December 13, 1903 – Birth of Civil Rights Activist Ella Baker

Ella Baker was born on December 13, 1903, this day in history.  Growing up in North Carolina, she listened to her grandfather preach about working together and giving to others. He would always ask, “What do you hope to accomplish?” Her grandmother told Ella stories about life in slavery, and especially how she exerted her freedom by her mind, even though her body was not free. And Ella’s mother always said to her, “Lift as you climb.” Ella took all these teachings to heart.

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, founded to build on Ella’s legacy to inspire and guide leaders who will fight injustice, relates:

After graduating in 1927 as class valedictorian, she moved to New York City and began joining social activist organizations. In 1930, she joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League, whose purpose was to develop black economic power through collective planning. She also involved herself with several women’s organizations. She was committed to economic justice for all people and once said, ‘People cannot be free until there is enough work in this land to give everybody a job.’”

Ella Baker

As did her grandfather, when she interacted with people, Ella would ask them, “What do you hope to accomplish?” Often she would hear by way of reply that they wanted justice, they wanted the vote, and they wanted to be treated like citizens.

Then she counseled them on how to go about achieving all this.

Ella began her involvement with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1940. She began as a field secretary and then served as director of branches from 1943 until 1946.

In 1957, she moved to Atlanta to help organize Martin Luther King’s new organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). She also ran a voter registration campaign called the Crusade for Citizenship.

Perhaps the work she did with the most impact was helping students form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). As the Ella Baker Center recounts:

She wanted to assist the new student activists because she viewed young, emerging activists as a resource and an asset to the movement. Miss Baker organized a meeting at Shaw University for the student leaders of the sit-ins in April 1960. From that meeting, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee — SNCC — was born.”

Under her guidance, SNCC became one of the foremost advocates for human rights in the country.

She explained:

We are not fighting for the freedom of the Negro alone, but for the freedom of the human spirit.”

She added:

The struggle for rights didn’t start yesterday and has to continue until it is won.”

She continued to be a respected and influential leader in the fight for human and civil rights until her death on December 13, 1986, on her 83rd birthday.

Like many women, Ella Baker worked largely behind the scenes, with men gaining recognition for much of the accomplishments she helped achieve. As observed in a review of the book, Ella Baker & The Black Freedom Movement by Professor Barbara Ransby:

Before we continue to heap a single praise or Hosanna to men like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Wyatt T. Walker, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Du Bois, or any of these other gentlemen we idolize as embodiments of masculine heroism, we should know about one woman, of many, who had more wisdom, courage, and vision then almost all of them: Ms. Ella Baker.”

November 20, 1910 – Birth of Pauli Murray, Activist for Civil Rights and Women’s Rights, Inter Alia

Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray as an American civil rights activist who became a lawyer, a women’s rights activist, Episcopal priest (the first African-American woman to be ordained), and author.

Murray was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 20, 1910, this day in history. Both sides of her family were of mixed racial origins, with ancestors including Black slaves, white slave owners, Native Americans, Irish, and free Black people. Murray’s parents died when she was a child, and she was raised mostly by her maternal grandparents in Durham, North Carolina. At the age of 16, she moved to New York City to attend Hunter College, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1933.

Yale University historian Elizabeth Gilmore, in her book on unsung activists, Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights 1919–1950, explains that in 1938, Murray applied to graduate school at the University of North Carolina and was denied entry because of her race, even though her white great-great-grandfather had been a trustee of the university. Gilmore writes, “From that moment on, Pauli Murray was a one-woman civil rights movement.” 

Pauli Murray, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University, From the collection of: National Trust for Historic Preservation

In 1941, Murray enrolled in Howard University law school. Murray was the only woman in her law school class, and she became aware of sexism at the school, which she labeled “Jane Crow” — alluding to Jim Crow, the system of racial discriminatory state laws oppressing African Americans. Murray graduated first in her class, but she was denied the chance to do post-graduate work at Harvard University because of her gender. She earned a master’s degree in law at University of California, Berkeley in 1945, and in 1965 she became the first African American to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale Law School.

