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. After 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.

August 21, 1939 – Civil Rights Protest at the Alexandria, Virginia Library

One of America’s first sit-ins for civil rights took place in the public library of Alexandria, Virginia on this date in history.

At the time, the present-day Barrett Branch Library on Queen Street was the only library building in a city with a population of 33,000. Although it was financed for the most part with taxpayer money paid by both blacks and whites, it was only open to whites.
Samuel Wilbert Tucker (1913-1990) grew up only two blocks from the Barrett Branch but was not allowed to use it. He also had to travel over a mile to attend a high school for black children, even though there was a high school closer to him.

Samuel Wilbert Tucker

Tucker attended Howard University for his undergrad degree and studied law on his own at the Library of Congress. He passed the bar at age 20, but was too young to be sworn in until the following year. He understood personally the importance of libraries, and resolved to gain access for blacks to the public library in his community.
In the summer of 1939, Tucker, then 26, selected a group of African American men to help him challenge the status quo. A black history site relates:

On Friday, August 21, 1939, a young African American entered and asked to register for a library card. When he was refused, he picked up a book, took a seat, and began to read. Minutes later, another well-groomed and polite young adult repeated these actions. This continued until William Evans, Otto L. Tucker (the attorney’s brother), Edward Gaddis, Morris Murray and Clarence Strange occupied five tables. Each one sat in silence and read a book.”

As the Washington Post reports, the assistant librarian, Alice Green, told the men: I’m sorry, you fellows will have to leave. This library is for whites only.’ The readers maintained silence.”

The library’s page, the Post continues, “ran to the lodgings of Catharine Scoggin, the head librarian. ‘Oh mercy, Miss Scoggin, there’s colored people all over the library!’” Scoggin hurried off to discuss the situation with the city manager and the chief of police.

The youths involved, between the ages of 18 and 22, were five out of an initial group of 11 who were recruited and secretly trained by Tucker over a 10 day period, according to the Alexandria Black History Museum. Tucker instructed them on what to say, what to wear, and how to act, precisely so there could be no accusations of bad conduct of any kind.

Nevertheless, you would have thought it was Starbucks in 2018; the library staff called the police. Clarence Strange’s brother ran to Tucker’s law office to let him know the police were on the way.
Officers arrived and escorted the protestors from the library, arresting them for “disorderly conduct.” Samuel Tucker brought a photographer, who took a photo, and then quickly arranged for the release of the men. He wanted to challenge the city in court, but the city resisted and stalled, lest it be forced to integrate.

Police escorting out the would-be readers from the library

Unfortunately, Tucker became seriously ill and was unable to pursue the case himself. In 1940, community leaders proceeded without him and accepted the promise of a “separate but equal” library. The Alexandria Library Board quickly approved the construction of a “colored library,” the Robert H. Robinson Library. It appropriated funding for books, and hired an African American librarian. (That building currently serves as the Alexandria Black History Museum.)
Tucker was infuriated, and insisted on equal protection under the law, writing:

I refuse and will always refuse to accept a card to be used at the library to be constructed and operated at Alfred and Wythe Streets in lieu of [a] card to be used at the existing library on Queen Street for which I have made application.”

The Black History Museum contends:

Samuel W. Tucker ingeniously combined two tactics that would become the cornerstone of the Civil Rights movement. He attacked the system of Jim Crow through direct-action, the sit-in, and acted as counsel for the trials that followed questioning the legality of segregated libraries.”

While the sit-in received national media attention, it was soon overshadowed by the opening of a new world war.
Tucker remained a leader in the war for equal rights, serving a as the lead lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Virginia. He appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court four times, and was a founding partner in the prominent Richmond law firm, Hill, Tucker, and Marsh.

Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, then the Senate’s sole black member, said of Tucker in 1975:

He is really one of the most brilliant minds that I know, a man of great integrity. He is always on the firing line when he believes injustice is being done or some wrong needs to be righted.”

On October 19, 2000, a decade after Tucker’s passing, his hometown dedicated its newest elementary school in his honor.

July 6, 1944 – Jackie Robinson Refuses to Move to the Back of the Bus

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. But on July 6, 1944, Lieutenant Jack Roosevelt (“Jackie”) Robinson also refused to move to the back of the bus, and he received a court martial.

Jackie Robinson in military uniform, 1945

Jackie Robinson in military uniform, 1945

Jackie Robinson, later to become famous as the first black to integrate major league baseball in modern times, was assigned to Camp Hood near Waco, Texas during World War II. Camp Hood had a bad reputation among blacks, not only because of the segregation on the post but also because of the depth of racism in the neighboring towns.

On July 6, 1944, Robinson was riding a bus on the base and sitting next to a fellow officer’s light-skinned wife. The driver instructed Robinson to move to a seat farther back. Robinson argued with him, and when he got off at his stop, the bus dispatcher joined in the altercation. A crowd formed and military policemen arrived. The MPs took Robinson into the station. John Vernon, an archivist at the National Archives (Prologue, Spring 2008), tells what happened next:

“…when they arrived at the station to meet with the camp’s assistant provost marshal, a white MP ran up to the vehicle and excitedly inquired if they had ‘the nigger lieutenant’ with them. The utterance of this unexpected and especially offensive racial epithet served to set Robinson off and he threatened ‘to break in two’ anyone, whatever their rank or status, who employed that word.”

