Sunday 28 February 2016

The Big Cat of Basketball

"In 1950, basketball was like a babe in the woods.  It didn't enjoy the notoriety that baseball did."  So explained Earl Lloyd, the first black player in the National Basketball Association.  He did for basketball what Jackie Robinson did for baseball.  Here is his story.

Earl Francis Lloyd was born on April 3, 1928 in Alexandria, Virginia.  He took up basketball in Grade 6 and soon excelled at the sport.  He attended a black high school which would later be integrated with the local white high school and the new school would be called T.C. Williams.  This is the school featured in the fact-based football movie "Remember the Titans".

Upon graduation from high school, he was accepted at West Virginia State College, also an all-black school.  Earl played on the basketball team where he and his teammates won the C.I.A.A. championship in 1948 and 1949.  At 6 feet 7 inches, Earl soon acquired the nickname "The Big Cat".  In four years of college, Earl and his friends only visited the city of Charleston three or four times, even though it was only 10 miles away.  Being a segregated city, they chose to stay on campus where it was safe.  One day, a friend approached him on the college campus and said she heard on the radio that Earl was going to be drafted by an NBA team.  Because the owners and managers were white, they did not usually visit black campuses.

Map courtesy

But the friend was right and Earl was soon signing on the dotted line with the Washington Capitols.  This was his first chance to have a conversation with a white person in his entire life.  Earl found his teammates to be accepting of him despite his skin colour.  He had no car and it was white teammate Bill Sharman who drove him to every practice.  His white coach, Horace "Bones" McKinney, also accepted him with open arms.  AT one point the team lodged at a hotel where Earl was refused entry at the restaurant.  Earl ordered room service and Coach McKinney ate with him in his hotel room.  The young basketball star "carried that gesture for the rest of his life".

While Earl's teammates were supportive, and the opposing teams were supportive, the fans were not.  They taunted him mercilessly in places like St. Louis, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, shouting insults like "Go back to Africa" and "Show us your tail".  Like Jackie Robinson, Earl Lloyd refused to take the bait.  Instead, he used the rude fans' insults to fuel his fire on the basketball court.

Earl's time with the Washington Capitols was brief as he was drafted into the American military and sent overseas to Korea.  After two years in the service, he returned home to find out his team had folded.  He was picked up by the Syracuse Nationals where he averaged 10.2 points per game.  While travelling with Syracuse, he still encountered racism.  The team was invited to an exhibition game in South Carolina, but Earl was not allowed to go due to his skin colour.  It was bad enough that he couldn't play, but even worse that his teammates said nothing to him about the matter.  He was hoping that they would at least acknowledge the injustice of the situation.

Photo of NBA champions, Syracuse Nationals, 1955 courtesy

Earl continued to rack up points on the basketball court and in 1955, he received the ultimate reward -- the NBA championship.  After six years with Syracuse, Earl signed on with the Detroit Pistons for his last two seasons.  In 1960, he retired.

Earl soon became the NBA's first black assistant coach.  Then in 1965, the general manager of the Pistons wanted to make him the head coach, but his decision was overridden by someone higher up.  Earl did become the Pistons' head coach, however, seven years later.

Earl was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.  His fans will never forget the class he showed both on and off the court.  He was once asked who was the one person he would pick to have lunch with if he had the chance.  He said his first choice was Jesus, but if he could not lunch with Jesus, his second choice was his favourite sports hero -- Jackie Robinson.

Note:  For more information read his autobiography, Moon Fixer:  The Basketball Journey of Earl Lloyd.

Saturday 27 February 2016

No Uniform, No Shoulder Pads, Just a Football

Washington, Strode, Willis and Motley were the first four black football players to play on American fields in decades.  The first two men would not last long, but Willis and Motley ended up making careers out of their contracts.  But it came at a cost:  cheap shots, hard hits and abuse.  But in the end, Motley would be listed as one of the top 100 NFL players of all time.

Photo courtesy

Marion Motley was born in Georgia and raised in Canton, Ohio.  At his Ohio high school, Marion excelled at several sports including track, javelin and boxing.  He was also interested in playing football, but the coach refused to give him pads or a uniform.  He persevered, practising without either.  After graduating, Marion attended college in Idaho where he played more ball.  Attitudes had not changed:  opposing players stomped on him with their cleats, gouged him in the groin, and kicked him in the knee (later to become a career ending injury).

Before completing his degree, Marion signed up for the military where he played football.  Although the referees often gave him "phantom penalties", his coach saw promise in him.

Paul Brown photo courtesy 

After the war, Marion was called to try out for the Cleveland Browns in 1946.  At 250 pounds, Marion was an impressive figure.  His speed also impressed the coach, Paul Brown, the same one that Marion played for in the military.

Marion soon signed a contract and was travelling across the United States to various football stadiums.  The taunts were constant at first, some calling him "alligator bait".  The cheap shots were frequent.  But Marion refused to be reduced to their level.  The reception at hotels was not always a warm one either.  At least one hotel refused to rent a room to Marion, but the coach said the whole team would walk and the hotel owner reluctantly relented.

Photo courtesy

While the abuse from opposing teams could be brutal, Marion did not receive the same abuse from his fellow players as coach Brown would not tolerate it.  Bit by bit, his teammates gained respect for Marion as he showed them what he could do on the fans.  And bit by bit the fans followed suit.  He racked up rushing yards and broke records.  In 1950, he helped lead the Cleveland Browns to their first NFL championship and was the leagues top rusher.  By 1953, he was cut from the Browns but he played for part of a season for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Then he took early retirement due to that nagging knee injury.

Marion's nine year career record was impressive:  he amassed 4720 yards rushing on 828 carries for 5.7 years per carry.  And for the player who once didn't even have a uniform, it was an honour to have his uniform placed permanently in the Football Hall of Fame in 1968.