In 1942 Murray joined with George Houser, James Farmer and Bayard Rustin, to form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In 1943 Murray published two important essays on civil rights, Negroes Are Fed Up in “Common Sense” and an article about the Harlem race riot in the socialist newspaper, “New York Call.” Her most famous poem on race relations, “Dark Testament,” was also written in that year.

Notably, it was Murray’s idea that lead to the successful attack on Plessy v. Ferguson that resulted in Brown v. Board of Education. While at Howard, law students were discussing how best to bring an end to Jim Crow, according to a New Yorker article, “The Many Lives of Pauli Murray,” aptly subtitled: “She was an architect of the civil-rights struggle—and the women’s movement. Why haven’t you heard of her?” The author of that article, Kathryn Schultz, reports:

In the half century since Plessy v. Ferguson, lawyers had been chipping away at segregation by questioning the ‘equal’ part of the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine—arguing that, say, a specific black school was not truly equivalent to its white counterpart. Fed up with the limited and incremental results, one student in the class proposed a radical alternative: why not challenge the ‘separate’ part instead?”

Of course, that student was Pauli Murray. In her final law-school paper, Murray formalized that idea, arguing that segregation violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. Some years later, when her professor, Spottswood Robinson, joined with Thurgood Marshall and others to try to end Jim Crow, he remembered Murray’s paper, retrieved it from his files, and presented it to his colleagues — the team that, in 1954, successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education.

As a lawyer, Murray argued for civil rights and women’s rights. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Chief Counsel Thurgood Marshall called Murray’s 1950 book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, the “bible” of the civil rights movement. The book was an exhaustive compilation of state laws and local ordinances in effect in 1950 that mandated racial segregation and of pre-Brown-era civil rights legislation.

Murray served on the 1961–1963 Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, having been appointed by John F. Kennedy. In 1966, she was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women. Ruth Bader Ginsburg named Murray as a coauthor of a brief on the 1971 case Reed v. Reed, in recognition of her pioneering work on gender discrimination. This case articulated the “failure of the courts to recognize sex discrimination for what it is and its common features with other types of arbitrary discrimination.” Murray held faculty or administrative positions at the Ghana School of Law, Benedict College, and Brandeis University.

In addition to her legal and advocacy work, Murray published two well-reviewed autobiographies and a volume of poetry. Her volume of poetry, “Dark Testament,” was republished in 2018.

Kathryn Schultz writes that Murray’s lifelong fate was to be both ahead of her time and behind the scenes:

Two decades before the civil-rights movement of the nineteen-sixties, Murray was arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Richmond, Virginia; organized sit-ins that successfully desegregated restaurants in Washington, D.C.; and, anticipating the Freedom Summer, urged her Howard classmates to head south to fight for civil rights and wondered how to ‘attract young white graduates of the great universities to come down and join with us.’ And, four decades before another legal scholar, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, coined the term ‘intersectionality,’ Murray insisted on the indivisibility of her identity and experience as an African-American, a worker, and a woman.”

Despite all this, Schultz laments, Murray’s name is not well known today, especially among white Americans.

There are a number of links to more information about Pauli Murray on a National Organization for Women website, here.

Carolina Digital Library and Archives – Carolina Digital Library and Archives. “Murray, Pauli, 1910-1985.” July 2007. Online image. UNC University Library.

October 17, 1871 – President Ulysses Grant Declares Martial Law & Suspends Habeas Corpus Following KKK Violence Against Blacks in South Carolina

The Ku Klux Klan, formed in 1866 in Tennessee, spread quickly throughout the South. It was an organization of “night-riding white supremacists who terrorized Black families, and a good many white Republicans, as it sought to cripple the Republican party and its supporters, which included virtually all African-Americans.” (Ryan, Allan A., Amos Akerman: Grant’s Attorney General Who Broke the Back of the Ku Klux Klan (July 4, 2021). Available at SSRN here.

