People throughout history helped pave the way for King and civil rights
BY JEAN NASH JOHNSON
The Dallas Morning News
Martin Luther King Jr.: The name is universal, etched into the American psyche.
Ask any schoolchild and he probably can recite Dr. King’s many civil rights accomplishments.
But long before there was a March on Washington, a Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, bus boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides and an MLK holiday, champions not often found in U.S. history textbooks were making their own marks for freedom.
Dating back to the pre-Revolutionary War period, slavery, abolition and the Jim Crow-era of segregation, other less-known Americans fought the good fight.
Here is a celebration of centuries of unsung heroes who paved the way for the modern civil rights movement. Pre-1700s
•When Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón moved from Spain to settle in what is now Jamestown, Va., he brought Africans with him. He founded a colony that thrived until the mid-1520s, when he died and was replaced by a more repressive leader. Africans fought the new regime, and many fled and established their own colony in Virginia.
•Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave, is believed to be the first American to die in the Revolutionary War. On March 5, 1770, Attucks was at the head of a crowd of rowdy Bostonians taunting British soldiers. He was believed to have provoked the attack by striking one of the soldiers. The soldiers shot Attucks and 10 other Americans, killing or fatally wounding five of them.
•In 1730, 96 slaves aboard the ship Little George gained control of the vessel from the crew. Some White crew members were thrown overboard, and others were sequestered. The Africans successfully navigated the ship back to Africa, where they escaped to freedom.
•Elizabeth Freeman, also known as Mumbet, was born about 1742 and worked for Col. John Ashley, one of Massachusetts’ wealthiest merchants.
Her face was badly scarred when she took a blow from a hot kitchen shovel intended for her sister. Freeman later fled the Ashley house, vowing never to return. Col. Ashley attempted to recover her legally, but Freeman sought help from attorney Theodore Sedgwick, insisting that she could argue for her freedom. The law said that all were born free and equal, and she said she was certainly included.
Sedgwick took the case and won. The jury even awarded Freeman damages. Her case set the precedent in Massachusetts that the Bill of Rights in fact abolished slavery.
•Black nationalist Henry Highland Garnet was one of the more militant anti-slavery leaders in the early 19th century. Along with Frederick Douglass, he was a major player in the abolitionist movement. He argued in 1864 at the National Convention of Colored Citizens in Syracuse, N.Y., that Black people should be equal to Whites and live separately. He had said this to one resistance group: “Brethren arise, arise. Strike for your lives and liberties.
Now is the day and the hour: Let every slave throughout the land do this, and the days of slavery are numbered.”
•On July 2, 1839, the most famous slaveship rebellion took place aboard the Spanish vessel La Amistad.
While the ship was transporting captured Africans along the Cuban coast, the slaves, led by Joseph Cinque, tried unsuccessfully to redirect the ship to Africa. The USS Washington captured the ship, and the slaves were taken to New London, Conn.
The mutiny case went before the U.S. Supreme Court, where Cinque and his fellow Africans were represented by former President John Quincy Adams and won the right to return to Africa.
•In the mid-1800s, Harriet Tubman was one of the formidable conductors of the Underground Railroad, the system that helped slaves, mostly in the South, escape to freedom. Tubman was the most famous, but other Blacks and Whites played pivotal roles in the system’s success.
Levi Coffin, a Quaker, helped nearly 2,000 runaway slaves, and Washington, D.C., cab operator Leonard Grimes used his cab not only to taxi wealthy Whites, but also to carry slaves to freedom.
Tubman was never captured, but Grimes was apprehended on one of his trips to Virginia and spent two years in prison in Richmond. Coffin and other Whites who risked their lives were rarely arrested.
•Abraham Lincoln called author Harriet Beecher Stowe the little woman who started the Civil War. With the publication of her “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in 1852, she denounced slavery with her sympathetic portrayal of the slave Uncle Tom. Her characterization of Tom as a human being set off a new attitude among Northerners toward slaves. The book became a play, which toured the North.
•John Brown is one of the most widely known White abolitionists. He believed he was sent by God to abolish slavery. With funding from New England anti-slavery organizations, he and his followers raided several of Virginia’s established plantations. In 1859, with fewer than 50 men, he raided an arsenal at Harpers Ferry,Va., to get ammunition to level an attack on Virginia slave owners. He was captured by Robert E. Lee and hanged after a trial, where he was convicted of “treason, conspiracy and advising slaves and others to rebel and murder in the first degree.”
Brown was urged by his lawyer to plead insanity, but he refused.
Of the five Blacks who also were caught, two were killed fighting U.S. troops, two were hanged, and one escaped.
•J In 1800, Denmark Vesey was allowed to buy his freedom for the $600 he won in a Charleston, S.C., street lottery.
The West-Indian-born Vesey was familiar with the Haitian slave revolt of the 1790s and became dissatisfied with his second-class citizenship. He also was aware that others with no freedom were worse off. In 1822, a frustrated Vesey planned an uprising ofcity and plantation Blacks.
The plan was recorded as the most extensive slave revolt in U.S. history, calling for the radicals to seize guardhouses and arsenals, take arms, kill all Whites, burn and destroy Charleston and subsequently free the slaves.
Though it is a disputed figure, it was believed that 6,000 to 9,000 Blacks were involved.
