Category Archives: Civil Rights

The Police Have Been Spying on Black Reporters and Activists for Years. I Know Because I’m One of Them.

Wendi C. Thomas is a black journalist who has covered police in Memphis. She learned during a police surveillance trial that the Memphis Police Department spied on her and three other journalists. One officer admitted to spying on her. She’s on a long list of prominent black journalists and activists who have been subjected to police surveillance over decades.

by Wendi C. Thomas, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On Aug. 20, 2018, the first day of a federal police surveillance trial, I discovered that the Memphis Police Department was spying on me.

The ACLU of Tennessee had sued the MPD, alleging that the department was in violation of a 1978 consent decree barring surveillance of residents for political purposes.

I’m pretty sure I wore my pink gingham jacket — it’s my summer go-to when I want to look professional. I know I sat on the right side of the courtroom, not far from a former colleague at the city’s daily newspaper. I’d long suspected that I was on law enforcement’s radar, simply because my work tends to center on the most marginalized communities, not institutions with the most power.

One of the first witnesses called to the stand: Sgt. Timothy Reynolds, who is white. To get intel on activists and organizers, including those in the Black Lives Matter movement, he’d posed on Facebook as a “man of color,” befriending people and trying to infiltrate closed circles.

Projected onto a giant screen in the courtroom was a screenshot of people Reynolds followed on Facebook.

My head was bent as I wrote in my reporter’s notebook. “What does this entry indicate?” ACLU attorney Amanda Strickland Floyd asked.

“I was following Wendi Thomas,” Reynolds replied. “Wendi C. Thomas.”

I sat up.

“And who is Wendi Thomas?” Floyd asked.

She, he replied, used to write for The Commercial Appeal. In 2014, I left the paper after being a columnist for 11 years.

It’s been more than a year since a judge ruled against the city, and I’ve never gotten a clear answer on why the MPD was monitoring me. Law enforcement also was keeping tabs on three other journalists whose names came out during the trial. Reynolds testified he used the fake account to monitor protest activity and follow current events connected to Black Lives Matter.

My sin, as best I can figure, was having good sources who were local organizers and activists, including some of the original plaintiffs in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the city.

In the days since cellphone video captured white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin squeezing the life out of George Floyd, a black man, residents in dozens of cities across the country have exercised their First Amendment rights to protest police brutality.

Here in Memphis, where two-thirds of the population is black and 1 in 4 lives below the poverty line, demonstrators have chanted, “No justice, no peace, no racist police!”

The most recent protests were sparked by the killings of Floyd and of Breonna Taylor, a black woman gunned down in her home by Louisville, Kentucky, police in March. But in Memphis, like elsewhere, the seeds of distrust between activists and police were planted decades ago. And law enforcement has nurtured these seeds ever since.

A Long History of Spying

In the mid-1960s, the MPD launched a domestic intelligence unit to spy not just on activists, but also on teachers’ meetings, a college black student union and labor organizers. That included Martin Luther King Jr., who came to Memphis in the spring of 1968 to stand in solidarity with underpaid and mistreated black city sanitation workers.

The police surveillance wasn’t conducted just with wiretaps and long lenses, but with snitches planted within local organizations, including spies planted by then-Mayor Henry Loeb, an anti-union segregationist, among sanitation workers who wanted to join a union.

In the iconic photo taken just moments after a gunman shot King on the Lorraine Motel balcony, several people are seen pointing in the direction from which the bullet came. Crouched over King’s body is a man holding a towel to the gaping wound on King’s face. The man, rarely identified in photos, is Marrell “Mac” McCollough, a Memphis cop who was assigned to infiltrate a militant activist group hated by Memphis police. There’s no evidence he was involved with King’s assassination.

Some, including members of King’s family, have long speculated that the assassination was not the work of a lone gunman but orchestrated by federal law enforcement agencies (the FBI famously monitored and harassed King). Both a U.S. House committee independent review in 1979 and a Department of Justice review in 2000 found no basis for this. Still, in 2002, the National Civil Rights Museum, which sits where the motel was, added to its permanent exhibits “Lingering Questions,” which contains hundreds of pieces of evidence, including the bullet plucked from King’s body. One of the questions (that the exhibit does not definitively answer): “Was the Memphis Police Department part of the conspiracy?”

In 1976, the ACLU of Tennessee sued the city, alleging it had violated residents’ First Amendment rights by maintaining records that “contained unverified information and gossip which related exclusively to the exercise of lawful and peaceful activities,” and, according to the complaint, “served no lawful or valid law enforcement purpose.”

A judge agreed and in 1978 signed the Kendrick consent decree, the first such decree in the country, which barred law enforcement from surveilling protesters for political purposes.

Many of today’s protesters know about that ruling, because in 2017 the ACLU of Tennessee sued the city, alleging that police were violating the consent decree by again illegally spying on residents who were exercising their First Amendment rights.

In 2016, protesters had a series of high-profile demonstrations including a May protest at the Memphis Zoo, a spontaneous protest against police brutality in July in which hundreds blocked traffic on the Interstate 40 bridge and a December “die-in” in the mayor’s front yard. After those, according to the lawsuit, the city started a blacklist of residents barred from City Hall without an escort.

It contained the names not just of those who had been arrested at demonstrations, but many who had not, including the mother of Darrius Stewart, a black teen police shot and killed in 2015 following a traffic stop, and a white grandmother who’d made it through a security blockade outside Graceland while black protesters were held back.

Reynolds’ sleuthing made up a good part of the joint intelligence briefings, which were shared with law enforcement agencies and some of the city’s largest corporations, such as FedEx and AutoZone, at the businesses’ request. (Facebook told the MPD it violated the social platform’s terms of service by creating fake accounts and impersonating others.)

In court, the city argued that the surveillance — videotaping demonstrations, using social media collators to sweep up posts about police and Black Lives Matters supporters — was necessary to protect public safety.

But while joint intelligence briefings and internal reports were ostensibly to keep track of potential threats, they were littered with unfounded rumors, misidentified photos of activists and surveillance reports of events that posed no clear threat, such as a black food truck festival.

And while it’s true that the pen is mightier than the sword, there’s nothing about me that screams threat, unless critical reporting on public policy and public officials, including Mayor Jim Strickland, counts.

In 2017, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism covered the anniversary of the bridge protest, but when I tried to get an interview with the mayor, I was rebuffed.

“Objectivity dictates if the mayor does one on one interviews,” wrote Ursula Madden, the city’s chief communications officer in an email. “You have demonstrated, particularly on social media, that you are not objective when it comes to Mayor Strickland.”

I replied that I was disappointed and asked her to point me to any errors of fact I’d made in my coverage. She did not respond.

Nagging Suspicions

I’ve worked as a journalist in Memphis for the last 17 years. I’ve never been a victim of police brutality, but few of my interactions with police have inspired confidence.

In 2014, while I was at The Commercial Appeal, a reader threatened by email to rape me after a column I wrote about Confederate Gen. Nathan B. Forrest. I reluctantly reported the threat to police, but the investigation felt lackluster and no suspect was ever identified.

It nagged at me, and years later, when I tried to learn more about what steps the detective assigned to my case had taken, department officials refused to share any information, even the details of their interview with me.

In July 2015, I covered the demonstrations that followed Stewart’s death by police. I interviewed the teen’s father and posted the video on Instagram.

A few days later, a cousin I hadn’t seen in years stopped by. He wanted to take a quick tour through downtown Memphis. It was dark and rainy. He’s black with long locks and a beard.

I wanted to be a good host, but before I left the house, I tweeted my hesitation: “My cousin is in town for work, leaving tomorrow. He wants to see Downtown. My 1st thought: Do I want to risk an encounter w/ police?”

