African Americans have been the most rapidly advancing oppressed people in the history of the world, according to some major historians. To come from brutal and hard slavery, with virtually no legal basic human rights, to rise to lawmakers, local leaders and ultimately the presidency of the United States of America within a 400-year span is a feat surpassed by few, if any other people.
African American advancement has come in increments and spurts, with some of the greatest acceleration in social, political, cultural and legal advancement led by the honorable Dr. Martin Luther King. By most historical assessments, the most phenomenal aspect of this rise and advancement from a brutal slave past through the Jim Crow era and into the present is that Dr. King led people out of bondage without using brutality or violence.
“We didn’t fire one shot; we didn’t lynch one person,” said Andrew Marrisett, one of the first four of the paid field staff workers for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Birmingham, Ala. SCLC is the civil rights organization King helped co-found in January 1957 in the wake of the Montgomery bus boycott. It would serve as a major springboard to launch the careers of numerous African Americans, but beyond that SCLC was a model that would lend its tactics and successes to organizations well outside the Black community.
Beyond grooming key leaders like Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson, SCLC helped grow grassroots people like Marrisett, Cathy Deppe and Ken Cloke into local leaders, who were inspired to fight for change in their communities.
“We did it with nonviolence and our minds, bodies and souls, and of course with the help of God,” Marrisett said.
Marrisett spoke of a time and way of life forgotten by many. He speaks with a southern drawl, in an eloquent manner for a man with not much formal education, as he described a time in the 1940s when many Blacks in southern and rural areas, who were then referred to as ‘coloreds,’ were all but totally unaware of the freedoms that were already gained and enjoyed by Blacks in the North.
Now at age 74, his memories of the civil rights years remain sharp and vivid. He is the only surviving member of the four initial paid SCLC field staff that included James Orange, Elizabeth Hayes and Robert Seals. This was a job within the SCLC similar to what Medgar Evers did as an organizer and recruiter with the NAACP. And this, along with his driving duties for the church, gave him frequent contact with Dr. King.
“I’m starting in 1963, April,” said Marrisett as he first described his duties for SCLC, which he joined after 27 years of what he calls a wasted life before the Civil Rights Movement. “We became the first four (of) SCLC’s national paid field staff. We weren’t called foot soldiers yet. We were paid $25 every two weeks, which was more than enough for what we were doing. We were in New Orleans, when the church (the infamous 16th Street Church where four little girls were killed) was bombed.
“We were down there getting ready to go over into Texas to get people to register to vote to help Barbara Jordan run for Congress. We had to come back and be served an injunction.”
“I grew up brainwashed that segregation and discrimination were the order of the times,” Marrisett said, describing his total obliviousness to the freedoms that he never knew existed or were possible in his time.
“I grew up in Birmingham, Ala., in the ’40s and the ’50s, in one of the most segregated cities in the South at the time. I use that term because we had the water fountains, the rest rooms, the lunch rooms, everything was Black and White and signs said ‘White’ and the other signs said ‘colored.’
“Everything was segregated, and we had all of the Jim Crow laws that were on the books more than anywhere in the world.
“I was a product of all kinds of misconceptions. I just didn’t know any better,” said Marrisett . “I thought that’s the way it was. My mother died when I was 18-months-old. My grandmom raised me until I was 14, when she passed, and then my daddy and I had to scuffle as best we could to keep our heads above water. So I grew up poor, poor, poor, poor and poor.
“See in the ’40s and the ’50s, I had no choice, because I just didn’t know any better. See, I was a youngster. In 1942 is when I started school at 6 years old. Bull Conner ruled at that time.
“I’m speaking for lots and lots of other Black folk at that time who was under that spell of Jim Crow and didn’t know how to get out from under it,” he said. “Birmingham on a Sunday morning, between [the hours of] 11 and 2 was really the most segregated city in America, probably even the world. Everything here was segregated.
“There were lots of college kids, Black kids, that went to predominately Black colleges that got involved, you know SNCC and CORE and all of those, but those was college kids. I was just a little poor kid out of the alleys in the back alleyways of Birmingham, running around believing that this was it, until 1963. I knew things was wrong, but I didn’t understand how to get involved or didn’t know to get involved, because I thought that what was going on at the time was it.”