Lou Falkner Williams, in “The Great South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials, 1871-1872, an online dissertation for U. Of Florida, observed that “The Ku Klux Klan was the white solution to a Black population which refused to stay in its place and maintain a slavelike demeanor.”

As Eric Foner, a preeminent historian of Reconstruction, described the Klan, “It was a military force serving the interests of the Democratic party, the planter class, and all those who desired the restoration of white supremacy.” (Eric Foner, Reconstruction, America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, pp,. 425-26)

“All those” of course consisted of white males.

During the presidential campaign of 1868, the KKK emerged as a “paramilitary wing” of the Democratic Party. Robert J. Kaczorowski, in “Federal Enforcement of Civil Rights During the First Reconstruction,” 23 Fordham Urb. L.J. 155 (1995), reports that the KKK “embarked on a campaign of terror for the purpose of destroying the Republican Party in the Southern states and reducing Southern Blacks to the control of white supremacists.” After Grant was elected to the presidency, terrorist acts by the KKK increased. Thus, Kaczorowski notes, “Congress created the Department of Justice in 1870 in large part for the purpose of providing more effective protection against Klan terrorism.”

In April, 1871, President Grant signed the Ku Klux Klan Act, which made it a federal crime to deprive American citizens of their civil rights through racial terrorism. He then sent US Attorney General Amos T. Akerman along with Army Major Lewis Merrill to South Carolina to investigate reports of violence against newly freed Blacks. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, in York County alone they found evidence of eleven murders and more than 600 whippings and other assaults.

Amos T. Akerman

Lou Falkner Williams wrote that “Akerman left South Carolina convinced that ‘from the beginning of the world until now,’ no community ‘nominally civilized, has been so fully under the domination of systematic and organized depravity.’” (p. 94). He concluded the KKK activities “amount(ed) to war,” and recommended to President Grant that he use the full extent of his powers to suppress the KKK in South Carolina.

On October 12, 1871, President Grant warned nine South Carolina counties with prevalent KKK activity that martial law would be declared if the Klan did not disperse. The warning was ignored. On October 17, 1871 – this day in history – President Grant declared martial law and suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the same nine counties. Once he did so, federal forces were allowed to arrest and imprison KKK members and instigators of racial terrorism without bringing them before a judge or into court.

Many affluent Klan members fled the jurisdiction to avoid arrest but by December 1871 approximately 600 Klansmen were in jail. More than 200 arrestees were indicted, fifty-three pleaded guilty, and five were convicted at trial. Klan terrorism in South Carolina decreased significantly after the arrests and trials but racial violence targeting Black people continued throughout the South for decades.

You can read President Grant’s proclamation suspending habeas corpus here.

April 17, 1863 – African American Charlotte Brown Challenged Racial Segregation After Being Forced Off Streetcar

Charlotte Brown was born in Maryland in 1839 to parents living as free people of color in Baltimore. Between 1850 and 1860 her family moved to San Francisco and became part of the Black middle class. Charlotte’s father, James E. Brown, ran a livery stable, was a partner in a Black newspaper and was an antislavery crusader. As the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, “San Francisco had the largest black population in the state. Yet African Americans in the city were prohibited from using the public library and were forced to attend segregated schools.”

On April 17, 1863 – this day in history – Charlotte took a seat on a horse-drawn streetcar, owned by the Omnibus Railroad Company, near her home to visit her doctor. The streetcar conductor asked her to leave and she responded she had a right to ride and did not intend to leave.

Horse-drawn streetcar, San Francisco, 1860s, via Wikipedia

The conductor asked her several times to leave, and each time she refused. Finally, when a white woman objected to her presence, he grabbed her by the arm and escorted her off the car.

Her father hired attorney W. C. Burnett, and Charlotte Brown brought a lawsuit against the Omnibus Railroad Company for $200. Just that year, a law had been passed in the Legislature allowing blacks to testify in cases involving whites.