My fear was not without cause: Less than two weeks earlier, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, had been forced out of her car by an aggressive Texas cop who’d stopped her for failing to signal while changing lanes. A dashboard camera video caught her arrest and three days later, she was found dead in a jail cell. Authorities said she died by suicide.

I was thinking about what happened to Bland and what had happened to Stewart, who had been shot to death by police following a traffic stop the same month.

Just a few miles from home, flashing lights filled my rearview mirror. I pulled over, heart pounding.

I hit record on my cellphone and placed it on the dashboard. You can’t see the officer’s face in the video, which I still have, but you can hear our voices over the windshield wipers. The officer, who was black, asked for my license. I handed it to him and asked why I’d been stopped.

He said my driver’s side headlight was out, but when he leaned over to tap it, he said it was back on.

“I’m not trying to be Sandra Bland tonight,” I told the officer.

The Memphis officer said he was trying to be a nice guy. “You think I want to stand out here in the rain?” he can be heard saying on video.

“Ms. Thomas,” he said, reading my license. “Ms. Wendi Thomas.” I wondered if he recognized my byline. I offered to show him what I had just tweeted but he declined. “Your headlights are working now,” he said. “You be safe, OK?”

“Yeah, but what happens when somebody else pulls me over?” I asked.

“I don’t know what somebody else is gonna do,” he said, “but I know that if you do the right things, if you’re doing the right things, then nothing else can happen but good.”

I now wonder if the police had been following me. The police department did not answer questions for this story.

But at the time, I was paralyzed by fear and wanted to avoid being pulled over again.

I took side streets home.

Why Were You Following Me?

After Reynolds left the stand after naming me as someone he had followed, the judge took a short recess. I headed outside the courtroom and saw Reynolds headed to the elevator.

I followed him. When the doors closed, I stuck out my hand and introduced myself. I asked: Why were you following me on social media?

Although it was chilly in the courtroom, Reynolds was sweating. He said he couldn’t talk about it.

Two days after Reynolds’ testimony, I filed a public records request with the city of Memphis, asking for all joint intelligence briefings, emails or other documents that referenced me or any of the three other journalists that the MPD was following on social media.

Four hundred and thirty three days later, the city produced the records — and I still don’t understand what would make police see me as a threat worthy of surveillance in the name of public safety.

Contained in the documents: A screenshot of a Facebook post that I made on Jan. 28, 2016, while I was on a fellowship at Harvard University. I’d shared a notice about a grassroots coalition meeting to be held that day.

In a joint intelligence briefing was a screenshot of a tweet I’d been tagged in. The original tweet, which at the time police captured it had 11 likes and one retweet, was itself a screenshot of an offensive image a Memphis police officer had allegedly posted on Snapchat.

In another police email was a February 2017 tweet I sent about an upcoming protest, which had been announced on Facebook. It got two likes.

The city of Memphis is pushing back against the judge’s ruling. Its lawyers have asked the court to modify the consent decree, contending that the city can’t participate in a Trump administration public safety partnership if it isn’t allowed to share intelligence with federal agencies.

My battles with the city of Memphis didn’t end with the lawsuit, unfortunately.

In 2018, I was trying to figure out which corporations had answered the mayor’s call to financially subsidize police operations by funneling $6.1 million to the city through a secretive nonprofit, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission.

Strickland wouldn’t divulge the companies’ identities, but he realized that public records I’d requested would. So the mayor’s staff, in conjunction with the Crime Commission and another secretive nonprofit, came up with a plan to release the companies’ names to local journalists before releasing the records to me, I learned through emails released in conjunction with a 2018 public records lawsuit against the Crime Commission.

And this year, I was forced to sue the city after it refused to include me on its media email advisory list despite repeated requests.

The city of Memphis did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

My experiences have shaped the way my newsroom has covered more recent protests, including those in Memphis since Floyd’s death.

A guide on covering protests from the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy notes, “Understand how police use news coverage to surveil black communities. Don’t allow police to use you, or your coverage, to do their jobs.”

We applied these principles to our recent coverage of a civil disobedience training that drew more than 350 people. While we know the names of the people we talked to, if participants weren’t comfortable using their whole name or showing their entire face, we protected their identity.

After all, I know how it feels to know that the police are watching you.


Republished with permission under license from ProPublica.

Birthed by HBCU students, this organization offers important lessons for today’s student activists

by Jelani Favors, Clayton State University

April 15, 2020 marks 60 years since the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, perhaps better known as SNCC, and usually pronounced as “snick.” SNCC became one of the most important organizations to engage in grassroots organizing during the modern civil rights movement and radically transformed youth culture during the decade. Jelani Favors, an associate professor of history and author of a book on how historically black colleges and universities ushered in a new era of activism and leadership, discusses SNCC’s legacy and what lessons it can offer today’s activists.

What role did SNCC play in the civil rights movement?

The founding of SNCC in April 1960 represented an important paradigm shift within the modern civil rights movement. SNCC encouraged black youth to defiantly enter spaces that they had been told to avoid all of their lives. The founding in 1960 resulted in a wave of SNCC activists being sent into the most hostile environments to register voters and mobilize African Americans for change. In doing so, SNCC ushered in the direct action phase of the movement.

Previous generations of activists had embraced lawsuits, such as the 1944 Smith v. Allwright against racial discrimination in voting, and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case against racial segregation in public schools. Previous generations also embraced non-direct protest tactics, such as boycotts, to bring slow change. But the sit-ins – popularized by black college students who would later form SNCC – placed black bodies on the line in ways that other tactics had not. They clogged “five and dime” stores across the South, effectively shutting them down, dramatizing the movement for black liberation as the entire world looked on through television and media coverage.

Black youth courageously courted the danger that often accompanied breaking the color line in the racially segregated South. Their actions resulted in violent clashes that fully displayed the immorality of white segregationists and simultaneously captured the nobility and courage of black youth. Perhaps most importantly, SNCC radically transformed youth culture in America. The organization took a generation of youth that Time magazine had previously labeled in 1951 as the “silent generation,” and ushered in a decade – the 1960s – that would be widely characterized and defined by the militancy and dissent of young Americans.

How did historically black colleges and universities help form SNCC and its agenda?

Black colleges served as the incubators for this militancy. For generations, historically black colleges and universities – also known as HBCUs – exposed students to a “second curriculum” that was defined by race consciousness, idealism and cultural nationalism. These concepts not only blunted the toxic effects of white supremacy, but they also empowered youth and deliberately fitted them with a mission to serve as change agents within their respective communities and professional fields. It was not happenstance that the origins of SNCC were rooted within the crucial intellectual and social spaces that were carved out within HBCUs.

The overwhelming majority of students who convened in Raleigh, North Carolina, on April 15, 1960 were from southern black colleges where the sit-ins had unfolded. And it was also no mistake that they met at Shaw University, an HBCU located in Raleigh. After all, the woman who had the vision to bring those students together – Ella Baker – was a 1927 graduate of Shaw.

For generations, black college alumni like Baker worked within religious institutions, civil rights organizations, labor unions and special interests groups. Their work within these spaces was largely informed by the “second curriculum” they had been exposed to as HBCU students. SNCC was therefore part of a long tradition of radicalism that was cultivated and produced within black colleges. This exposure equipped them with the necessary intellectual and political tools they would use to take on white supremacy and Jim Crow – the system of legalized segregation in the South.

What is SNCC’s legacy?

SNCC had a relatively short lifespan compared to other civil rights organizations. By the end of the decade their operations were defunct. Much of this was due to both external and internal pressures. Nevertheless, SNCC distinguished itself as “the most powerful energy machine” for the freedom struggle. I argue that SNCC was the most important and effective civil rights organization of the 1960s.