Friday 26 February 2016

You Give Me the Number and I'll Give You the Guts!

Image courtesy

Rob and I just saw the movie "42" last night and we were thoroughly impressed.  Based on the life of baseball great Jackie Robinson, the movie tells the tale of how he broke the colour barrier in professional baseball.  It is a story of a true hero, a hero who endured taunts and death threats, but who never lowered himself to his enemy's level.

Jackie Robinson, the son of Georgia sharecroppers, never knew his father who abandonned the family when he was just a baby.  His mother moved the family to California where Jackie attended UCLA, lettering in not one but four sports.  After a brief stint in the Army, Jackie signed up with the Montreal Royals.  Only a year later, he signed on with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

It was on this date in 1947 that Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in professional baseball.  He was the first black player to set foot on the field with whites since the 1880's, the time of Reconstruction.  With his arrival came immediate rumblings:  rumblings from Jackie's teammates; rumblings from the opposing team; rumblings from the opposing coaches; rumblings from the crowd; and rumblings in the press.  What was a black man doing playing on a white baseball team?

The movie highlights one particular game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Jackie was up to bat.  While he tried to focus on the pitch, he had a constant barrage of taunts from the Pirates coach behind him.  Not one to hold his cool in the past, and not one to bend easily to Jim Crow laws, Jackie came close to losing it.  Finally, he'd had enough and he ran under the stands, smashing his baseball bat against a cement wall and breaking it into several pieces.

Photo of coach who taunted Robinson who agreed to a posed shot only after pressure from the Phillies owner courtesy 

It was there that he was met by the Dodgers' owner, Branch Rickey, a Christian businessman.  He reminded Jackie that the road to integration in baseball would not be easy.  He reminded him that like our Saviour, Jesus Christ, he would have to turn the other cheek.    He reminded him that if he fought back, the press would claim that he threw the first punch.  He reminded him that he still had complete faith in him.The best way to fight back would be to play his heart out and win the game.

Jackie didn't give up that day.  He marched back on the field and he played his heart out.  And his teammates started to fight back on his behalf.  One of them stood up to the Pirates coach who had been harassing Jackie.  The Dodgers ended up winning the game.

But it wasn't the end of the fight.  Jackie endured many death threats in the coming months.  He was run out of town in Florida during spring training.  And he was denied entry into hotels where the other team members stayed.

Jackie often wondered why the Dodgers owner, Mr. Rickey, signed him in the first place.  Why was he willing to field the inevitable questions that the media would direct his way about signing a black baseball player?  Why was he willing to put up with the fights that broke out in the locker room over the fact that one of the team's players was black.  Why was he willing to put up with the team being turned away from hotels simply because one of its players was black?

Photo of Mr. Rickey courtesy 

At first, Mr. Rickey claimed that he was strictly a keen businessman with a good eye for talent.  But later he revealed that when he was young, he met a young black baseball player like Jackie, but he didn't do enough to help him.  He vowed that if he had the opportunity again, he would help the next black baseball player who came into his life.

Bit by bit, Jackie's teammates accepted him as a full fledged member of the team.  Bit by bit coaches saw the incredible talent that he possessed.  Bit by bit, crowds started to see the promise in the young baseball player.  And bit by bit the media discovered what a legend in the making Jackie was.

Photo courtesy 

One journalist in particular took Jackie under his wing and looked out for him as he travelled from town to town.  He would make sure that Jackie had lodgings since most of the hotels would not accept blacks.  The journalist had a unique perspective since he too was black.  Just as Jackie had been refused entry into the white baseball teams at first, so too was this journalist refused entry into the white press box.  He sat in the stands with the fans and typed on a typewriter perched on his lap.

Jackie was not just a hero on the baseball field.  He was also a hero at home.  While his father ran out on him, he vowed that his children would know him, and know him well.  He and his wife raised three children and he was married until the day he died in 1972.  His baseball number, 42, is the only number to be permanently retired from the sport.  As Jackie had said to Mr. Rickey when he signed him:  "You give me a number on my back, and I'll give you the guts."  Thank you, Jackie, for your courage!

Photo courtesy

*First published in 2013.

Thursday 25 February 2016

To Kill a Mockingbird

Mockingbird courtesy 

Harper Lee chose the mockingbird for the title of her 1960 book because she thought it represented innocence.  However, the incident that moved her to write the book was anything but innocent.  It was the murder of a black boy named Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 which sparked the Civil Rights Movement.

Harper Lee was born on April 28, 1926 in the small sleepy town of Monroeville, Alabama.  Like Scout in her famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Miss Lee was the daughter of a lawyer.  Like Boo Radley, the recluse in her book, she had a neighbour who lived in a boarded up house.  One of her good friends was Truman Capote, the inspiration for the character of Dill in her story.  Miss Lee attended the University of Alabama in the 1940's where she wrote articles about racial injustice.  

Harper Lee in Monroeville courthouse courtesy

In the 1950's, Harper Lee moved to New York City where she started writing a novel called Atticus, the name of the lawyer character who defends a black man who has been charged with the murder of a white woman.  By 1957, Miss Lee completed the novel.  Three years later, she secured a publisher, at which time she changed the book's title to To Kill a Mockingbird.  At one point she was so frustrated with her manuscript that she actually tossed in out her New York window into the snow, but her editor, Mr. Lippincott, convinced her to retrieve it.  While Mr. Lippincott was interested in the story, he warned her that it would probably only sell several thousand copies.  

The book was well received by the public.  People speculated about Harper Lee's motivation for writing the story.  Some said that she was motivated by the 1931 case in Scottsboro, Alabama of nine black men accused of raping two white women.  Five of the nine defendants were sentenced to long prison terms despite the fact that many people thought their accusers had lied.  However, Harper Lee would have only been six years old at the time of the Scottsboro case.  