The Omnibus Railroad argued that its conductor’s action was justified because racial segregation protected white women and children who might be fearful or ‘repulsed’ by riding in the same car as African Americans. Brown won her case, but the judge only ordered her reimbursed 5 cents – the streetcar fare.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that within days of the judgment, another conductor forced Brown and her father from a streetcar, and Charlotte brought another lawsuit. In October 1864, Judge Orville Pratt of the 12th District Court ruled that San Francisco streetcar segregation was illegal. In his opinion he stated:

It has been already quite too long tolerated by the dominant race to see with indifference the Negro or mulatto treated as a brute, insulted, wronged, enslaved, made to wear a yoke, to tremble before white men, to serve him as a tool, to hold property and life at his will, to surrender to him his intellect and conscience, and to seal his lips and belie his thought through dread of the white man’s power.”

The jury awarded Brown $500.

Judge Orville C. Pratt

Nevertheless, streetcar drivers continued to refuse to stop for Blacks in the city, or forced them off if they boarded. The Chronicle writes:

It took several more lawsuits, including the one by Mary Ellen Pleasant, the fugitive slave who became known as the mother of civil rights in California, before the state Supreme Court ruled in 1868 that the streetcar company’s exclusion based on race was unlawful.”

In 1867, Charlotte Brown opened a school for young children in San Francisco, offering “all the branches of primary education” as well as music and embroidery. She married Henry Riker, a prominent African American activist in 1874. Little is known about Charlotte Brown Riker’s life after that time, not even the year she died.

February 8, 1968 – Orangeburg, South Carolina Massacre of Black Protestors

On this night, police opened fire on some 200 unarmed Black students from South Carolina State University who were protesting segregation at Orangeburg’s only bowling alley. When the shooting stopped, three students were dead and twenty-seven wounded. Many people today still know about the shooting of white student anti-war protestors only two years later at Kent State, which killed 4 students and wounded nine others, but hardly anyone could tell you about the greater massacre in Orangeburg.

The three young men who were murdered: Henry Smith and Samuel Hammond, both SCSU students, and Delano Middleton, a local student at Wilkinson High School.

As the History Channel website recounts, Harry Floyd, owner of All-Star Bowling Triangle bowling alley in Orangeburg, South Carolina, claimed his bowling alley was exempt from segregation laws since it was private property. He stated he did not want to “offend” his long-time white clientele.

Orangeburg was the site of two mostly black universities: South Carolina State (SC State) and Claflin University. Many students became involved in the civil rights movement and wanted to start by upending the effects of racism within their own small town.

On February 5, 1968, a small group of students from both SC State and Claflin went to All-Star Bowling Lanes to protest its whites-only policy. Floyd refused them entry and they left peacefully, but word spread.

The next night a larger crowd returned to the bowling alley and were met by police who threatened to blast them with water from firehoses. The students fought back by taunting them and lighting matches. A plate glass window was broken, and the police began beating students with billy clubs.

By night’s end, fifteen students had been arrested and at least ten students and one police officer were treated for injuries.

South Carolina Governor Robert McNair insisted “Black Power” leaders [the common bugagoo before Black Lives Matter and “Antifa”] were inciting the student unrest and called in the National Guard to intimidate the students and repress the anticipated violence.

National Guardsmen with rifles and fixed bayonets in Orangeburg on February 8, 1968. Getty Images via Business Insider

The student protestors were joined by Cleveland Sellers, a native South Carolinian and civil rights activist. Sellers’s activism had put him on the government’s radar and earned him a reputation as a “Black militant” [obviously worse than being a “white” militant].

By February 8, Sellers and hundreds of students had gathered on SC State’s campus to protest racial segregation at the bowling alley and other privately-owned establishments.