Unlike most other organizations, SNCC eschewed “top-down” operations that fostered elitism and “helicopter” tactics in which organizers would swoop in to inspire local folks and then leave them to manage local struggles on their own. SNCC’s objectives were completely opposite. They entered into the most dangerous, racially hostile and violent regions of the country, such as Albany, Georgia, the Delta region of Mississippi, and Lowndes County, Alabama. Once there, they set up operations that listened to and empowered local people, such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Amzie Moore, Unita Blackwell and countless others.

The relationship between SNCC and local people was reciprocal. SNCC activists learned and lived among the black proletariat – sharecroppers, farmers and day laborers. These people’s wisdom, shrewdness and practical knowledge of how to survive and navigate the worst of the Jim Crow South proved invaluable as SNCC took the fight for black liberation into the rural communities and remote areas of the South. Their blueprint became the template for local organizing for the Black Power Movement and beyond. Perhaps most importantly, their actions played a crucial role in expanding the ballot to millions of Americans who had been marginalized by racist policies and violence.

What lessons can today’s student activists learn from SNCC?

Both SNCC’s victories and defeats are very informative on the history of black social movements. Internal debates are both necessary and healthy for activist organizations. However, by 1964 SNCC’s ability to function as a cohesive unit was under serious threat. Disagreements concerning the infusion of young white activists in the organization and field operations, arguments concerning the use of non-violence as a tactic, and debate over other competing ideological tenets, such as Marxism and Black Nationalism, greatly impaired the organization’s ability to keep a unified front.

Perhaps most challenging were the external threats to SNCC’s existence. The potency of SNCC drew the attention of federal and state agencies that wanted to curb its influence and power. SNCC activists were constantly under surveillance. They lived their lives under the looming shadow of intimidation from law enforcement and the threat of being infiltrated. Today’s student activists can and should be wary of arguments that are unproductive and those who seek to derail their organizations with their own toxic agendas.

In spite of these challenges, SNCC presented a model that empowered local communities and radically transformed American democracy. By listening to and learning from aggrieved populations and empowering local folks to carry out their own agendas, today’s student activists can extend the radical tradition established by SNCC.

We'll Never Turn Back (1963) | SNCC Film feat. Fannie Lou Hamer


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Coronavirus quarantines and your legal rights: 4 questions answered

by Latisha Nixon-Jones, University of Oregon

The unknown is frightening. And with the spread of a deadly and communicable disease – the coronavirus is both – individual liberties may be temporarily sidelined to protect the larger community.

Indeed, history has shown us that whenever the United States has encountered a biological threat, the government invariably weighs individual freedoms against the compelling need to protect the rest of us from a widespread epidemic. More often than not, a clampdown on civil liberties occurs. 

As a disaster law scholar, I study vulnerable populations during various stages of disaster response. In the age of coronavirus, people are asking me questions about their rights. Here are some answers.

1. I had contact with someone who has the coronavirus. Am I required to go into quarantine or isolation?

The answer: It depends. The Constitution gives states the power to police citizens for the health, safety and welfare of those within its borders. This means states have the right to quarantine an individual, community or area to protect the surrounding community. With testing supplies in limited quantity and high demand, citizens are strongly encouraged to self-isolate. However, if you are a citizen who came into contact with a person with the coronavirus in a different country and then flew home, CDC officials at the airport have the right to detain you and force you into quarantine.

That said, quarantine and isolation laws vary widely, as do the consequences of breaking them.

In some states – including California, Florida and Louisiana – breaking an order of quarantine or isolation can result in misdemeanor criminal charges. Jail time could be up to a year, along with penalties ranging from US$50 to $1,000.

Those under quarantine can have visitors, but physical interaction may be limited to prevent the spread of the disease. Limitations, depending on your state or local regulation, can include confining you to a specific physical space and barring physical touching, including hugging and kissing.

Quarantined individuals do have the right to challenge the quarantine order.

You can find a list of state laws about quarantine and isolation on the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

Federal, state and local governments have the power to enforce quarantines. 

2. Who can enforce quarantines?

All three levels of government have the power to quarantine.

States can quarantine citizens who present with symptoms within their borders. Local governments can quarantine smaller communities or areas of individuals that present with the coronavirus symptoms. The federal government too has responsibilities; it has the power to prevent the entry and spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries.

And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has the authority to detain and examine anyone arriving in the U.S. suspected of carrying the coronavirus. That includes passengers from airplanes, motor vehicles or ships.

The CDC can also issue a federal isolation or quarantine order, which allows state public health authorities to seek help from local law enforcement to administer and enforce the federal quarantine orders.

3. Under what circumstances can I be tested for coronavirus?

At this time, no legislation has been passed to create a legal right to testing.

You must contact your doctor to get approval to be tested. If you don’t have a doctor, contact your public health authority. Currently not everyone can be tested due to the shortage of tests.

The CDC website bases testing criteria on the following ailments: You have a fever; you develop virus symptoms; you recently traveled to an area with an ongoing spread of the virus; or you have been in contact with someone known to have the coronavirus.

But with the current shortage of tests, you still may not be able to be tested. As testing becomes available, the restrictions on testing may also change.

4. My state has declared a state of emergency; will that affect my rights?

According to the National Governors Association, as of March 17, “State emergency/public health emergency declarations have been issued for each state and territory, as well as the District of Columbia.”

A state of emergency allows a state to activate its emergency or disaster plan, along with the accompanying resources. It also allows states to help with local response efforts, including providing money for personnel and supplies.

The state of emergency can affect your rights because states have used emergency declarations to close or restrict the hours of private businesses, close schools and public buildings, and enforce curfews for citizens.

There are federal-, state- and local-level declarations of emergency.

The power to declare a federal state of emergency is given to the president under the Stafford Act and the National Emergencies Act.

In Oregon, the governor used its state of emergency, according to the Associated Press, to activate “reserves of volunteer emergency health care personnel, especially important in rural areas,” develop guidelines for private businesses and aid employees by defining the coronavirus as a valid cause for sick leave. The addition of the sick leave definition will allow employees to take leave to care for their own sickness or for an immediate family member.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Librarians could be jailed and fined under a proposed Missouri censorship law

Nicole Cooke, University of South Carolina

A bill pending in Missouri’s legislature takes aim at libraries and librarians who are making “age-inappropriate sexual material” available to children.

The measure, championed by Ben Baker, a Republican lawmaker, calls for establishing review boards who would determine whether materials in libraries contain or promote “nudity, sexuality, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse.” In addition, the boards, which would be comprised of parents, would root out materials lacking “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

Librarians who defy the review boards by buying and lending such materials would be subject to misdemeanor charges, fines upward of US$500, and a potential jail sentence up to one year.

As a librarian, and now as an educator who teaches aspiring librarians, I see this bill as the latest chapter in a long history of books being banned from public and school libraries.

A sign of the times. 

Censorship and book banning

Often, efforts to censor and muzzle libraries originate with members of the public rather than public officials or school leaders.

Censoring and banning library materials and programs is nothing new. Many classic books have been challenged and banned, including classroom favorites like “1984” by George Orwell, “The Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salinger, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou.

The children’s book “And Tango Makes Three,” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell and illustrated by Henry Cole, was challenged and banned from libraries around the country for many years after its publication in 2005. The picture book is based on a true story of two male penguins in New York City’s Central Park Zoo who adopt and care for an egg and then keep caring for their daughter, Tango, after she hatched.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is also regularly challenged and banned.