Emmett Till photographed on Christmas Day 1954 courtesy 

It turned out that it was the Emmett Till case that inspired Miss Lee to write her story, a much more recent case.  Emmett, a black youth, had been born and raised in Chicago.  A relative invited him to spend the summer in Mississippi and he agreed.  While his mother warned him that Southern rules were quite different than Northern ones, he said he would be able to manage on his own.  However, after entering a general store and supposedly flirting with a white woman, he was hunted down by the white woman's husband and brutally murdered.  Emmett's mother was so outraged by her son's killing that she insisted that his corpse be photographed and printed in newspapers for the entire nation to see what "Southern justice" looked like.  

Harper Lee's novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. By 1962 it was made into a play as well as a movie, the latter starring Gregory Peck as Atticus.  Miss Lee chose to take a back seat in the movie production.  By 1964 she no longer did interviews with the press.  She withdrew from the public eye, eventually moving back to her hometown.  To Kill a Mockingbird would become a staple in high school English classes.  The novel has sold 15 million copies and has never been out of print.  It was the only book Harper Lee ever had published.

Gregory Peck starred in the 1962 movie courtesy

Wednesday 24 February 2016

Coach Boone Battles Racism on the Football Field

"I can't make you like each other, but I will demand that you respect each other." 
(Coach Herman Boone)

When Coach Herman Boone walked into the dining hall at his football camp in 1971, he saw whites sitting at white tables, blacks at black tables.  He marched his team onto the bus and took a field trip    -- to Gettysburg.  In the early morning hours, the boys' eyes still half closed, Coach Boone told them about the young men who, over a hundred years before, had fought about the same thing that they were fighting about.  Only now they were wearing tombstones for hats.  The following morning, Coach Boone saw "a noticeable change in the dining hall".

In the 1950's and 1960's, schools were integrated across the United States.  The city of Alexandria, Virginia was no exception.  Parker-Gray, a black school, and George Washington and Hammond, both white high schools, were integrated into one school called T. C. Williams in the fall of 1971.  Resistance came from both blacks and whites.  Suddenly, children could not graduate from the same school as their parents or grandparents.  Alexandria students had to be bussed from one end of town to the other, often bypassing their "home school" on the way.  Blacks and whites would share the same classrooms for the first time in Alexandria.

With the integration of the schools came the integration of the sports teams.  T. C. Williams football team was in a shambles.  It was crying out for leadership.  And that came in the form of head coach, Herman Boone, a black who grew up in North Carolina.  A controversial decision, Boone was hired by the city of Alexandria instead of the more experienced white coach, Bill Yoast.  

Like baseball's Jackie Robinson, Herman Boone knew that if he were to be accepted by whites, he would have to deliver a top notch performance.  From the moment he set foot on the T. C. Williams field, he was a disciplinarian.  For the first time, white football players were facing off against blacks. And these were blacks who were originally on opposing teams.  But that didn't matter to Boone who reminded them:  "I can't make you like each other, but I will demand that you respect each other."

As Boone explained:  "Nobody wanted me to succeed but me."  But the T. C. Williams coach started to deliver immediately.  President Nixon heard about the fuss and sent his aide, Dr. Browne, to check out the Titans shortly after they returned from Gettysburg.  The interaction among the players likely accounts for some of the growing respect between blacks and whites.  However, as one former player points out:  "Boone's gradual acceptance by fans, neighbours and colleagues might have more to do with winning than enlightenment."  Like Jackie Robinson, Herman Boone knew how to win.  

With a no loss record, the Titans went on to win the Virginia State Championship that year and were ranked second in the United States.  Not just an inspiration at T. C. Williams, they inspired their entire community.  Richard Nixon called them "the team that saved Alexandria".  Coach Boone had a large part to play in that transformation.

Coach Boone with Titans players courtesy

*First published in 2015.

Tuesday 23 February 2016

Cross Burned on Martin Luther King Jr.'s Lawn

"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it."
(Nelson Mandela)

It is almost Spring, a time when mild temperatures bring homeowners outside to rake up old grass or tend to new flowers poking up their heads.  But no one expects to find what Martin Luther King Jr. found on the front lawn of his new house in April of 1960 -- a burned cross.  No one could pretend that it wasn't there.  Even his young son, who stood at his side, seemed to know what is going on, his head downcast, his hand partially covering his face.  However, clad in a dark suit, tie and dress shoes, Dr. King nonchalantly bent down and pulled out the calling card of the Ku Klux Klan.  Most of us would not do such an act with nonchalance.  Yet, given what the black civil rights leader had already endured in his young life, it was completely within his character.  

Martin Luther King Jr. received dozens of death threats due to his role as a civil rights leader.  In 1956, Dr. King's Alabama house was bombed, blowing the windows out and damaging the front porch.  King was just relieved to hear that his wife and children were unharmed; speaking to an angry crowd after the bombing, he warned:  "He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword...We must meet hate with love."  In 1958, Dr. King travelled to New York City for a book signing in Harlem where he was stabbed by an assailant and rushed to the hospital.  Death threats were part and parcel of his job:  Dr. King would not be intimidated.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew the world was watching on that day that he found a burned cross on his lawn. If he had shown fear, he would have succumbed to fear.  He would not have sat at a lunch counter and waited for his order to be filled while onlookers spat on him in 1960; he would not have written his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" in 1963 or delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech to a sea of protesters in Washington D.C. in 1963; he would not have marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge to face a wall of Alabama state troopers on Bloody Sunday in 1965; he would not have faced the bricks, bottles and firecrackers thrown by a jeering crowd as he led a march through an all-white suburb of Chicago in 1966; and he would not have roused the crowd with his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech in 1968, only hours before he was assassinated.