The students started a large bonfire in front of the campus entrance. They taunted law enforcement and threw rocks and other objects at them. Eventually, the police chief ordered the fire be put out. As firefighters extinguished the fire, a police officer was struck with a heavy wooden banister.

Unsure of what was happening and claiming to have heard gunshots, some police raised their guns and opened fire in the darkness upon the protestors for several seconds. When it was over, twenty-eight students lay on State’s campus with multiple buckshot wounds; three others had been killed. Almost all were shot in the back or side.

As reported by the Zinn Project, the Governor and law enforcement officials on the scene claimed police had fired in self-defense:

The Associated Press’ initial account, carried in newspapers the morning after the shooting, misreported what happened as ‘an exchange of gunfire.’ The source, an AP photographer on the scene, subsequently revealed that he heard no gunfire from the campus.”

Cleveland Sellers was arrested for inciting a riot and sentenced to one year of hard labor; he was the only person to receive punishment. Sellers was tried and sentenced to one year of hard labor. He was finally pardoned 23 years after the incident.

The U.S. Justice Department charged the nine police officers who admitted shooting that night with abuse of power. However, neither of two South Carolina juries would uphold the charges.

Cleveland Sellers stands beside the historic marker on the S.C. State University campus at the 2000 Orangeburg memorial. By Cecil Williams.

September 24, 1964 – Over 7500 Whites Protest Racial Integration of New York City Schools

Ten years after the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v Board of Education ruled that schools must be racially integrated, the city had done little to advance integration in the schools. New York City Public Radio (WNYC) reports that, in 1964, schools that enrolled mostly black and Latino students tended to have inferior facilities, less experienced teachers and severe overcrowding. Some schools were so overcrowded that they operated on split shifts, with the school day lasting only four hours for students.

Civil rights activists staged a one-day school boycott on Feb. 3 1964, when approximately 460,000 students refused to go to school.

Source: Queens College Civil Rights Archives

WNYC’s online history contends that, even adjusting for the typical absentee rate at the time, the school boycott was the largest civil rights protest in U.S. history. Yet, little came of it, except perhaps galvanizing whites to organize themselves.

On September 24th, 1964, a crowd of at least 7,500 demonstrators, almost all of whom were white women, marched outside New York City Hall to protest any policies aimed at increasing racial integration by busing in the city’s public school system. The protest was organized by two groups formed by white parents; the Parents and Taxpayers Coordinating Council and the Joint Council for Better Education.

The protest was ostensibly against “busing.” As a New York Times history of desegregation in New York observed:

The organizers knew better than to adopt the rhetoric of the white segregationists down South. Instead, they used race-neutral language, saying they were fighting for their own civil rights: the right to keep their kids off buses and in neighborhood schools.”

But as the Times notes, the Republican strategist Lee Atwater, in an infamous 1981 interview, made the strategy plain: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, ‘forced busing,’ ‘states’ rights’ and all that stuff.”

Anti-busing demonstrators shouting at policemen at City Hall in New York, Sept. 24, 1964, as they protested a Board of Education busing program aimed at increasing racial balance in New York City schools.Credit…Harry Harris/Associated Press

As a 2020 study in Time Magazine noted, today, the battle is far from over. The New York City public-school system remains one of the most segregated public-school systems in the country:

Of the 1.1 million NYC public-school students, 15% are white. However, about 75% of Black and Hispanic students attend schools where fewer than 10% of students are white, and about 35% of white students attend schools where more than half of the student population is also white.”

Busing was just a manifestation of the larger problem. As the Times notes:

Busing became the literal vehicle of integration because in most places black and white people did not live in the same neighborhoods. This was not incidental. . . . in both the North and the South, a dragnet of federal, state, local and private policies and actions had protected white neighborhoods and penned black people into all-black areas, and that this made it impossible in most areas to create integrated schools by simply zoning nearby black and white children to the same buildings. To get integrated schools, courts had to overcome entrenched government-sanctioned residential segregation.”

This, of course, has still not happened.