Separately, opponents of the storytime program known as “Drag Queen Story Hour” at libraries and other community venues, have held protests to ban and condemn such events aimed at children. The objections voiced by protesters stem from their belief that drag performers are evil and amoral and that exposure to drag queens will, in their view, cause children to become gay.

The Missouri bill is not the first of its kind. State lawmakers in Colorado and Maine both tried to pass similar legislation in 2019. Both efforts failed.

The drag queens who read to kids in libraries are attracting protesters. 

A profession

American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, the Missouri Library Association, and PEN America – a nonprofit that defends free expression – are among the literary and library groups that have voiced their objections.

Many of the drag queens who read to kids are planning a protest against the measure on March 7. Baker has said his concerns about these readings were a factor in inspiring him to draft the bill.

Librarians are professionals. Librarians working in K-12 school libraries also earn certification as school library media specialists. Librarians have expertise in children’s literature, collection development, child development, psychology, readers’ advisory, reference services and other specialized skills needed to serve children and young adults in a variety of settings.

In short, librarians are more than capable of selecting and purchasing quality books and other materials for people of all ages.

To imply otherwise, as I believe the proposed Missouri measure would, is to insult these skilled educators. If it should be enacted, I would consider it a potential threat to information access, intellectual freedom and the freedom to read.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

KKK Murder of Colonel Lemuel Penn

Lemuel Augustus Penn (September 19, 1915 – July 11, 1964) was the Assistant Superintendent of Washington, D.C. public schools, a decorated veteran of World War II, the father of two daughters Linda, 13, Sharon, 11, one son Lemuel Jr., 5. and a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army Reserve, who was murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan, nine days after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Article about Lemuel Penn’s murder.

Lemuel Penn joined the Army Reserve from Howard University and served as an officer in World War II in New Guinea and the Philippines, earning a Bronze Star. Penn was driving home, together with two other black Reserve officers, Major Charles E. Brown and Lieutenant Colonel John D. Howard, had just completed reserve training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and were driving home to Washington, D.C. The veterans had been spotted in Athens by local Ku Klux Klan members who followed them to a nearby bridge and shot at the car, killing Penn at the age of 48.

Their Chevrolet Biscayne was spotted by three white members of the United Klans of America – James Lackey, Cecil Myers, and Howard Sims – who noted its D.C plates. Howard Sims – one of the killers – then said "That must be one of President Johnson's boys", evidently motivated by racial hatred. The Klansmen followed the car with their Chevy II with Sims saying "I'm going to kill me a nigger".

Penn was shot to death on a Broad River bridge on the Georgia State Route 172 in Madison County, Georgia, near Colbert, twenty-two miles north of the city of Athens. Just before the highway reaches the Broad River, the Klansmen's Chevy II pulled alongside the Biscayne. The Klansman, Cecil Myers, raised a shotgun and fired. From the back seat, Howard Sims, also a member of the Ku Klux Klan, did the same.

After authorities arrived at the scene, rural lawmen poking flashlights into the car and shined them on Penn’s body, lying on the floorboard. “What’s been goin’ on here?” one officer drawled suspiciously at Brown and Howard. Then came the long hours of questioning, by local officials first, then state officials, and finally federal officials. There seemed to be a tone in the questioning that somehow Penn, Brown, and Howard had caused trouble, and that this was their retribution.

President Lyndon B. Johnson pledged the full resources of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) toward solving the murder. Over the course of the next several weeks, FBI agents combed for clues in and around Athens, gathering ample evidence of criminal activity conducted by local Klan members. After weeks of investigation, state prosecutors brought first-degree murder charges against two local white men, Cecil Myers and Joseph Howard Sims. Despite considerable evidence indicating their guilt, an all-white jury in Madison County acquitted both men on September 4, 1964.

Georgia Penn, Lemuel Penn's Wife

Slightly more than a year later, Penn’s wife Georgia died at the age of forty-nine. Friends said it was from the grief after her husband’s death.

An army caisson, drawn by six grays, approached the Arlington National Cemetery gravesite to the strains of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” played by the army band. The caisson was the same one that had carried President John E Kennedy’s body to his grave seven months earlier. The music changed to “Abide With Me ” as the casket was lifted over the grave. 

The grave marker of Lemuel Penn at Arlington National Cemetary.

Penn's murder was the basis of the Supreme Court case United States v. Guest, 383 US 745 (1966), in which the Court affirmed the ability of the government to apply criminal charges to private conspirators, who with assistance from a state official, deprive a person of rights secured by the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. 

Federal prosecutors eventually charged both for violating Penn's civil rights under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On June 27, 1966, criminal proceedings began against Sims, Myers, Lackey, and three other local Klansmen, Herbert Guest, Denver Phillips, and George Hampton Turner. Two weeks later, Sims and Myers were found guilty of conspiracy charges by a federal district court jury; their four co-defendants, however, were acquitted. Sims and Myers were sentenced to ten years each and served about six in federal prison. Howard Sims was killed with a shotgun in 1981 at age 58. James Lackey died at age 66 in 2002. Cecil Myers died in 2018 at the age of 79.

Marker in Georgia at the site of Lemuel Penn's murder.

The historical marker erected by the Georgia Historical Society, the Lemuel Penn Memorial Committee, and Colbert Grove Baptist Church at Georgia Highway 172 and Broad River Bridge on the Madison/Elbert County Border states:

On the night of July 11, 1964 three African-American World War II veterans returning home following training at Ft. Benning, Georgia were noticed in Athens by local members of the Ku Klux Klan. The officers were followed to the nearby Broad River Bridge where their pursuers fired into the vehicle, killing Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn. When a local jury failed to convict the suspects of murder, the federal government successfully prosecuted the men for violations under the new Civil Rights Act of 1964, passed just nine days before Penn's murder. The case was instrumental in the creation of a Justice Department task force whose work culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

 The Ballad of Lemuel Penn by Edward David Anderson

Captain Charlton Tandy – Legendary St. Louis Civil Rights Pioneer

Charlton Tandy was born free in a house on Main Street in Lexington, Kentucky on December 16, 1836. His parents John L. (b.1805) and Susan Tandy (b.1815), both Kentucky natives were free only because Charlton's grandparents had purchased the family’s freedom three years before his birth. Tandy and his family used their newfound freedom to help slaves escape across the Ohio River and into the North. Throughout his childhood, Tandy’s family worked to free slaves through the Underground Railroad, and as a young man, Tandy often led slaves on the route from Covington, Kentucky, to freedom in Cincinnati, Ohio. Tandy never forgot those early experiences fighting for freedom for other African Americans and would continue to work for their rights throughout his life.

Charlton Tandy (1836 – 1919)

Tandy moved to St. Louis in 1857 and worked Tandy Moved to St. Louis in 1857 and worked as a porter, coachman, and waiter until the Civil War began when he became post messenger at Jefferson Barracks. He enlisted and served bravely in Company B of the 13th regiment of the Missouri State Militia. The war proved good for Tandy’s standing, as he rose from state militia volunteer to captain of “Tandy’s St. Louis Guard,” an African American state militia that he recruited. At the end of the war, Tandy was honorably discharged as a captain. 

His service earned Tandy the notice of several political leaders, and Tandy was able to turn his connections into patronage jobs. Tandy stated that he once took lunch in St. Louis with Gen. Grant and in 1870 dined with Gov. Crittenden at Warrensburg. His positions ranged from U.S. land agent and deputy U.S. Marshal in New Mexico and Oklahoma to Custodian of Records at the St. Louis courthouse. At heart, Tandy was a civil rights activist. Throughout his life, he worked on local issues of interest to Missouri African Americans, including fighting school and transportation segregation.

