published by Booz & Company)


Beauty Parlors, Barbershops, and Boardrooms

But energy like that also needs to be contained; if it continues without boundaries, it dissipates. In the case of the civil rights movement, a variety of groups gradually took on the authority and legitimacy to “contain” the movement, and structure and amplify it. Mary McLeod Bethune, a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt’s, had started the National Council of Negro Women to teach women how to can food and make clothing, with the aim of raising healthy children. By the late 1950s, this group had 500,000 women members; they ran the charity events, like chicken sales and baby contests, that kept many churches alive. Under its subsequent president, Dorothy Height, the council played a critical role in organizing people and building awareness. Another key organization was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, led by A. Philip Randolph, the first successful effort to organize black labor. My father and I rode up and down the East Coast without buying a ticket; and the group would carry notes from one leader to another. We didn’t have to use the postal system. The black universities, such as Howard and Morehouse, and key fraternities such as Omega Psi Phi, became focusing points. So did a renowned institute called the Highlander Folk School, which a former divinity student named Miles Horton had started as a place where people could conduct interracial discussions about changing the social climate of the Southern states. It was Highlander faculty members Septima Clark and Zilphia Horton, along with Pete Seeger, who adapted a gospel hymn into the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” Rosa Parks was a student there, not long before the Montgomery bus incident in 1955.

Doing It Ourselves
In short, by the time Rosa Parks’s feet got tired, a large field of conversational energy was already in place. There had also been several dress rehearsals for her act of defiance. The Prince Edward County court case had started with one of them. The high school was a ramshackle brick building and two tarpaper shacks, far too small to hold all the kids. A 16-year-old student named Barbara Johns couldn’t take it any more; she spent days in the woods near the farm where she lived, writing in a journal that was later found and quoted in histories of the movement. One day she wrote, “I wish a storm would come along and blow down the school. Then they would have to rebuild it and give us everything we want. But that’s not going to happen.” Soon afterward, she wrote that she wished the storm would come and then a “rich white Northern man” would build a new school. “But that’s not going to happen either.”

Still later, she wrote just one line: “If we want it to change, we have to do it ourselves.” She came back to school, and she and three friends sat out in the middle of the athletic field where nobody could hear them. To all appearances they were talking about dating and sports. But they were organizing a boycott. Each of them began talking to other friends whom they trusted not to say anything. Finally, one April day, all 450 students walked out of the high school, into the heart of town, on a visible strike. This took courage beyond courage, but it wasn’t unique; another group of students staged a similar walkout that year in South Carolina, which ultimately became the basis for one of the other Brown plaintiff cases.

Barbara knew my father through her uncle, the Reverend Vernon Johns, a brilliant man who was my father’s mentor and my own. He was also Martin Luther King Jr.’s predecessor as the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. My father joined the case as an advocate for all the black children in the county and their parents. When the courts ruled that the schools had to be integrated, the local government locked the schools in response, which meant that for several years, the black students of Prince Edward County, including me, had no formal education. (The white students went to segregated academies using a voucher system invented for that purpose.) And we responded, in turn, by doing something that turned out to be absolutely critical: continuing to hold the aspiration that we would eventually have state-run integrated schools. In fact, many of us kept following the same lessons and reading the same books that we were missing so that when the schools finally reopened, we could resume the levels commensurate with our ages.

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