May 3, 1898 – Birth of Septima Clark, Educator, Civil Rights Activist, Called “The Grandmother of the Civil Rights Movement”

Septima Poinsette Clark was born on this day in history in Charleston, South Carolina. She faced racial and financial obstacles both in obtaining an education for herself and later, in teaching children when she was adult. As an African American, she was barred from teaching in the Charleston, South Carolina public schools, but was able to find a position teaching in a rural school district, on John’s Island, the largest of the Sea Islands. During this time, she taught children during the day and illiterate adults on her own time at night. She developed innovative methods for teaching adults to read and write, based on everyday materials like the Sears catalog.

Septima Poinsette Clark

Clark also furthered her own education during summer breaks. In 1937 Clark studied under W. E. B. Du Bois at Atlanta University before eventually earning her BA (1942) from Benedict College in Columbia, and her MA (1946) from Virginia’s Hampton Institute.

Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute reports Clark participated in a class action lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that led to pay equity for black and white teachers in South Carolina. In 1956 South Carolina passed a statute that prohibited city and state employees from belonging to civil rights organizations. After 40 years of teaching, Clark’s employment contract was not renewed when she refused to resign from the NAACP. 

By this time, however, Clark was conducting civil rights workshops at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, a grassroots education center dedicated to social justice. Believing that literacy and political empowerment are inextricably linked, Clark taught people basic literacy skills, their rights and duties as U.S. citizens, and how to fill out voter registration forms. Rosa Parks participated in one of Clark’s workshops just months before she helped launch the Montgomery bus boycott.

Clark (left) with Rosa Parks at the Highlander Folk School in 1955, right before the Montgomery bus boycott.

When the state of Tennessee forced Highlander to close in 1961, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) established the Citizenship Education Program (CEP), modeled on Clark’s citizenship workshops. According to the Stanford Institute MLKJr. site:

Clark became SCLC’s director of education and teaching, conducting teacher training and developing curricula. King appreciated Clark’s “expert direction” of the CEP, which he called “the bulwark of SCLC’s program department” (King, 11 August 1965). Although Clark found that most men at SCLC “didn’t respect women too much,” she thought that King “really felt that black women had a place in the movement” (Clark, 25 July 1976; McFadden, “Septima Clark,” 93).”

 

She became known as the “Queen mother” or “Grandmother” of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr. commonly referred to Clark as “The Mother of the Movement”. Clark’s argument for her position in the Civil Rights Movement was one that claimed “knowledge could empower marginalized groups in ways that formal legal equality couldn’t.

Clark with a student in Wilcox County, Alabama

In 1978, Clark was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by the College of Charleston.[20] U.S. President Jimmy Carter awarded Clark a Living Legacy Award in 1979. In 1987, her second autobiography, Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement (Wild Trees Press, 1986) won the American Book Award.

Clark died December 15, 1987. In a eulogy presented at the funeral, the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) described the importance of Clark’s work and her relationship to the SCLC. Reverend Joseph Lowery asserted that “her courageous and pioneering efforts in the area of citizenship education and interracial cooperation” won her SCLC’s highest award, the Drum Major for Justice Award.

October 6, 1936 – Birth of Civil Rights Leader & Legal Educator Julius Chambers

Julius Chambers was born on this day in history in rural North Carolina. Upon seeing the injustice to which his father was subject from the area white people, after which they found no white lawyer would help them, Chambers said he resolved to pursue a career that would help end segregation and discrimination. He graduated summa cum laude from North Carolina Central University, obtained a master’s degree in history from the University of Michigan, and in 1959, he became one of only a few African Americans admitted to the School of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He became first African American editor-in-chief of the law review and graduated first in his class. Nevertheless, he could not attend the law school’s annual banquet, which was held at a segregated country club.

In 1964, he earned his LL.M. from Columbia University Law School. During this period, from 1963–1964, Chambers also served as the first intern for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) in New York, having been selected by LDF’s Director-Counsel Thurgood Marshall.