When the public streetcars in St. Louis routinely pushed black riders from inside seats to dangerous perches hanging on the outside, he organized protests and boycotts to pressure the companies to change policies. White riders could sit down inside the trolley, but black passengers had to ride while hanging on from the outside. This created a particularly dangerous situation because the horse-drawn streetcars were moving along bumpy, muddy roads paved with rough cobblestones. Black riders were often injured and sometimes even killed, simply because they were barred from taking a safer seat inside the trolley.

Williams v Bellefontaine Railway Company

Neptune and Caroline Williams filed a lawsuit against the Bellefontaine Railway line, seeking five thousand dollars in damages and an injunction. One of the conductors had pushed Caroline off when she attempted to board. Caroline who was pregnant was carrying a toddler when the incident took place. By May 1868, the St. Louis circuit court ruled that all public transportation companies had to allow Black people to ride inside the cars, however, the court only awarded one cent to Williams as damages. The streetcar drivers ignored the court order and often passed by black riders. Tandy gained fame by standing near streetcar stops where Black passengers were waiting and stepping into the path to grab the horse’s reins if the driver didn't slow down to stop. In 1870 he organized a boycott against the segregated St. Louis streetcar lines and after time in jail and litigation, integrated the streetcars.

Below is a re-enactment of a conversation that Caroline might have had with her husband Neptune on the night of the incident dramatizes the courage necessary to challenge the status quo in former slave states.

Tandy was a persistent fighter for black civil rights and active in Republican politics. He assisted James Milton Turner in fundraising to establish Lincoln Institute (Lincoln University in Jefferson City), the first school of higher education for blacks in Missouri. He successfully worked to get black educators into the St. Louis public school system. Tandy was the author of the first bill in Missouri providing for the education of negroes. In 1870, Tandy proposed through Nicholas Bell, former Excise Commissioner, a bill for schools for negroes, and it was passed. In the next session, Tandy proposed through Bell a bill for the establishment of a negro high school and it, also, was passed. Nicholas M. Bell stated, "I knew Tandy for 49 years," Bell said, "and no negro did more for his race than he."

Tandy is perhaps best remembered as a champion of the “Exodusters,” he was the first St. Louisan to aid the "Colored Exodus" from the South in 1879, he assisted 2,000 African American migrants who were leaving the post-Reconstruction South for homes in Kansas who became stranded in St. Louis. After the penniless refugees arrived in St. Louis from homes in Louisiana and Mississippi, Tandy organized the Colored Refugee Relief Board.  For the next two years, the group fed, clothed, housed, and bought passage to Kansas for approximately 10,000 migrants. In addition, Tandy publicized the Exodusters’ plight, by speaking in New York, Boston, and other cities, meeting with President Rutherford B. Hayes, and testifying before Congress. In 1880 Tandy testified before the Congressional Voorhees Committee about the exodus of African Americans from the South where he urged Congress to provide aid for these refugees and to investigate and stop the violation of Negro rights in the South. 

Tandy became a lawyer in 1886 when he passed the Missouri Bar Exam and was permitted to practice law in both the district court and the U.S. Supreme Court. President Grant appointed Tandy to the St. Louis Custom House, making him the first African American to be employed there. 

Tandy was also a U.S. Marshall under President Harrison's administration, serving as a special agent of the General Land Office and as a timber inspector. He served as vice president of the Missouri State Republican League and in 1894 was elected to a House seat by the Republicans of the Thirty-second Senatorial District, but he was not allowed to serve.

Tandy was known as a great orator and spoke on behalf of many white politicians. A loyal Republican he did not hesitate to criticize the party for neglecting the needs of Negroes. Tandy organized Negro political clubs to encourage Negroes to vote, run for office and become involved in political parties. He predicted the decline of Republicans in St. Louis politics if they continued to ignore Negroes. His predictions came true.

Captain Charlton H. Tandy died in St. Louis in 1919, and he and his wife Annie are buried in Greenwood Cemetery, where Harriet Scott, the wife of Dred Scott, is also buried.

Tandy is still celebrated for his unending fight for civil rights. In 1938 the Charlton Tandy Recreation Center and Park were founded in the Ville neighborhood near Sumner High School, and continue to serve the community to this day. A St. Louis Zoo train engine was named in Tandy's honor and is still in operation as shown in the video below. 

Captain Tandy serves as an example of the importance of civic engagement and reminds us that we must always fight for what we believe in and know is right.

Free Negro Bonds

Beginning in 1843 and until the end of the Civil War, St. Louis require all free negro to post bonds. “Know all Men by these Presents,” begins the legal boilerplate of the St. Louis free negro bond affidavits. The bond gave Tandy “license to reside in the state of Missouri, during good behavior” — in other words, conditional freedom, despite having never been a slave. If Tandy had gotten into trouble, he and Lester Babcock would have to pay $500 to the county clerk.

Charlton Tandy's free negro bond which. Lester Babcock guaranteed to pay $500 if Tandy violated the terms of the bond.

There were 1,500 such bonds signed in St. Louis alone. Thousands more existed in cities across the South — and, in some cases, the North. Free blacks often faced overwhelming discrimination and local segregation laws.

The richest free blacks could put up the money for these bonds themselves. But most required the signature of white allies, whether former masters, childhood playmates, abolitionist activists or bondmen, who gauged the risk and signed the form for a fee. In St. Louis, the list of white guarantors is a fascinating cross-section of the public: William Greenleaf Eliot, the antislavery Unitarian minister who founded Washington University, but also long-established slaveholding families, including the Chouteaus, the Carrs, the Lucases and the Campbells; the African-American minister and antislavery activist John Berry Meachum and the slave trader Bernard Lynch. These documents testify to the personal white-black relationships that structured the boundaries of slavery and freedom for African Americans in St. Louis.

John Brown – “We Came to Free the Slaves”

John Brown, (May 9, 1800 – Dec. 2, 1859), was an American abolitionist who advocated the use of violence to end slavery in the United States. Brown's family opposed slavery because of their religious beliefs and he was taught that slavery was evil and sinful. As a 12-year-old boy traveling through Michigan, Brown witnessed a young enslaved boy brutally beaten with a shovel by his owner. The gruesome images of the incident haunted Brown for the rest of his life and strongly affected his abolitionism.

John Brown in a c.1847 daguerreotype taken by Black portraitist Augustus Washington

Brown's first public commitment in the abolitionist movement followed the brutal Alton, IL murder of Presbyterian minister, newspaper editor, and anti-slavery activist Elijah P. Lovejoy in 1837. Lovejoy a firm defender of the first amendment and outspoken critic of slavery was shot to death outside of his newspaper's office by an angry Pro-Slavery Mob. The mob also set fire to the office and destroyed the printing press. John Brown attended Lovejoy's memorial service and declared at the time, “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”

For many, it may seem odd to profile a white man during Black History Month. Black history is American history, you can't separate one from the other. John Brown proved more dedicated to ending slavery than just about any other person in history and his extreme actions ignited the Civil War. It's important to recognize his monumental sacrifice as part of Black history.

What have you done to fight the oppression, racism, injustice, or discrimination you and your family face as Black Americans? Would you lay down your life or risk the lives of your children to secure the full freedom that has been denied to Black people in this country? If you're honest with yourself, the answer most likely is no! The sad reality is that most of us wouldn't even jeopardize our jobs or livelihood fighting for freedom! 

Non-violent solutions are the best but sometimes violence is the only way.

In 1847 Frederick Douglass met Brown for the first time in Springfield, Massachusetts. Douglass stated that "though a white gentleman, [Brown] is in sympathy a black man, and as deeply interested in our cause, as though his own soul had been pierced with the iron of slavery." It was at this meeting that Brown first outlined his plan to Douglass to lead a war to free slaves.