“. . . time rolled on, I began to realize and to think, as they say, outside of the box, and I said that I know things are not going right and I decided to get involved,” he said. “My beginnings were right there at the 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park,” Marrisett continued, “seeing the police officers sick a canine on a little girl in Kelly Ingram Park down there in 1963, near the church they bombed.
“That first mass meeting that I attended, Dr. King spoke and he spoke directly to my heart,” Marrisett continued. “He spoke directly to what I knew I had to do. I came home and told my daddy. I said ‘daddy I’m joining this movement. I don’t know why or what’s going to happen to me, but I’ve got to do this,’ and he understood. He said ‘well go, son, and do what you have to do.’ There wouldn’t have been nobody or nothing that would have stopped me at that time. See, the same way I was doing nothing those 27 years, that spirit hit me, my guardian angel. God said ‘Andrew you are called. You have to get involved.’ I did and I still am. He opened my eyes the same way when you go to church and the pastor preach a good sermon and it hits you and you feel stuff going all over you and you want to shout. That’s what that movement and that speech and Dr. King did that night, convinced me that it was my time, April 1963, the first Monday in April.
“Here and in Selma, these two cities changed the course of American history,” he continued.” We would go into a community or a town or a city and do the organizing and get the mass meetings lined up. We did the advance work and then Dr. King or whoever was going to come—Dr. King and Ralph (Abernathy)—they’d come in and do mass meetings and whatever needed to be done. At the time in this state, we had a poll tax, an application that you had to complete (to vote). One of the questions that we still laugh about now is: ‘How many bubbles are in a bar of soap.’”
Marrisett ’s account of nonsensical questions asked of a person in order to vote were one of the worst realities of the time period before SCLC and prevented thousands from exercising their right to vote.
“We would fire up the crowd. We sang field songs, make little speeches; we’d work the crowd, and then when it was time for the speaker, it didn’t have to be Dr. King. It could have been Ralph, A.G. (Gaston), or Dr. King. We would have a mass meeting and make plans, if we were going to march the next day, we’d plan who would make signs, who would do this and that. We were field staff, organizers.”
Marrisett described Dr. King as a down-to-earth person. “He was fun-loving; we’d have fun. Rev. Abernathy, he was a little more reserved than Dr. King and out of sight, but they all were human beings who would cry for this and laugh for this, but they were sincere and serious people, so that made us sincere and serious staff people. When we had our retreats and our staff meetings and our conventions, I was kind of one of Dr. King’s liaisons and he was always nice to me and everyone. King was a human being who loved people, loved life and loved right. I tell folk that he was Christ-like, ‘cause I seen that halo.”
Cathy Deppe is a former SCLC, SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and SCOPE (Students for Community Organizing and Political Education) volunteer originally from Urbana, Ill. She worked early on to register voters in the rural South and primarily in Alabama. She now works for the nonprofit agency 9 to 5 and is a branch member of the National Association of Working Women (NAWW), which is concerned with women’s rights. Deppe said that her original involvement with the Civil Rights Movement gave her the inspiration and provided the perfect model to follow when she began to subsequently fight for women’s rights, peace, farmer’s rights and more.
Deppe marched on the second and third unsuccessful attempts to cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge from Selma to the capitol in Montgomery. She also marched on the fourth attempt, which was successful.
“I actually think the Civil Rights Movement was a good model for us to bounce off of and an inspiration as well,” she said. “My student days in the Civil Rights (Movement) just morphed into other movements, never forgetting the Civil Rights Movement.
Deppe detailed how she, a young White college student from the North, went on to fight for civil rights in the North and the South.
“I was young and going to school at the University of Illinois in Urbana,” she said. “At the time, I was involved in a group on campus that was called Friends of SNCC.
When the opportunity came to go down to Alabama with other students that I knew and had worked with as part of the SCLC’s SCOPE Project, I was ready to do that, so I spent the summer of 1965 in Green County, Ala. doing voter registration and in integrated teams of young people led by the local leaders there, including Rev. Thomas Gilmore who went on to run for sheriff of Green County. Our work there was to help people register to vote.
“While we were down there, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” she continued. “It was a very heady time, because it looked like we were making progress. I was pretty naïve, a kid from a small little town in Illinois, and I was pretty shocked by what I saw there and felt, and (was) probably permanently changed by that experience,” said Deppe.