In June 1964, Chambers began a solo law practice in Charlotte, North Carolina. It grew into the first integrated firm in North Carolina history. As the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights reports:

Along with partners James E. Ferguson II and Adam Stein, the firm won numerous groundbreaking civil rights victories in the U.S. Supreme Court, including Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, in which the Court authorized the use of busing to achieve school integration; Griggs v. Duke Power and Albemarle Paper Co. v Moody, which expanded the law of employment discrimination to prohibit disparate racial impacts of racially neutral policies; and Thornburg v. Gingles, which determined that it is not necessary to prove intentional discrimination in voting rights cases.”

Julius Chambers, in 1970, as he received word of McMillan’s ruling on Swann. Photo is from the Charlotte Observer Photograph Collection

Chambers and his firm were not left unmolested by white supremacists. In January, 1965, Chambers’s car was destroyed by a bomb. In November, 1965, Chambers’s home was bombed along with the homes of three other African-American leaders in the area. In February 1971, Chambers’s downtown Charlotte law office was firebombed.

As the New York Times noted:

Mr. Chambers’s . . . response was defiant; he said he would ‘keep fighting.’ It was also measured. ‘We must accept this type of practice,’ he said, ‘from those less in control of their faculties.’”

In 1984, Chambers left his Charlotte firm to re-join the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York City. He succeeded Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg as president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Under Chambers’ leadership, the LDF litigated cases in the areas of education, voting rights, capital punishment, employment, housing and prisons. During this period, the LDF was perhaps best known for its work in defense of affirmative action programs of the 1970s and 1980s.

Julius L. Chambers

In 1993, Chambers left New York (and his position with the LDF) to return to North Carolina in order to become the chancellor of his alma mater, North Carolina Central University, serving in that position until 2001.

Chambers also served as lecturer or adjunct professor at a number of law schools, including Harvard Law, University of Virginia Law School, University of Pennsylvania Law School, Columbia University Law School, and University of Michigan Law School. He also served as the Charles Hamilton Houston Distinguished Professor of Law at North Carolina Central University.

In his last years, Chamber was of counsel with Ferguson Stein Chambers Gresham & Sumter PA in Charlotte, while also serving as a clinical professor of law and director of the Center for Civil Rights at UNC School of Law.

Chambers led the UNC Center until retiring in 2010. He passed away at age 76 in 2013.

The Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights is a non-profit named in his honor dedicated to providing low-wealth North Carolina communities with sound legal representation in their efforts to dismantle structural racism.

August 13, 1955 – Murder of African-American Lamar Smith by Whites to Prevent Black Voting in Mississippi

Lamar Smith, born in 1892, was a World War I veteran and voting rights activist who helped black voters fill out absentee ballots so they could vote without risking their lives. He was risking his own, however, and was shot dead in broad daylight at the age of 63 on this day in history on the steps of the Lincoln County Courthouse, in Brookhaven, Mississippi.

Lamar Smith

The DOJ Civil Rights Division has a file online about this case, in which it reports:

Three white men, Noah Smith, Mack Smith, and Charles Falvey, were arrested for the shooting.  According to an August 17, 1955 Daily Worker article, a state Coroner’s Jury heard testimony for four hours on the night of August 16 and then ruled that the victim had died as a result ‘of a gunshot wound in an altercation with Noah Smith, Mack Smith and Charles Falvey and probably other parties unknown.’”

The three men were arrested in connection with Smith’s murder. On September 13, 1955, an all-white Brookhaven grand jury failed to return any indictments. (All witnesses claimed that they did not see any crime take place, meaning that the grand jury could make no indictment.)
  
In January 1956, the newly elected local District Attorney empaneled another grand jury and subpoenaed several witnesses but no new evidence was developed to support an indictment, despite indications that numerous people would have witnessed the murder.

Ultimately, none of the three suspects ever faced charges.