John Brown took part in the Underground Railroad, gave land to free African Americans and in response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, established the League of Gileadites, a group formed with the intention of protecting black citizens from slave hunters.

In the spring of 1855, John Brown driving a wagon loaded with rifles followed his five sons John, Jr., Jason, Frederick, Owen, and Salmon to the Kansas Territory. Brown became the leader of antislavery guerillas. Brown did not emerge as a national figure until 1856. Proslavery forces attacked the community of Lawrence on May 21, 1856, burning two printing offices. The night of May 24 and the morning of May 25, 1856, a band of abolitionist settlers using swords took from their residences and killed five "professional slave hunters and militant pro-slavery" settlers which came to be known nationally as the Pottawatomie massacre. In another battle that occurred on August 30, 1856, Brown’s son Frederick was killed and John Brown earned the nickname “Osawatomie Brown.” 

Before the start of the Civil War, ninety percent of the four million Black people in the United States were enslaved. Had it not been for the actions of one man, John Brown, Lincoln may not have been elected President and the Civil War may not have started and slavery may not have ended when it did. 

No white person had a deeper moral hatred of slavery than John Brown. "Talk! Talk! Talk!" he cried. "That will never free the slaves. What is needed is action — action!" John Brown's anti-slavery actions took him away from his wife and younger children, he sacrificed his life and those of his three sons Frederick, Oliver, and Watson trying to free enslaved black people.

Brown returned to the east to plan for a war in Virginia against slavery. Brown discussed his plans with Douglass and later met Harriet Tubman, whom Brown referred to as "General" out of respect for her leading so many slaves to freedom. In October 1859, Brown led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, intending to start a slave revolt that would spread south. He intended to arm slaves with weapons from the arsenal, but only a small number of local slaves joined his revolt.

Harpers Ferry insurrection: Interior of the engine-house. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Nov. 5, 1859.

Within 36 hours, those of Brown's men who had not fled were killed or captured by local farmers, militiamen, and US Marines, the latter led by Robert E. Lee. He was hastily tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, the murder of five men (including three blacks), and inciting a slave insurrection; he was found guilty on all counts and was hanged. He was the first person convicted of treason in the history of the country.

Dick Gregory explains why John Brown is the greatest American of all time

We have many great examples of black men rising up; there were many planned slave revolts the best-known ones led by Nat Turner, Gabriel Prosser, and Demark Vesey. What makes John Brown a hero is the fact that he fought and died for slavery which had NOTHING to do with him. He didn't suffer from slavery but understood it was immoral to participate or just watch it prosper.

It was common to dismiss Brown as an irrational fanatic, or worse. After all, to racists, any white man who’d place himself in harm’s way by taking up arms in order to free Black slaves by definition had to be a lunatic. In the 1940 movie "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" and the pro-Southern film Santa Fe Trail, John Brown was portrayed as an insane wild-eyed madman.

Below is a segment about John Brown from the 1940 movie, "Abe Lincoln in Illinois".

Brown was thought mad because he was willing to sacrifice his life for the cause of blacks, and for this, in a culture that was simply marinated in racism, he was called mad. Harvard historian John Stauffer stated, "He stood apart from every other white in the historical record in his ability to burst free from the power of racism," … "Blacks were among his closest friends, and in some respects, he felt more comfortable around blacks than he did around whites."

John Brown's Courtroom Speech

John Brown delivered his last speech in a courtroom in Charles Town, West Virginia on November 2, 1859. The speech, given one month before his execution, defended his role in the action at Harper’s Ferry. He said:

Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment. This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!

The Last Moments of John Brown by Thomas Hovenden. Done in oil on canvas, depicts John Brown being led to his execution.

The raid on Harpers Ferry is generally thought to have done much to set the nation on a course toward civil war. Southern slaveowners, hearing initial reports that hundreds of abolitionists were involved, were relieved the effort was so small but feared other abolitionists would emulate Brown and attempt to lead slave rebellions. Therefore, the South reorganized the decrepit militia system. These militias, well-established by 1861, became a ready-made Confederate army, making the South better prepared for war.

During the Civil War, the Union hymn “John Brown’s Body” was sung by marching soldiers and paid tribute to the bold abolitionist. The song inspired the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" also known as "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory". 

After the Civil War, Frederick Douglass wrote, "His zeal in the cause of my race was far greater than mine—it was as the burning sun to my taper light—mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the boundless shores of eternity. I could live for the slave, but he could die for him."

How a 15 Year Old Girl Desegregated Buses

Oppression often begins and ends with the law. We hear all about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but we never hear about the lawsuit that actually ended bus segregation.

Most people mistakenly believe Rosa Parks was the first person to refuse to give up their seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Nine months before Rosa Parks defied segregation laws by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin did exactly the same thing. Eclipsed by Parks, her act of defiance was largely ignored for many years. 

Below is the Comedy Central "Drunk History" re-enactment of the event that inspired Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Claudette Colvin (born September 5, 1939) is a retired American nurse aide who was a pioneer of the 1950s civil rights movement. On March 2, 1955, she was arrested at the age of 15 in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat to a white woman on a crowded, segregated bus. This occurred some nine months before the more widely known incident in which Rosa Parks, secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, helped spark the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.

In 1955, Colvin was a student at the segregated Booker T. Washington High School in the city. She relied on the city's buses to get to and from school, because her parents did not own a car.

Colvin was a member of the NAACP Youth Council, and had been learning about the civil rights movement in school. On March 2, 1955, she was returning home from school. She sat in the colored section about two seats away from an emergency exit, in a Capitol Heights bus.

If the bus became so crowded that all the "white seats" in the front of the bus were filled until white people were standing, any African Americans were supposed to get up from nearby seats to make room for whites, move further to the back, and stand in the aisle if there were no free seats in that section. When a white woman who got on the bus was left standing in the front, the bus driver, Robert W. Cleere, commanded Colvin and three other black women in her row to move to the back. The other three moved, but another pregnant black woman, Ruth Hamilton, got on and sat next to Colvin.

The driver looked at them in his mirror. "He asked us both to get up. [Mrs. Hamilton] said she was not going to get up and that she had paid her fare and that she didn't feel like standing," recalls Colvin. "So I told him I was not going to get up either. So he said, 'If you are not going to get up, I will get a policeman.'" The police arrived and convinced a black man sitting behind the two women to move so that Mrs. Hamilton could move back, but Colvin still refused to move. She was forcibly removed from the bus and arrested by the two policemen, Thomas J. Ward and Paul Headley. This event took place nine months before the NAACP secretary Rosa Parks was famously arrested for the same offense.

Colvin later said: "My mother told me to be quiet about what I did. She told me to let Rosa be the one: white people aren't going to bother Rosa, they like her". Colvin did not receive the same attention as Parks for a number of reasons: she did not have ‘good hair’, she was not fair skinned, she was a teenager, she got pregnant. The leaders in the Civil Rights Movement tried to keep up appearances and make the ‘most appealing’ protesters the most seen. Recognition is due for the other people who participated in the movement.

Claudette had been studying Black leaders like Harriet Tubman in her segregated school, those conversations had led to discussions around the current day Jim Crow laws they were all experiencing. When Colvin refused to get up, she was thinking about a school paper she had written that day about the local custom that prohibited blacks from using the dressing rooms in order to try on clothes in department stores. In a later interview, she said: "We couldn't try on clothes. You had to take a brown paper bag and draw a diagram of your foot […] and take it to the store”. Referring to the segregation on the bus and the white woman: "She couldn't sit in the same row as us because that would mean we were as good as her".