Yes, a burned cross wasn't exactly how Martin Luther King Jr. expected to be welcomed to the neighbourhood back in 1960.  But his response spoke volumes.  

"So do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good."  (Romans 12:21)

Martin Luther King Jr. pulls a burned cross out of his lawn while his little boy stands beside him circa 1960 courtesy

*First published in 2014.

Monday 22 February 2016

The Power of the Pen

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that one voice can’t make a difference.  Here’s a story of how powerful the written word can be.  One day back in 1983 a teenage boy bought a used book at the Toronto Library.  He took it home and devoured the words.  He immediately discovered that he had a lot in common with the writer of the book.  They were both Black, both from the New York City area, both from humble roots. 

Lesra loved the book so much that he gave it to his housemates to read, including a lawyer.  He sat down and wrote a letter to the writer, introducing himself and commending him for his book.  Soon, Lesra took a train to New Jersey and met the writer who was serving time in jail.  It turned out that the writer was a former boxer who was convicted of a triple murder that he claimed he did not commit.  He had spent his early years in prison writing his life story to explain what had really happened.  However, the establishment did not believe him.  His case became a “cause celebre” for certain celebrities, though, including Bob Dylan who wrote a song about the conviction.  The boxer was front page news for a few months. 

However, the headlines soon changed and the boxer was forgotten, languishing in prison.  He would sit in his jail cell, night after night, typing on his typewriter his life story, including the events that transpired the night of the murders.  When the jail guard came to inspect his cell, the boxer’s manuscript was off limits.  He had given up his freedom and he certainly wasn’t giving up that manuscript!  Page by page, chapter by chapter, he poured out his story.  Although he had little formal education, he was a great storyteller, something the reader quickly discovered upon reading his book.  A second trial brought a second conviction.  The boxer tried to resolve himself to the strong possibility that he might be in jail for life. 

Then he got a letter from Lesra.  They struck up a friendship and before he knew it, Lesra and three of his housemates were on their way to New Jersey to help the boxer.  They moved into a hotel near the prison and set to work researching his case in the hope of securing another trail.  Despite intimidation from locals who wanted to preserve the status quo, the three Canadians worked tirelessly to seek justice for the boxer. 

Incredibly, after several months, the do-gooders got their wish.  It had been almost twenty years since the original murders in 1966 and some witnesses had died in the meantime.  Fortunately, the boxer would have a new judge this time who seemed willing to listen.  In 1985, the boxer stood trial for a third time.  He received an innocent verdict!!!  The judge ruled that the original conviction had been based on racial prejudice. 

That boxer’s name is Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter and his book is titled The Sixteenth Round.  His story was made into a movie starring Denzel Washington called “The Hurricane” in 1999.  Rubin Carter has gone on to champion the cause of other wrongfully convicted individuals.  He lives in Toronto and does speaking engagements in Southern Ontario.  He walks free now because he had the courage to tell his story.  Never underestimate the power of the pen.

P.S.  I should mention that the teenage boy, Lesra Martin, who bought the book at the Toronto Library went on to become a lawyer himself. 

Photo courtesy

Sunday 21 February 2016

Violence over Forced Busing in Boston

A decade after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill, violence broke out in South Boston over forced desegregation of the city's schools on this day in 1974.  Whites pelted rocks and eggs at buses carrying black students to South Boston High.  Police on motorcycles were asked to escort the buses along their route.  The National Guard was called in to line the bus routes.  However, violence continued for three years and the problem was not completely resolved until 1988.

Police escort a caravan of 20 buses carrying black students to South Boston High courtesy

Segregated neighbourhoods in Boston naturally led to segregated schools.  Roxbury, formerly a Jewish neighbourhood, was predominantly black by the 1970's.  South Boston was a predominantly white (Irish Catholic) neighbourhood.  Blacks complained that Roxbury School lacked teachers, furniture and books, all of the things the white schools had.  School Board head Louise Day Hicks claimed that "a racially imbalanced school is not educationally harmful".  Rather than putting money in the predominantly black schools, the Board of Education did nothing.

Valerie Banks was the only student to show up for her geography class at South Boston High School on the first day of court-ordered busing, Sept. 12, 1974. (AP)

Valerie Banks was the only student to show up for her geography class at South Boston High on
 Sept. 12, 1974 courtesy

However, in the case of Morgan vs. Hennigan, a U.S. judge ruled that the Massachusetts State Board of Education must have a balanced racial mix in its schools.  At the beginning of the school year in 1974, the Board of Education was ordered to mix up the school population in the 80 of 200 schools that were less than 50% black.  Roxbury High, a predominantly black school, would have its students bused to South Boston High, an all-white school;  Conversely, South Boston students would go to the Roxbury.  A predominantly Italian-American neighbourhood in North Boston would also be affected. In fact, eighteen thousand students would be bused all over Boston to different schools.

Black students arriving at South Boston School courtesy

Violence erupted on the streets of South Boston on the first day of the forced integration of the schools.  Later, Boston Police, riding motorcycles, accompanied many of the buses on their routes. But still, many whites (and blacks) protested by pulling their children out of school.  Senator Edward Kennedy was attacked by a mob protesting the decision outside a federal building.  Board of Education head Louise Day Hicks led protests.  Protesters wore pins with lions on them stating R.O.A.R. (Restore Our Alienated Rights).

Louise Day Hicks (at right) lead protest of forced busing in Boston circa 1974 courtesy

Finally, in 1977, Ms. Hicks resigned from the Board and a black member was elected.  It was not until 1988, however, that the desegregation issue was fully resolved in Boston.

