Speaker: Women ‘unsung heroes’ of civil rights

AP File Photo
Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat touched off the Montgomery bus boycott and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, was fingerprinted in 1956 when she was charged with violating segregation laws.


FERDINAND — Even if you learned about Rosa Parks in school, chances are you don’t know the whole story.


LaNeeça Williams, chief diversity officer at the University of Evansville, presented Tuesday at the Ferdinand Branch Library about Parks and the countless other black women who were instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement of 1954 to 1968 as part of Project ACORN’s 2018 winter season.

For Williams, the women are the “unsung heroes” of the Civil Rights Movement.

“You hear very little about the women of the Civil Rights Movement,” Williams said. “I’m not sure why.”

Williams began her presentation in 1940 with the story of Mary Poole, a 16-year-old black girl in the South that was sexually assaulted by white men. As the 40s went on, more and more reports of white men assaulting black women were publicized, but nothing happened.

The assaults, Williams said, happened in part because of the public bus systems in the south at the time. Most black women rode the buses to work, but the buses would not enter black neighborhoods. That policy forced the women to walk miles to and from the bus stop, sometimes in the dark, so they could get to work, making them easy prey for the white men who wanted to hurt them.

“There were people there (along those streets) who were predators,” Williams said.

Parks first clashed with Montgomery bus driver James Blake in 1943, eight years before her 1955 refusal to leave her seat that went down in history as the spark of the Civil Rights Movement. In Parks’ 1943 clash with Blake, she refused to give up her bus seat for a white person and only moved when Blake pulled on her coat sleeve.

After that clash, Parks became an investigator for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to continue looking into the sexual assaults and rapes of black women.

In 1946, Mary Fair Burks founded the Women’s Political Council to fight for the assault victims. When Jo Ann Robinson succeeded Burks as president of the WPC, the group turned its attention to the segregated bus system.

Montgomery City Code 6, Section 10 at the time gave bus drivers a lot of power over their buses. They could tell people to leave seats, determine what kinds of change they’d accept — 10 pennies, two nickels or a dime, for example — and could even detain people who refused to follow instructions until the police arrived.

The bus drivers used those powers against people of color, Williams said.

The WPC began purposely bringing change they knew the bus drivers wouldn’t want and began sitting where they knew they would be asked to move so they could have a record of the injustices they faced.

Then, in 1954, the WPC approached Montgomery’s mayor with a list of demands. They wanted no one to have to stand on buses when there were empty seats, black people not to have to pay at the front of the bus but enter at the rear and for buses to stop at each corner in black residential areas as they did in white residential areas.

Despite the WPC’s efforts, black women continued to be assaulted, which led to Rosa Parks’ now famous action in December 1955 that started the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Contrary to popular belief, Parks’ action that day was a planned part of WPC’s efforts. In her own words, Parks said, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”

For more information on the women of the Civil Rights Movement, Williams suggested the book “At the Dark End of the Street” by Danielle McGuire and the website “Civil Rights Movement Veterans.”

Although Dubois County lies miles from Montgomery, Alabama and ground zero of the Civil Rights Movement, the county was not free of racial issues at the time.

Chuck Young, 63, who attended Tuesday’s event, grew up in Jasper and remembers hearing people say that if they saw a black person in town after dark, they’d run them out. He also remembers hearing people say prejudiced comments — his own father, who Young doesn’t regard as racist, believed blacks and whites should not marry — and he was 16 before he ever heard someone in the county stand up for a black person.

As Young remembers it, his godfather took him to a bar to have his first beer. While the two were there, they overheard another bargoer bash African-Americans.

“(My godfather) went off on him,” Young said.

Young later found out that his godfather’s best friend in the Korean War had been a black man, and the friend had been killed right in front of his godfather. After that, Young said, his godfather wouldn’t tolerate racism.

As Young grew up, he said, he gradually learned that the prejudices he heard as a child were wrong. Now, he encourages others to get to know people who are different from you and learn to understand their perspectives.

Williams offered her own words of advice for combating racism: Don’t hate or be angry with the people of the past or your older relatives for the racism of the past. Instead, educate yourself and be better now.

“Now that we know more,” Williams said, “we have to do more.”

More on DuboisCountyHerald.com