"The bus was getting crowded, and I remember the bus driver looking through the rear view mirror asking her [Colvin] to get up for the white woman, which she didn’t,” said Annie Larkins Price, a classmate of Colvin. “She had been yelling, ‘It’s my constitutional right!’. She decided on that day that she wasn’t going to move.” Colvin recalled, “History kept me stuck to my seat. I felt the hand of Harriet Tubman pushing down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth pushing down on the other. I couldn’t get up.” Colvin was handcuffed, arrested, and forcibly removed from the bus. She shouted that her constitutional rights were being violated. Claudette Colvin said, “But I made a personal statement, too, one that [Parks] didn't make and probably couldn't have made. Mine was the first cry for justice, and a loud one."

The police officers who took her to the station made inappropriate comments about her body and took turns guessing her bra size throughout the ride. Price testified for Colvin, who was tried in juvenile court. Colvin was initially charged with disturbing the peace, violating the segregation laws, and battering and assaulting a police officer. "There was no assault," Price said. She was bailed out by her minister, who told her that she had brought the revolution to Montgomery.

Through the trial Colvin was represented by Fred Gray, a lawyer for the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which was organizing civil rights actions. She was convicted on all three charges in juvenile court. When Colvin's case was appealed to the Montgomery Circuit Court on May 6, 1955, the charges of disturbing the peace and violating the segregation laws were dropped, although her conviction for assaulting a police officer was upheld.

Colvin's moment of activism was not solitary or random. In high school, she had high ambitions of political activity. She dreamed of becoming the president of the United States. Her political inclination was fueled in part by an incident with her schoolmate: Jeremiah Reeves. Reeves was found having sex with a white woman who claimed she was raped though Reeves claims their relations were consensual. He was executed for his alleged crimes.

Browder v. Gayle

Together with Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanetta Reese, Colvin was one of the five plaintiffs in the court case of Browder v. Gayle, 142 F. Supp. 707 (1956). Claudette Colvin was the first of the first arrested; the other four women who refused to give up their seats were arrested months after Claudette Colvin. Jeanetta Reese, who worked as a domestic for a high ranking police official, later withdrew from the case. The case, organized and filed in federal court by civil rights attorney Fred Gray, challenged city bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama as unconstitutional.

During the court case, Colvin described her arrest: "I kept saying, 'He has no civil right… this is my constitutional right… you have no right to do this.' And I just kept blabbing things out, and I never stopped. That was worse than stealing, you know, talking back to a white person." 

Browder v. Gayle made its way through the courts. On June 5, 1956, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama issued a ruling declaring the state of Alabama and Montgomery's laws mandating public bus segregation as unconstitutional. State and local officials appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court summarily affirmed the District Court decision on November 13, 1956. One month later, the Supreme Court declined to reconsider, and on December 20, 1956, the court ordered Montgomery and the state of Alabama to end bus segregation permanently.

The Montgomery bus boycott was able to unify the people of Montgomery, regardless of educational background or class.

Colvin was a predecessor to the Montgomery bus boycott movement of 1955, which gained national attention. But she rarely told her story after moving to New York City. The discussions in the black community began to focus on black enterprise rather than integration, although national civil rights legislation did not pass until 1964 and 1965. NPR's Margot Adler has said that black organizations believed that Rosa Parks would be a better figure for a test case for integration because she was an adult, had a job, and had a middle-class appearance. They felt she had the maturity to handle being at the center of potential controversy.

Colvin was not the only woman of the Civil Rights Movement who was left out of the history books. In the south, male ministers made up the overwhelming majority of leaders. This was partially a product of the outward face the NAACP was trying to broadcast and partially a product of the women fearing losing their jobs which were often in the public school system.

In 2005, Colvin told the Montgomery Advertiser that she would not have changed her decision to remain seated on the bus: "I feel very, very proud of what I did," she said. "I do feel like what I did was a spark and it caught on." "I'm not disappointed. Let the people know Rosa Parks was the right person for the boycott. But also let them know that the attorneys took four other women to the Supreme Court to challenge the law that led to the end of segregation."

Another factor was that before long Colvin became pregnant. "They said they didn't want to use a pregnant teenager because it would be controversial and the people would talk about the pregnancy more than the boycott," Colvin says. Claudette Colvin gave birth to a son, Raymond in March 1956. Colvin said that after her actions on the bus, she was branded a troublemaker by many in her community. She had to drop out of college and left Montgomery for New York City in 1958, because she had difficulty finding and keeping work following her participation in the federal court case that overturned bus segregation.

In New York, Claudette Colvin and her son Raymond initially lived with her older sister, Velma Colvin. Claudette got a job as a nurse's aide in a nursing home in Manhattan. She worked there for 35 years, from 1969 till retiring in 2004. Raymond Colvin died in 1993 in New York of a heart attack, aged 37. While living in New York, Claudette had a second son. He gained an education and became an accountant in Atlanta, where he also married and had his own family.

On May 20, 2018 Congressman Joe Crowley honored Colvin for her lifetime commitment to public service with a Congressional Certificate and an American flag.

Colvin has often said she is not angry that she did not get more recognition; rather, she is disappointed. She said she felt as if she was "getting her Christmas in January rather than the 25th.

Colvin and her family have been fighting for recognition for her action. In 2016, the Smithsonian Institution and its National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) were challenged by Colvin and her family, who asked that Colvin be given a more prominent mention in the history of the civil rights movement. The NMAAHC has a section dedicated to Rosa Parks, which Colvin does not want taken away, but her family's goal is to get the historical record right, and for officials to include Colvin's part of history. Colvin was not invited officially for the formal dedication of the museum, which opened to the public in September 2016.

Meet the theologian who helped MLK see the value of nonviolence

by Paul Harvey Professor of American History, University of Colorado Boulder

For African-Americans who grew up with the legacy of segregation, disfranchisement, lynching, and violence, retreat from social struggle was unthinkable. Martin Luther King Jr., however, learned from some important mentors how to integrate spiritual growth and social transformation.

As a historian of American race and religion, I have studied how figures in American history have struggled with similar questions. For some, such as the philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, the answer was to retreat to Walden Pond. But for the African-Americans who grew up with the legacy of segregation, disfranchisement, lynching, and violence, such a retreat was unthinkable. Among them was Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. , chats with African-Americans during a door-to-door campaign in 1964. AP Photo/JAB

On this anniversary of King’s birthday, it’s worth looking at how King learned to integrate spiritual growth and social transformation. One major influence on King’s thought was the African-American minister, theologian, and mystic Howard Thurman.

The influence of Howard Thurman

Born in 1899, Thurman was 30 years older than King, the same age, in fact, as King’s father. Through his sermons and teaching at Howard University and Boston University, he influenced intellectually and spiritually an entire generation that became the leadership of the civil rights movement.

Howard Thurman. On Being, CC BY-NC-SA

Among his most significant contributions was bringing the ideas of nonviolence to the movement. It was Thurman’s trip to India in 1935, where he met Mahatma Gandhi, that was greatly influential in incorporating the principles of nonviolence in the African-American freedom struggle.

At the close of the meeting, which was long highlighted by Thurman as a central event of his life, Gandhi reportedly told Thurman that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.” King and others remembered and repeated that phrase during the early years of the civil rights movement in the 1950s.

Mahatma Gandhi. gandhiserve.org via Wikimedia Commons

Thurman and King were both steeped in the black Baptist tradition. Both thought long about how to apply their church experiences and theological training into challenging the white supremacist ideology of segregation. However, initially their encounters were brief.

Thurman had served as dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953-1965. King was a student there when Thurman first assumed his position in Boston and heard the renowned minister deliver some addresses. A few years later, King invited Thurman to speak at his first pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery.