*First published in 2014.

Saturday 20 February 2016

Justice for Johnnie Mae

In the ditch at the end of the day
A black lady looked for her wallet.
Inside was all of her weekly pay,
This mother of ten named Johnnie Mae.

As a loud shot rang out, she was hit.
An ambulance marked "colored" was hailed.
Her husband held her hand for a bit,
Yet despite his pleas, her heart soon quit.

At the church, as her small children wailed
Murdered Johnnie Mae was laid to rest.
But five months went by with no one jailed
In old Jacksonville, justice had failed.

"Four white men killed her" detectives say.
But the sheriff freed them anyway.
Ten grown children continue to pray
All seeking justice for Johnnie Mae.

Linda Jonasson, March 10, 2008.

Based on the murder of Johnnie Mae Chappell in Jacksonville, Florida on March 23, 1964.  For more information visit

Photo of Shelton Chappell, just an infant in 1964, holding photo of his father and his deceased mother courtesy

Friday 19 February 2016

In the Glaring Light of Television

"We are here to say to the white men that we no longer will let them use clubs on us in dark corners.  We're going to make them do it in the glaring light of television." (Martin Luther King Jr. upon a sheriff's posse's beating of peaceful protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965)

Time coverage of Selma to Montgomery March courtesy

In the modern novel The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, white housewives shielded their black domestics from the television coverage of the Civil Rights Movement.  Upon further inspection, I discovered that some Southern networks blacked out these news telecasts to keep Blacks in the dark.  In the era before television, it was much easier to pull the wool over America's eyes.

The Help courtesy

Newspapers often only reached a local audience.  Magazines were also limited in their scope, although the picture magazines Life and Look had a national audience.  But it was the advent of television in the late 1940's and the proliference of television sets in American homes (90%) in the early 1960's, that brought the Civil Rights Movement into America's living rooms.  Now, not only would Southern Blacks be informed, but also Northern Whites.  Television brought graphic evidence of the violence perpetrated by Whites against Blacks (and sometimes White protesters) to an international audience.  Even the citizens of Europe were privy to what was going on in the Deep South.

Photo taken by Charles Moore, Life Magazine, courtesy

Decisions in the courts like Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 angered racist Whites.  The images of empty busses in Montgomery made Whites scratch their heads.  The lunch counter sit-ins made their blood boil.  Citizens' Councils were on the rise.  And with them, the rise of violence. With every stride made by Blacks, racist Whites dug their heals in deeper and deeper.

Lunch counter sit-in courtesy

Television was at the front and centre fifty years ago today when 200,000 protesters converged at the Washington Monument, lining both sides of the Reflecting Pool, as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream Speech".

March on Washington, August 28, 1963 courtesy

Television helped America wake up to the inequality in its midst.  In fact, while ABC was airing the movie "Judgment at Nuremburg" about the trials of several Nazi leaders who murdered Jews, they decided to interrupt the showing with a news bulletin showing the nightsticks and tear gas aimed at peaceful protesters on the Selma to Montgomery March.  According to one writer, the contrast between the two stories "struck like psychological lightning in American homes".

Former Freedom Rider John Lewis being beaten by a State Trooper on Bloody Sunday, during the Selma to Montgomery March circa 1965 courtesy

Television not only informed America about the Civil Rights Movement, but it also united Black communities, making them more determined than ever to break the chains of segregation.  No longer relegated to the "dark corners" of America, they were now on television screens for all the world to see.  Whites could no longer deny what was happening.  President Kennedy, initially on the fence but embarrassed at the airing of his country's dirty laundry, was now forced to confront the problem head on.

JFK's Civil Rights speech on June 11, 1963, courtesy

*First published in 2013.

Thursday 18 February 2016

Selma to Montgomery March

A crowd gathered on the steps of the Perry County Courthouse to protest the exclusion of blacks in Alabama's voting process on February 18, 1965.  When the protest turned violent, Jimmie Lee Jackson ran into a nearby cafe with his mother where he was shot by a pursuing state trooper, later dying from his wounds.

As a protest to Mr. Jackson's shooting and in an attempt to protect black voting registrants, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) gathered on March 7 to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama where they would meet Governor Wallace to state their case.  Six hundred strong, the civil rights activists only made it to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where they were met by Alabama State troopers in riot gear.  When the protesters did not immediately turn around, they were greeted with billy clubs to the head and clouds of tear gas, causing seventeen to be hospitalized.  March 7 was heretofore named "Bloody Sunday".

For the second attempt to march to Montgomery, 2500 protesters took to the road.  Rev. Martin Luther King, now on board, tried to secure a court injunction to allow the protesters a safe passage, but such a case took time which they did not have.  Therefore, the group did a "ceremonial" march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where they stopped, a warm up for the march to come.  Even so, there was still bloodshed and marcher Rev. James Reeb, a white, was injured.  Taken to Selma's Public Hospital, doctors there refused to treat him and he had to be rushed to Birmingham Hospital two hours away.  Sadly, he died from his wounds two days later.

Unfortunately, it took the death of a white man rather than a black man to mobilize the media.  After securing the protection of 2000 U.S. soldiers and 1900 Alabama National Guardsmen, the third march got underway on March 16.  Averaging 10 miles a day, the protesters marched along U.S. Route 80, their arms locked in solidarity.  One participant, Mr. Herschel, said that "When [he] marched in Selma, [his] feet were praying".  Finally, on March 25, the protesters arrived at the Montgomery courthouse.

President Johnson had seen the bloody demonstrations on television and was moved to sign the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. by saying "We Shall Overcome".  Although Southerners like Governor Wallace were claiming that they were trying to preserve social order in the South by refusing to allow the marches, in the end they simply endorsed terrorism, by attacking nonviolent protesters.  In Alabama, 7000 blacks were added to the voting rolls.  By 1960, the total of black voters registered in the state increased to 53, 336.  Three decades later, it would grow to 537,285.

