While we near the end of celebrating Black History Month 2015, an acknowledgement of white people in civil rights is warranted. As the only black student in my Temple graduate classes, I often reflect on my years teaching K-12 education. I remember most that when I taught American History in both high and middle school, many of my students exclaimed two resounding sentiments: “I hate white people” or “White people are evil!” These outcries usually occurred as a consequence of instruction on American chattel slavery, the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement.
As an African American, I understood my students’ outrage at the horrific, inhumane and unjust treatment of blacks at the hands of some white Americans. I also understood and emphasized to my students that not all whites participated in the enslavement and subsequent oppression of black people in America. I considered it a disservice not to instruct my students that many white people from all walks of life fought and risked their lives to abolish slavery and end Jim Crow segregation via abolitionist and civil rights movements.
In addition to the infamous murders of three civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in 1964 Mississippi, another salient example of whites in civil rights includes the life of Juliette Hampton Morgan. According to listverse.com, Morgan was a true Southern belle, socialite and highly educated white woman, with all the advantages of wealth and prestige. However, her one glaring weakness led to her involvement in the civil rights movement. Morgan couldn’t drive, so she rode the city buses in Montgomery, Alabama. She became incensed at the horrible treatment of black passengers and stood up for them at every opportunity. As a librarian, Morgan began writing letters to the local newspaper, advocating for the fair treatment of black people.
As a result, she became a target of all manner of attacks, including taunting at work, mocking by bus drivers and white passengers and public humiliation. The situation escalated when a cross was burned into her lawn. When she continued to write, she received numerous death threats and attempts to have her fired. She ultimately could not withstand the assaults and resigned her post on July 15, 1957, and was found dead the next morning from an intentional overdose of pills. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote of her in his book, “Strive Towards Freedom: The Montgomery Story,” saying that she was the first to draw parallels between the movement and Gandhi in her letters to the editor. She was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 2005, nearly 50 years following her death.
Fortunately the recently released film “Selma” – a poignant chronology of the struggle for black voting rights in Mississippi – captures the ways in which white Americans marched on the front lines in the quest for black suffrage. In fact, a host of white people were active agents in several civil rights movement events including the Freedom Rides, Freedom Summer, the Sit-In Movement and the historic March on Washington. Today, we find white people marching and protesting the controversial deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
The purpose of this letter is not to discount the existence of racism in America. The sad reality is that America has been a slave country longer than a free country. But, as we celebrate the brave men and women who contributed to making America live up to its promise of freedom, liberty and justice for all, we would be remiss to not include, honor and celebrate white figures that play a role in civil rights movements.
Sharron Scott is a doctoral student. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org