Ironically, their most serious personal encounter, that gave Thurman his opportunity to influence King personally, and help prepare him for struggles to come, came as a result of a tragedy.

A crucial meeting in hospital

On Sept. 20, 1958, a mentally disturbed African-American woman named Izola Ware Curry came to a book signing in upper Manhattan. There, King was signing copies of his new book, “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.” Curry moved to the front of the signing line, took out a sharp-edged letter opener and stabbed the 29-year-old minister, who had just vaulted to national prominence through his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott.

King barely survived. Doctors later told King that, if he had sneezed, he easily could have died. Of course, King later received a fatal gunshot wound in April 1968. Curry lived her days in a mental institution, to the age of 97.

It was while recuperating in the hospital afterward, that King received a visit from Thurman. While there, Thurman gave the same advice he gave to countless others over decades: that King should take the unexpected, if tragic, opportunity, to step out of life briefly, meditate on his life and its purposes, and only then move forward.

Thurman urged King to extend his rest period by two weeks. It would, as he said, give King “time away from the immediate pressure of the movement” and to “rest his body and mind with healing detachment.”  Thurman worried that “the movement had become more than an organization; it had become an organism with a life of its own,” which potentially could swallow up King.

King wrote to Thurman to say, “I am following your advice on the question.”

King’s spiritual connection with Thurman

King and Thurman were never personally close. But Thurman left a profound intellectual and spiritual influence on King. King, for example, reportedly carried his own well-thumbed copy of Thurman’s best-known book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,”in his pocket during the long and epic struggle of the Montgomery bus boycott.

In his sermons during the 1950s and 1960s, King quoted and paraphrased Thurman extensively. Minnesota Historical Society, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

In his sermons during the 1950s and 1960s, King quoted and paraphrased Thurman extensivelyDrawing from Thurman’s views, King understood Jesus as friend and ally of the dispossessed – to a group of Jewish followers in ancient Palestine, and to African-Americans under slavery and segregation. That was precisely why Jesus was so central to African-American religious history.

The mystic

Thurman was not an activist, as King was, nor one to take up specific social and political causes to transform a country. He was a private man and an intellectual. He saw spiritual cultivation as a necessary accompaniment to social activism.

As Walter Fluker, editor of the Howard Thurman Papers Project, has explained, the private mystic and the public activist found common ground in understanding that spirituality is necessarily linked to social transformation. Private spiritual cultivation could prepare the way for deeper public commitments for social change. King himself, according to one biographer, came to feel that the stabbing and enforced convalescence was “part of God’s plan to prepare him for some larger work” in the struggle against southern segregation and American white supremacy.

In a larger sense, the discipline of nonviolence required a spiritual commitment and discipline that came, for many, through self-examination, meditation and prayer. This was the message Thurman transmitted to the larger civil rights movement. Thurman combined, in the words of historian Martin Marty, the “inner life, the life of passion, the life of fire, with the external life, the life of politics.”

Spiritual retreat and activism

King’s stabbing was a bizarre and tragic event, but in some sense it gave him the period of reflection and inner cultivation needed for the chaotic coming days of the civil rights struggle. The prison cell in Birmingham, Alabama, where in mid-1963 King penned his classic “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” also accidentally but critically provided much the same spiritual retreat for reflections that helped transform America.

The relationship of Thurman’s mysticism and King’s activism provides a fascinating model for how spiritual and social transformation can work together in a person’s life. And in society more generally.


Republished with permission under license from The Conversation.

Kimberly Gardner and MLK the Impossible Dreamers

by Randall Hill, Court.rchp.com

I can't think of a more fitting tribute on Dr. Martin Luther King Day than the example being demonstrated by Kimberly Gardner! Just like King, Gardner dares to dream big. Just like King, Gardner's statements are being distorted, her actions vilified and forces have mobilized to discredit her.

Most people can't imagine the sacrifice required to fight a powerful system. Systems are created to protect the self-interest, wealth and power of those who create them. As we predicted three years ago, the system is fighting against Ms. Gardner's reform efforts. System benefactors especially powerful ones will do whatever is required to protect themselves. This is true of virtually all systems, banking, education, political, labor and legal.

Fortunately, systems are not perfect, so there are ways to penetrate systems to create unintended consequences and use them to our advantage. From its inception, the United States was designed to exclude black people from benefiting, however, the Fourteenth Amendment was an unintended consequence. 

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner is the lastest impossible dreamer and she is using the Fourteenth Amendment in her fight against a corrupt system. She challenged a governor, a racist police department and the justice system and those with self-interest involving our continued oppression are fighting back. Ms. Garner earns more than $167,000 as circuit attorney and could have easily gone along with the status quo, however, she put not only her position and salary on the line to fight for us, but her life as well. 

Below is an inspirational video that I'm dedicating to Kimberly Gardner: "The Impossible Dream" sung by Luther Vandross. Some dreams, while being highly desirable seem unattainable or impossible, but even seemingly impossible situations have been overcome by dedicated and determined people.

Kimberly Gardner, the first black St. Louis Circuit Attorney filed a civil rights lawsuit in St. Louis Federal Court, case number 4:20-cv00060, on Monday, January 13, 2020, alleging a racist conspiracy to prevent her from doing her job. Below is a video from CBS morning news the morning after the lawsuit was filed

On Tuesday, January 14, 2020, black female prosecutors from around the country came to St. Louis in a show of solidarity to support Ms. Gardner. It was a wonderous sight to behold these women standing in support of their fellow freedom fighters. Below is the video of that rally.

The Ethical Society of Police, who did not endorse Gardner when she ran for office, stated: "That lawsuit is legitimate because there is a climate in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department… that is accepting of racism, discrimination, corruption. And some of those entities are within the St. Louis Police Officers Association."

King's dream has not been fully realized, but we are much closer to that dream than we were when he announced it to the world. Unfortunately, the dream has lost some ground in the Trump era, however, that does not mean the dream is unattainable. We must each do our part to make that dream a reality. Oppression is a form of injustice that occurs when one social group is subordinated while another is privileged. Oppression is maintained by a variety of different mechanisms, however, in the United States, the law has by far been the single most effective perpetrator of oppression. Laws allowing slavery, peonage, unequal education, substandard housing, mass incarceration, and a variety of other social injustices helped shaped current reality.

Unlike Kimberly Gardner, when you or I go against the system, we don't have others rallying behind us. Each of us individually must arm ourselves with as much knowledge as possible. Waiting on organizations or others to do for us what we can do for ourselves will most certainly delay the dream. As Ella Baker stated, "strong people don't need strong leaders". Obama's stepfather gave the following advice; “Better to be strong,' he [Lolo] said … 'if you can't be strong, be clever and make peace with someone who's strong. But always better to be strong yourself.”

When I first began representing myself in court with no formal legal training, my friends and family thought my quest was an impossible dream until I started winning! Over a period of several years, I made dozens of court appearances and I did not witness another self-represented person win. Most lost because they lacked the most basic understanding of the rules of court. The legal profession, which restricted the number of African Americans entering its ranks, creates barriers to finding and understanding legal information and resources. 

Court.rchp.com reveals what the legal profession seeks to hide and provides free legal information and resources. We also reveal many of the lies of history that were taught to use in organized misinformation and miseducation campaign. Make yourself stronger by increasing your knowledge of the law. Once you've done so, the next time a landlord, business, or institution treats you unfairly you'll be better equipped to respond properly and fight back if necessary. Often, a simple letter quoting a federal or state statute and how it applies to the situation gets the desired result. 

When your adversary believes you are uninformed they are more likely to continue abusing your rights. Once you put someone on notice that you understand the law and how to apply, they are less likely to mistreat you and risk a legal challenge.