*First published in 2012.

Wednesday 17 February 2016

The Ghosts of Mississippi

On June 12, 1963, a Mississippi housewife is home with her three children when she hears a shot, runs to the door and sees her injured husband drag himself up the driveway 30 feet and collapse in a pool of blood.

This is a scene from Rob Reiner's movie "The Ghosts of Mississippi" which premiered in 1996.  It is based on the life of Black civil rights activist Medgar Evers who was the victim of a racist killing.  Ku Klux Klan member Byron de la Beckwith was arrested and tried for the murder in 1964 and again in 1965.  However, he was freed twice by an all-White jury and returned to his home in Tennessee.

Medgar's widow, Myrlie, moved to California after the second trial and attempted to provide a safe home to raise her three children.  Although she left Mississippi, she continued to further Medgar's cause, working for the NAACP and later becoming its chairwoman.

In the meantime, lawyer Bobbie DeLaughter, played by Alec Baldwin, managed to secure a new trial to attempt to convict Byron de la Beckwith, played by James Woods.  Although many of the witnesses who spoke at the first and second trial had since died, Mr. DeLaughter was able to find some surviving witnesses who were willing to talk.  Incredibly, he also found the murder weapon in his late father-in-law's house, knowing that judges used to collect trial evidence as souvenirs.  Equally important was the original trial manuscript which Myrlie guarded with her life.  Bobbie was able to establish a trust with Medgar's widow and eventually she gave him the manuscript.

In the movie, there is a disturbing scene in the men's  washroom where Mr. DeLaughter asks Mr. Beckwith how he could just shoot Medgar Evers the way a hunter would shoot a deer.  Beckwith's response is that a deer is one of God's creatures and he would never shoot a deer.

With a passionate lawyer on the case, a new judge and a new jury, the State of Mississippi was able to secure a conviction against Byron de la Beckwith in 1994, over 30 years after the original crime.  As Bobbie DeLaughter said in his closing statement, "it's never too late to do the right thing".  The final scene in front of the courthouse when Myrlie Evers, played by Whoopi Goldberg, pumps her fist in the air victoriously after the conviction, is heartwarming.  Will the ghosts of Mississippi finally be laid to rest?

*Originally published in 2011.

Tuesday 16 February 2016

Ballad for Birmingham

I saw four little girls sitting on a wooden bench in an old yellow brick church in Brantford this week and I thought of four little girls sitting in an old red brick church in Birmingham almost 50 years ago.  The main difference between the two groups of girls is the colour of their skin.  The Brantford girls don't have to worry about a group called the KKK.  They don't have to worry about dogs and guns and hoses and tear gas.  They don't have to worry about which fountain they drink at or which stores they shop in or which restaurants they eat at or which libraries they borrow books from or which schools they attend.  Their parents don't have to worry about the right to vote or whether they will be paid less for a job because of their skin colour or which neighbourhoods they are allowed to live in.

The Birmingham girls had a much different life fifty years ago.  Their city earned the nickname "Bombingham" after the forty-plus racially motivated bombings that had taken place there since World War I.  Alabama's governor, George Wallace, known for his pro-segregationist views, resisted black leaders' attempts to integrate Birmingham, announcing in September of 1963 that the city needed "a few first-class funerals" to stop integration. 

Only a week later, four KKK members complied by planting a box of dynamite under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church, a meeting place for civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Junior and Ralph Abernathy.  The Sunday School children, heading downstairs at 10:22 am, never got to hear the sermon "The Love that Forgives" since the bomb exploded.  The dynamite blew a hole in the back of the church, destroyed the steps, and shattered every stained glass window but one, showing Christ leading the children.  Twenty-two people were injured.  Four girls died including Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley.

Would there be justice for the Birmingham girls?  Robert Chambliss was arrested shortly after the bombing, charged and put on trial for the crime.  However, he was only found guilty of possessing dynamite and sentenced to six months in jail and a $100 fine.  Chambliss was retried in 1977 and finally convicted of the murders, this time going to jail for life.  In 2001 the FBI announced that the crime was committed by a KKK splinter group called The Cahaba Boys.  Thomas Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry were finally arrested and charged with the murders.  The final member of the group, Herman Frank Cash, had already died of natural causes in 1994, never seeing a day in jail. 

This week, the four Brantford girls left the old yellow brick church in one piece.  But may we never forget the four Birmingham girls who never got to leave the old red brick church that day in 1963.

N.B.  Here are some other materials about the Birmingham Church Bombing:

1.  The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963 (a novel by Christopher Paul Curtis)
2.  "Birmingham Sunday" (a song recorded by Joan Baez in 1964)
3.  "4 Little Girls" (a documentary by Spike Lee)
4.  Until Justice Rolls:  The Birmingham Church Bombing Case (Frank Sikora)

"Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?"

"No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren't good for a little child."

"But, mother, I won't be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free."

"No baby, no, you may not go
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children's choir."

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know that her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
"O, here's the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?"

Dudley Randall

Photo of four girls killed in Birmingham Church bombing on September 15, 1963 courtesy www.english.illinois/edu.

*First published in 2012.

Monday 15 February 2016

Mississippi Burning

"Outsiders had never been welcome in Neshoba County, whether they were Yankee calvary, carpetbaggers, or federal revenuers..."*

Missing Persons poster of three civil rights activists circa 1964 courtesy

"Mississippi Burning", a movie starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, is based on a true story which took place during Freedom Summer in rural Mississippi.  On April 24, 1964, the KKK had burned crosses in 66 separate locations, in an effort to scare blacks from signing up to vote.  On June 21 of that year, three civil rights activists who worked for CORE (Congress for Racial Equality) from the North, Goodman and Schwerner (white) and Chaney (black), headed south to Mississippi for the summer to help register black voters.  That evening, they visited a burnt out church and on their way back to Meridian, they were arrested by the local sheriff and taken to the county jail.  They were released that same night, but disappeared on a rural road on their way home from the jail. 