In the fall of 2008, the FBI initiated a review of the circumstances surrounding the victim’s death. The three main suspects were already dead by that time.

In the “Legal Analysis” appended to the DOJ report cited above, the author of the report found the following:

This matter does not constitute a prosecutable violation of the federal criminal civil rights statutes. 

First, the federal government cannot prosecute the three identified subjects because they are deceased.  The local Coroner’s Jury ruled that “probably other parties unknown” were involved in the murder but those parties have never been identified.

Second, prior to 1994, federal criminal civil rights violations were not capital offenses, thereby subjecting them to a five-year statute of limitations.  . . . While the Civil Rights Division has used non-civil rights statutes to overcome the statute of limitations challenge in certain cases, such as those occurring on federal land and kidnapping resulting in death, the facts of the present case do not lend themselves to prosecution under other statutes.

Based on the foregoing, this matter lacks prosecutive merit and should be closed.  Additionally, because the subjects are deceased, this matter will not be forwarded to the state for prosecutive review.  AUSA Glenda Haynes, Southern District of Mississippi, concurs in this recommendation.”

June 17, 1871 – Birth of James Weldon Johnson, Civil Rights Activist & Co-Author of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”

James Weldon Johnson was born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida. Graduating Stanton High School at the age of sixteen, Johnson enrolled in Atlanta University, from which be graduated in 1894. Afterwards, Johnson, though only twenty-three, returned to the Stanton School to become its principal. In 1895, he founded a newspaper, “The Daily American,” dedicated to reporting issues of interest to the black community. In 1897, he became the first African American to pass the bar exam in Florida.

James Weldon Johnson

In 1900, James and his brother John wrote the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on the occasion of Lincoln’s birthday. The song became immensely popular in the black community, and some twenty years later it was adopted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as the “Negro National Hymn.”

Johnson moved to New York and studied literature at Columbia University, where he met other African-American artists and became part of the “Harlem Renaissance.”

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt, on the advice of Booker T. Washington, appointed James Weldon Johnson to diplomatic positions in Venezuela and Nicaragua. During the years he held this post, Johnson completed his only novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which he published anonymously in 1912.

James Weldon Johnson. 1943 Oil Painting by Laura Wheeler Waring.
National Portrait Gallery/ Smithsonian Institution

As his biography at poets.org explains:

[It was] the story of a musician who rejects his black roots for a life of material comfort in the white world. The book explores the issue of racial identity in the twentieth century, a common theme for the writers of the Harlem Renaissance.”

Upon his return in 1914, Johnson became involved with the NAACP, and was the first African-American to be selected as Executive Secretary, a position in which he served from 1920 to 1930.

A biography by Eugene Levy (author of James Weldon Johnson: Black Leader, Black Voice, 1973) points out:

Johnson . . . labored with considerable success to put the NAACP on secure financial ground. He spent much time in Washington unsuccessfully lobbying to have Congress pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, legislation that would have made lynching a federal crime. Finally, Johnson was a key figure in making the NAACP a clearinghouse for civil-rights court cases. . . . In all these efforts he worked closely with Walter White, whom he brought into the NAACP as his assistant and who succeeded him as secretary, and W. E. B. Du Bois, the editor of Crisis, the NAACP monthly journal.”

Biographer Herman Beavers recounted how even while at the NAACP, Johnson continued to play an active role in the Harlem Renaissance:

As a prominent voice in the literary debates of the day, Johnson undertook the task of editing The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), The Second Book of American Negro Spirituals (1926), and writing his survey of African American cultural contributions to the New York artistic scene in Black Manhattan (1930). His own career as a poet reached its culmination in God’s Trombones, Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, published in 1927.”

In the late 1930s, Johnson became Professor of Creative Literature and Writing at Fisk University, lecturing around the country and continuing to write. He died in an automobile accident while vacationing in Maine in June of 1938.

You can read the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” here, and you can hear a fabulous jazzy rendition of it performed by Ray Charles in the 1972 video below.