“Being there and seeing the consequences to people’s lives when they (tried to take) what seemed in my high school civics experience to be a basic right that everybody had,” she paused sadly recalling the early ‘colored’ people that she attempted to register to vote. “It was very dangerous to register to vote for a Black in the South.
You could lose your job, get kicked out of your house or your apartment, you could face crosses burning on your lawn and in some cases death, several cases actually.”
“We were taking a step outside the box and when we would go in integrated groups to register people to vote we actually frightened some of the people by being together, and they would close the doors because it was an unusual sight and meant trouble,” she concluded. “I’m still doing voter registration and will probably die doing voter registration, because it is so important for a democracy that everybody have that right.”
Ken Cloke grew up in a chicken farm area in California and said that the Civil Rights Movement inspired him to become a lawyer.
“I’m a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement, both in the North and in the South,” said Cloke, who also conducts training for lawyers on stereotyping, prejudice and bias awareness.
“I worked in Selma and Montgomery, Ala., just after the first Selma March, also in a place called Greensboro County, Ala. Then I worked predominately in South Georgia, in Albany, Ga.
“I also worked in San Francisco and the Bay Area, with what was called the Ad Hoc Committee to End Discrimination in the Bay Area, which conducted the sit-ins at Mel’s Drive-ins (Oakland, Calif.) and Sheraton, Cadillac Rail and other places like that, and I participated in many demonstrations in support of civil rights workers.
“I was a college student at the time in Berkeley, so I participated to support the people who were sitting-in in Greensboro,” he continued. “I also participated in the Woolworth sit-ins in Berkeley and Oakland. I think the most important thing that we need to realize is this is something that we were not doing just in order to benefit Black people or Latinos or anyone else. This was a human right that we are looking at. Whenever anyone is treated in a discriminatory or prejudicial or unfair way, it hurts everyone; it hurts all of us and we all suffer for it. My children suffer. My grandchildren suffer as a result of it,” Cloke said.
“My oldest grandson is now 7 and is in school in Washington, and in the school they did a whole section on Martin Luther King and the SCLC and all of the various demonstrations that were part of what we call the movement,” Cloke continued. “He was very impressed by it and very touched and affected by it in a way that I was quite surprised at, and so he asked me if I would speak to his class about Dr. King, which I did. This was a small group of kids who were about 6 years old at the time. Last year they did a whole section on Dr. King, and they were all completely empathetic and understanding of the basic ideas that we were trying to advance in the movement.
“This was what Dr. King talked about a lot, the idea that children, Black and White, would someday be able to sit down together and be able to share their educational experiences with each other, and that was what was going on in this classroom,” Cloke went on. “While we have now an African American president of the United States, President Barack Obama—something that none of us in the movement would have imagined. Nobody thought of it as even possible at the time.
“I was also a supporter of Jesse Jackson when he ran for president many years ago, and there’s been a tremendous amount of progress in terms of people’s willingness to accept the political leadership of someone who is African American. At the same time it was very, very clear watching the (2012) campaign that there was a lot of coded racial rhetoric that was taking place.
“It’s not over, we are still having to put forward the idea of equality and dignity and respect in a way that seems to me is going to continue for many years,” Cloke concluded. “So we’re not done yet, while the progress has been significant, there have been a lot of studies that have shown that there is still a residue of fear regarding race and even political and religious differences as well.
“The basic idea, as I learned it from Dr. King, is that you can’t stop hatred with hatred. All you get is more hatred. The only thing that stops hatred is love and standing up to that hatred and refusing to bow to it or to accept that hatred. I became a lawyer as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. I went to law school because I realized that law was an essential element in bringing about social change. What I’m now concerned with is working in an area in which it’s possible to touch people’s hearts and minds. The approach of not just nonviolence, but nonviolent resistance to discrimination and oppression is something that we need to carry with us.
“For me, I think the principal lesson I learned was (that) going from the North where discrimination was more subtle and hidden and indirect and (then) into the South where it was more blatant, open and obvious, and then returning to the North and seeing that it was the same basic problem in both locations and it was just the form that the discrimination took that was a little different in each location. Under-neath it was the same basic fear and selfishness, essentially the desire to get ahead at the expense of somebody else.”