     Two FBI agents, a Northern Liberal, played by Willem Dafoe, and a Southern Conversative, played by Gene Hackman were sent to Mississippi Neshoba County to investage the mystery.  The sheriff's office, linked to the KKK, refused to cooperate with them.  In fact, the duo encountered hostitily at the hands of the police.  The local black community was tortured, many of their houses set on fire.  More FBI agents were recruited.  Although 1000 Mississippians were interviewed, not the white community nor the black community was willing to divulge any information, leading Hackman's and Dafoe's characters to resort to other tactics. 

     "Mississippi Burning" won Academy Awards, including one for cinematography and one for best actor, Gene Hackman.  It is a frightening tale of the American Civil Rights era and how those who protested the Jim Crow laws, whether black or white, were in the line of fire of the KKK and even the local authorities.

Note:  For further information, read We Are Not Afraid:  The Story of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi (Cagin & Dray, 1988).

Image courtesy

*First published in 2012.

Sunday 14 February 2016

I Have a Dream

On August 28, 1963, over 200,000 Americans converged at Washington D.C., swelling its streets and hotels.  They arrived by car, by bus, by train and by plane.  Seventy-five percent of the visitors were black while the other twenty-five percent were either other minorities or whites.  The participants converged at the Washington Monument where they started to march, even as their leader was still inside the Capitol meeting with politicians about their civil rights.  The crowd marched, some holding signs, some empty handed, until they reached the Lincoln Memorial, the statue of the man who was responsible for the Great Emancipation a century before.  It was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that their leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered a speech that many consider to be one of the greatest speeches in history.  Below is an excerpt from the "I Have a Dream Speech".

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

I am in awe of Dr. King's use of words:  his poetry, his imagery, his knowledge of history.  I am in awe of his courage:  he refused to give up, despite death threats and jail sentences.  I am in awe of his dignity:  in the face of police dogs and night sticks and hoses, he chose not weapons, but words, God's words, to fight the civil rights battle.  He went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.  May his message live in our hearts today and everyday!

Photo courtesy

First published in 2013.

Saturday 13 February 2016

The Freedom Riders

Attacked by a white mob when participating in the first Freedom Ride in 1961, James Peck lay on an operating table as a doctor closed a head wound 4 inches long.  In total, he required 50 stitches.  Once sewn up, James was asked by an Anniston, Alabama reporter if now that he was seriously injured, would he abandon the ride.  His response?  “I’ll be on the bus tomorrow for Montgomery.”

The first Freedom Ride bus left Washington D.C. on May 4, 1961 filled with 13 riders, 7 Black and 6 White.  Their aim was to ride through several Southern States as an integrated party.  They planned to arrive in New Orleans, Louisiana on May 17.  No incidents occurred in Virginia.  However, when the Greyhound bus reached South Carolina, one of its occupants, John Lewis, was attacked.  Arrests for alleged violations of the segregation laws took place in North Carolina, South Carolina and Mississippi.


Map of Freedom Ride routes courtesy

In Birmingham, the Klu Klux Klan planned an assault on the Freedom Riders, sanctioned by the local police who said they would give them 15 minutes to attack before they arrived.  On Mother’s Day Sunday, a white mob, some still wearing their church clothes, attacked the Greyhound bus, slashing the tires.  In fear, the bus driver put the petal to the metal, but the angry mob followed in hot pursuit in cars.  They chased the crippled bus which soon blew some tires and was forced to stop.  The mob firebombed the bus and then held the doors shut, trapping the Freedom Riders.  Either an exploding fuel tank or a trooper with a revolver forced the mob members to retreat, enabling the riders to make a hasty exit.  The mob still beat the riders, and if not for the arrival of a trooper with a revolver, would have likely lynched them.

Birmingham Bus Station courtesy  Note the "Colored Waiting Room" sign, indicative of why the Freedom Riders were protesting.

Hospitalized, many of the Freedom Writers were refused care.  Hospital officials released then at 2:00 am, fearful of the mob assembling outside the hospital’s doors. 

President Kennedy saw the image of the burning bus on his television screen.  Knowing he must act, he put pressure on the Greyhound bus drivers to complete the ride.  They refused and therefore Kennedy offered them a police escort to which they said yes.  Driving down the Alabama freeway at 90 miles an hour, the riders remained safe with the Alabama State Highway Patrol at their side.  But they were abandoned by the escort at the Montgomery city limits.  An angry mob greeted them at the bus station, which started to beat the riders while the local police looked the other way.  Reporters and photographers were attacked first so there would be no evidence of the assault.  Ambulance drivers refused to transport the injured riders to the hospital; it was local black residents who rescued the wounded riders.

The freedom riders finally arrived at First Baptist Church in Montgomery where they were greeted by a crowd of 1500 people to honour their efforts.  Martin Luther King addressed the congregation along with Ralph Abernathy.  After the service, Dr. King was told that an angry white mob totalling 3000 was outside waiting to pounce on the parishioners.  Rocks flew through the stained glass windows.  Tear gas canisters were released.  Armed black taxi drivers arrived to rescue those inside.  However, fearful of more violence, Dr. King managed to talk the taxi drivers into leaving.  The National Guard arrived later and dispersed the angry mob. 

