By Camilla Johnson Perry
President Barack Obama eulogized the late civil rights icon John Lewis as the “founding father of a fuller, fairer, better America.’’
And while many would agree with that statement, we all know that behind every giant, there are ordinary people marching alongside them, often contributing in ways that are not overt.
Other than the Big Six, how many “unsung” civil rights heroes can you name? Even for some Blacks, the answer to that question is just like tinnitus. We have an answer in our head that no one else can hear.
I’m not trying to call anyone out and please don’t think you are alone—you are not! In fact, most of us lack an elevator ride repertoire of sufficient knowledge about Blacks who were integral in the fight against systemic oppression. There are many reasons.
Camilla Johnson Perry (Courtesy Photo)
Even as the history, culture and politics of Blacks became known as African American Studies and was taught in some schools in the “Turbulent Sixties,” most of us were only taught concise and selective pieces of the fabric that honestly informs who we are.
However, for every household name that we are aware of, there are hundreds of others who didn’t make it into textbooks. These are ordinary people who made the ultimate sacrifice for outcomes, that at the time, only their mind’s eye could see. I imagine some of these unsung heroes are often not widely known because their contributions could not be fully seen beyond their flaws. Society has made it easy to discount service for past transgressions.
So, the next time you’re asked about unsung civil rights heroes, here is some content to consider. The one thing all heroes have in common is ACTION. Heroes are able to balance courage over fear and act. Action is the anthem of all heroes, even for the heroes not so well known.
President Theodore Roosevelt said, “in any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
In recent months, we’ve seen action daily with protesters taking to the streets, demanding justice and equality.
Just as we’re seeing now, it was also true in the 1960s and throughout slavery—there is always a generation of “woke” people (White Americans) who play supporting roles in the fight against racism.
The Big Six knew that nonviolent and inclusive protests were essential to finding the solution toward racial equality. While there are many Blacks who are among the ranks of unsung heroes, there are also Whites who should be remembered.
William L. Moore was a White postal worker from Baltimore, Md, who believed that Black Americans could not be free until all Americans had equal rights. In 1963, he wrote a letter to then Mississippi governor, Ross Barnett, pleading with him to be gracious toward racial tolerance. He planned to deliver it in person, however, he was killed on his journey; he was shot twice at close range and dumped on a road in Alabama. Mr. Moore is an unsung civil rights hero because he heard the anthem of action; his sacrifice for the greater good for all people is indeed noteworthy.
One of the highest-ranking heroes is the country’s former Commander-in-Chief, President Lyndon B. Johnson. Against the odds, he took a stand and created transformational change when he signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965.
You might consider Fannie Lou Hamer, who was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi. She influenced the passing of the Voting Rights Act by testifying during the televised Credentials Committee Hearings at the Democratic National Convention, in August of 1964 about how she was beaten in Winona, Miss., just as she was leaving a civil rights meeting. Her wounds were deeper than the bruises others could see. After having her second child, she was also one of many Black women involuntarily sterilized by a local doctor. Not knowing how to effectively fight for her rights, she sought the assistance of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The SNCC helped her register to vote. Ms. Hamer may not have had the luxury to pursue assault charges or a malpractice suit, but she understood the power of her vote, and her courage outweighed the omnipresent threat of violence.
Fannie Lou Hamer
After Dr. King was killed in 1968, the Black Power salute fueled black militancy. In response, the draft requirements were lowered in an action to draw militant Blacks into the Vietnam War. More than 100,000 Marines and countless more soldiers were collected from their community streets, drafted and deployed to the front lines of Vietnam. Many scholars believe a disproportionate number of Blacks were killed and injured during the Vietnam War. Many of their names are not included in history books as contributors to the Civil Rights Movement, but they should have been because they made incredible sacrifices to guarantee America’s liberties.
Today, and every day, you can honor their sacrifices by supporting all military service members and veterans.
One example of an ultimate sacrifice during the Vietnam War is that of Army Captain Riley Leroy Pitts. Captain Pitts hailed from Wichita State University where he was commissioned as an officer through ROTC. He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously and President Johnson bestowed the medal onto Mrs. Pitts, after the captain was killed outside of Ap Dong, Vietnam in 1967. Against the odds, Captain Pitts was an Army officer at a time when Blacks were struggling for racial equality in America, but he gave his life to protect our country’s interests anyway.
Presumably influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, NASA’s decidedly white Astronaut Program pushed for diversity among its astronauts. Dr. Ronald McNair answered the call. He was already accomplished in his own right, having received a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering from my alma mater, the North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University in 1972. Aggie Pride! The obvious story here is he became the second Black astronaut to travel to space; he was a physicist and was killed when the Challenger disintegrated into pieces shortly after takeoff in 1986. However, his demonstration of courage was on display long before his accomplishments and subsequent death became known to the world.
As a child, just after schools were integrated in 1959, Dr. McNair obviously believed that school-aged Black kids were expected to read just as Whites. So, one day, young Ronald walked into the community library to do just that—check out a book. The librarian immediately called the police and Ronald’s mother. The White police officers arrived and modeled how compassion can transcend racial color divides. They settled the dispute by telling the librarian to let Ronald checkout the books. He did. The Unsung Civil Rights Heroes, that day, were the police officers. If they had followed the violent policing that had been commonplace, the world might have never known Dr. Ronald McNair. Today, that same library is named in his honor. Dr. McNair was also posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 2004.
Negro League baseball player Satchel Paige said, “never let the odds keep you from pursuing what you know in your heart you were meant to do.” Our history is rich with known, unknown, and would-be icons. The separation between them is action and inaction. I wonder where we would be if those who could have acted, did. The indifference and silence of our voices for justice, when it matters the most, makes the triumph of evil possible. Maybe that sound in your head is not just tinnitus, or ghastly taps of the past; it could be the drumbeat to action. Action is the anthem of heroes. Be a Hero!
Camilla Johnson Perry is a wife, mother, former Army Officer and Desert Storm Veteran.