A Black house servant warned White authorities of the insurrection plan, and because of the massive military preparations to counterattack, Vesey’s plan remained stalled for two months. During that period, 130 Blacks were arrested, and in the trials that followed, 67 were convicted of an attempted insurrection.
Vesey was among about 35 of that number hanged. Four White men also were sent to prison for encouraging the plot.
•Many students of Black history are familiar with the great abolitionist Sojourner Truth, a popular speaker in the 1840s during the revival movement in the Northeast. Her folk manner and wry humor were disarming to many anti-abolitionists. What is probably not as well-known is Sojourner Truth’s active role in equal rights for women. In the 1850s, she was one of the first Black women to participate in the women’s rights movement.
During one speech on women’s rights, a man questioned her gender and she bared her breast at great embarrassment to him.
•Pennsylvania abolitionist and physician Martin Delaney was one of the few educated Blacks of his time, and he used his intellect to launch a militant opposition to slavery. In the 1840s he started a weekly newspaper, the Mystery, which printed grievances of American Blacks and also championed women’s rights. The newspaper had an outstanding reputation, and its stories often were reprinted in the mainstream White press. In the late 1840s, Delaney worked with abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass in Rochester, N.Y., where they published another weekly, the North Star.
Delaney also was one of the first Blacks to be admitted to Harvard Medical School. He later helped recruit troops for the renowned Civil War 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, which he served as a surgeon. In February 1865, the doctor was made a major, the first Black man to receive a regular Army commission.
•There’s no disputing Booker T. Washington’s place in Black history. But his behind-the-scenes operating style is not as commonly known. For instance, on Oct. 16, 1901, President Teddy Roosevelt broke with segregationists and invited the Black leader to dine at the White House. This infuriated Southern Whites but created pride in the Black community, in spite of opposition among some Black Americans to Washington’s moderate style.
Washington did not favor public political resistance by Blacks, but he constantly defended Black social and political rights. He secretly helped finance efforts to end discrimination on Pullman railroad cars, and he contributed money to lawyers who fought to overturn Texas and Alabama laws that excluded Blacks from participating in juries.
•Trade unionist and civil rights leader Asa Philip Randolph was a strategic champion of fair labor practices for Blacks. In the early 1910s, he and activist Chandler Owen organized an employment agency for Black workers. In 1917, the two started The Messenger, a magazine that called for more positions in the war industry and the armed forces for Blacks. Randolph also established the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and began organizing Black workers groups. (Half the affiliates of the American Federation of Labor barred Blacks.)
When Randolph warned President Franklin D. Roosevelt that he would lead thousands in a protest march on Washington, the president issued an executive order June 25, 1941, that barred discrimination in defense industries and federal bureaus and created the Fair Employment Practices Committee.
After World War II, Randolph established the League for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation, which resulted in an executive order by President Harry S. Truman banning segregation in the armed forces. The seed planted in 1941 led Randolph to help lead the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963.
•Social activist and writer Mary Church Terrell was co-founder and first president of the National Association of Colored Women, founded in 1896. Terrell was an advocate for women’s suffrage and Blacks’ rights. As a member of the integrated National American Woman Suffrage Association, she particularly fought for the concerns of Black women.
She was named to the District of Columbia Board of Education in 1895, the first Black woman to hold such a position. At the suggestion of W.E.B. Du Bois, she was made a charter member of the NAACP. In her final act as activist, Terrell led a successful three-year fight to end segregation in public eating places and hotels in Washington, D.C., in 1953.
•Newspaper editor and activist Charlotta Spears Bass argued so boldly for civil rights that many believed she was ahead of her time.
Her influential words and style were later used in the early days of the 1950s-’60s civil rights movement.
When she became editor in 1912 of the California Eagle, the oldest Black West Coast paper in the country, the paper directed its focus to political and social issues important to its constituency.
The paper often wrote about unfair treatment of Blacks in education, employment and politics. In doing so, Bass had to face down a strong Ku Klux Klan presence in California in the ’40s and ’50s.
She later went into politics, and in 1952 she became the first Black woman to run for vice president, campaigning for the Progressive Party.
•In the 1940s, actor/athlete Paul Robeson epitomized the use of celebrity influence against racism. The Rutgers graduate was best known for his dynamic theater portrayals in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones” and “All God’s Chillun Got Wings,” and Shakespeare’s “Othello.”
He stirred his greatest controversy in the late ’40s when he publicly denounced U.S. policy against the Soviet Union, proclaiming that Blacks would not fight against a government that was free of racism and prejudice.
He was Blackballed from acting and targeted by the U.S. government. He was not granted a passport.
He also was stripped of his honors as an athlete. His name was removed from the list of All-Americans for the years he played for Rutgers, and he was refused membership in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Robeson never relented and insisted that he had the right to free speech against racism in America.
•It was the vision and influence of Ella Baker, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, that led to the creation of the pivotal Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Baker organized the group in 1960, insisting that students needed a voice and organization of their own. In a ’60s climate of rising Black anger, the committee criticized the conference and other groups such as the Congress of Racial
Equality for their lack of immediate leadership in Black communities, and it later spun off, offering a more direct small-group approach to community involvement.
The group elected Stokely Carmichael as its leader in 1966. He coined the phrase “Black power” and led the group away from its original commitment to integration and toward the goal of separate community building.