Robinson continued to show “disrespect” and received a court martial.

Robinson contacted the NAACP and sought publicity from the Negro press. He also wrote to the War Department. The white press picked up on the situation as Robinson was a well-known athlete from his days at UCLA. (In his time at UCLA, Robinson won a national championship in track and field, two consecutive conference scoring titles as a basketball player, was an honorable mention All-American in football, and also played a little baseball.) Higher ups were worried about this “political dynamite.”

Jackie Robinson at UCLA

Jackie Robinson at UCLA

At the court martial trial, Robinson’s commanding officer gave a glowing report on his character. His army-appointed defense attorney pointed out inconsistencies in witnesses’ accounts. The attorney also suggested that Robinson’s assertiveness was a legitimate expression of resentment given the racially hostile environment. Ultimately, the court acquitted Robinson of all charges.

While what happened to Robinson was not unique, the outcome of the conflict was unusual. It would more than another decade before blacks were free to sit where they chose on the bus.

For more information on Jackie Robinson’s army service, see the Prologue article, here.

June 30, 1960 – Civil Rights Demonstration at Glen Echo Amusement Park in Maryland

Glen Echo was an amusement park for people in the D.C. area. But like many other facilities at the time, it was for “whites only.”

An original trolley poster advertising Glen Echo Amusement Park. Source:
National Park Service, Glen Echo Park Photo Archives

In the summer of 1960, at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, students from Howard University, inspired by the Greensboro sit-ins that February, decided to try to desegregate the park. Even though Glen Echo was privately owned, public funds were used to sustain it.

Along with some sympathetic residents from the local community of Bannockburn, the group of students – mostly of members of the Nonviolent Action Group (N.A.G.). – gathered with pickets in front of the park beginning on this day in history. Their leader was Laurence Henry, a 26-year-old divinity student.

A group of protesters at Glen Echo Amusement Park
National Park Service, Glen Echo Park Photo Archives

The WETA history blog reports:

Right off the bat, the protest differed from prior demonstrations. The 28 Howard students found considerable support in the white residents of nearby Bannockburn, and together they formed a diverse crowd of more than 60. With the help of these community members . . . students left their placards at the gate and gained access to the park for the first time that same night. They headed toward the lunch counter, but it immediately closed when those working saw the racial makeup of the crowd. They then went to the ice cream machine, but management locked it down for the same reasons. 13 students finally headed to the famous Dentzel Carousel and boarded the painted animals.”

Carousel at Glen Echo

This may have been before the days of police body cams, but not before the days of radio recordings.

A National Park Service website tells what happened next when a security guard confronted Laurence Henry:

Officer Frank Collins confronts Laurence Henry on Glen Echo’s Dentzel Carousel on June 30, 1960. (Photo source: National Park Service)

Their confrontation, a microcosm of American race relations, was captured by radio reporter Sam Smith. Below is a transcription of a portion of that recording:

F. Collins [FC]: Are you white or colored?

L. Henry [LH]: Am I white or colored?

FC: That’s correct. That’s what I want to know. Can I ask your race?

LH: My race? I belong to the human race.

FC: All right. This park is segregated.

LH: I don’t understand what you mean.

FC: It’s strictly for white people.

LH: It’s strictly for white persons?

FC: Uh-hum. It has been for years…

LH: You’re telling me that because my skin is black I cannot come into your park?

FC: Not because your skin is black. I asked you what your race was.

LH: I would like to know why I cannot come into your park.

FC: Because the park is segregated. It is private property.

LH: Just what class of people do you allow to come in here?

FC: White people.

LH: So you’re saying you exclude the American Negro?

FC: That’s right.

LH: Who is a citizen of the United States?

FC: That’s right.

LH: I see.

While Henry was not immediately arrested, five other students were. They were detained for trespassing, and the rest were asked to leave the park. (Eventually a judge found that the charges were unfounded.)

The next day, the group resumed picketing at the front gate, and kept it up all summer.  They also initiated several legal actions.

The park still refused to desegregate, however. But as the WETA history blog relates, there were still options open:

That winter, Bannockburn resident Hyman Bookbinder, newly appointed assistant to Secretary of Commerce Luther Hodges, had a better idea. A small part of the park’s property was leased from the Federal Government. Using his governmental connection, Bookbinder appealed to U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and asked if the park’s lease could be revoked if they continued their policy of segregation.  It worked.

With Kennedy knocking at their door, Glen Echo Park owners Abraham and Sam Baker gave in to desegregation on March 14th, 1961. As of the park’s opening on March 31st, Glen Echo would be open to all races for the first time in its 52-year history.”

WETA concludes:

The events at Glen Echo Park the summer of 1960 and the ensuing achievements proved to be monumental for the Civil Rights Movement. Not only did the picketers make groundbreaking legal precedents and succeed in the integration of the park, many were inspired to participate in additional large-scale protests.”