The second Freedom Ride bus to leave Washington D.C. in May, a Trailways vehicle, received a similar reception as it made its way through the Southern states.  In Birmingham, KKK members, along with police officers led by Commissioner Bull Connor, attacked the non-violent protesters using baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains, leaving them semi-conscious.  This was where rider James Peck ended up with a four-inch gash on his head.  He was refused treatment at the first hospital he went to, but he was treated at the second one.  


Klansmen attacking a Freedom Rider in May 1961 courtesy

In total, there were 60 Freedom Riders that participated that first summer.  More than three hundred arrests were made.  Many of the riders chose to stay in jail rather than post bail.  In groups, they sang freedom songs to help pass the time and boost morale.  One sheriff was so annoyed by their singing that he personally drove a group up to the Tennessee border.  Another group had their mattresses, sheets and toothbrushes confiscated.  But still they sang.

On September 22, 1961,  the I.C.C. outlawed segregation on Interstate Busses.  All "Whites Only" signs were ordered removed by November of that year.  

For more information, read:

  1. Freedom Ride, James Peck, 1962.
  2. Walking with the Wind:  A Memoir of the Movement, John Lewis, 1998.
  3. Freedom Writers:  1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, Raymond Arsenault, 2011.

Friday 12 February 2016

The Greensboro Four

"It was February 1, 1960.  They didn't need menus.  Their order was simple.  A doughnut and coffee with cream on the side."*

Four black men from the local Agricultural & Technical College walked into a Woolworth's at 132 South Elm Street in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960.  They headed for the "Whites Only" lunch counter, sat down on stools, placed their order, and then waited...and waited...and waited.  In fact, they sat on their lunch counter stools all day.  They studied, they did their homework and they waited in silence. 

News spread across town.  In time their numbers grew.  They returned on Day 2, twenty strong, prepared for another long wait.  Reporters started to cover the event, called a "sit-in".  The manager called the police but the police chief said that unless they protested violently, he could do nothing.  And so they sat.  All they wanted was a cup of coffee and a doughnut.

By Day 3, news had spread even further.  At 60 strong, the growing story was widely covered in the press.  When Whites approached the lunch counter, some refused to sit with them, some heckled them (KKK) and some joined the sit-in.  The protesters' numbers were so great that they had to start taking shifts to cover the day.  They did their school work.  They waited in silence.

By Day 4, their total reached 300.  "The times, they were a-changing" in North Carolina as other cities joined in:  Raleigh, Charlotte, Durham, and Winston-Salem.  Later, sit-ins were held in Richmond, Virginia and Nashville, Tennessee.  One report stated that some protesters even had food poured on them by rabble rousers.  But still they waited.

By February 7, the sit-ins totalled 54 in 15 different cities.  And still they waited.

Black organizations suggested a boycott of all stores with segregated lunch counters and many complied, sending Woolworth's sales plunging by a third.  Protests spread to lunch counters at Kress and Walgreen's. 

President Eisenhower made a speech announcing that he was "deeply sympathetic with efforts of any group to enjoy the rights of equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution."  Yes, "times they were a-changing".

Finally, on July 25, 1960, the black employees at the Greensboro whites only lunch counter were served on the same stools that the Greensboro Four had sat on.  The following day, Woolworth's opened up the counter to all blacks and 300 were served that day.  The Greensboro Four, Joseph McNeil, Frank McCain, David Richmond and Ezell Blair Jr., finally got their cup of coffee and doughnut.

It would take another four years, but the Civil Rights Act was finally signed by President Johnson in 1964, thanks largely in part to the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960.

*Sit-In:  How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down (Andrea Davis Pinkney)

Thursday 11 February 2016

Little Rock Nine

Photo of 101st U.S. Airborne Division courtesy

My son Thomas started high school today at Hamilton District Christian High.  He had the normal first day of school jitters.  He wondered if he would know anyone in his classes.  He wondered what his first bus ride would be like.  He complained about the acne on his face.  But the one thing he didn't need to worry about was the colour of his skin.  He entered the school of his own accord rather than with armed troops at his side.  He entered the school without an angry mob yelling epithets and threats against him.  He entered the school without his fellow students spitting on him.  He entered the school without a line of reporters snapping his photo and posting it on the front page of the Hamilton Spectator.

Such was not the case when the Little Rock Nine (Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest green, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Arlotta Walls LeNier, Minnijean Brown Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed and Melba Patillo Beals) entered high school on this day in 1957.  Daisy Bates, the head of the local NAACP chapter, arranged to have nine Black students enroll at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas that year.  After the landmark case of Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, the court had ruled that segregation was unconstitutional and that all schools should be desegregated, but putting the theory into practice was a different story.  Governor Orval Faubus arranged to have the State National Guard meet the nine Black students with guns and gas masks ready to prevent their entry into the school.  White students called the Blacks "Communists" and other names; they spit in their faces; they threw bricks at them; and they blocked their entry into the school.  Reporters were beaten up by the angry mob. 

Little Rock soon became not only national but international news at a time when the Cold War was at its peak:  how could America justify treating its own citizens so poorly when it was supposed to be the land of democracy?  President Eisenhower realized something needed to be done so he pleaded with the Arkansas governor to call off the National Guard and allow the nine students to enter the school.  However, Mr. Faubus would not budge.  In the meantime, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to Arkansas to officially integrate the school. 

On September 25, the Little Rock Nine entered the school, each with a patroller by his or her side.  While the show of solidarity was impressive, White students continued to harass the Black students at any given opportunity.  Melba Patillo Beals was stabbed at one point and had acid thrown in her face; fortunately her patroller immediately threw water in her eyes to prevent her from being blinded.  Minnijean, taunted by Whites in the cafeteria, poured a bowl of chili on one of them only to be suspended for six days while no punishment was doled out to the instigators.  One of the students had his or her home bombed in the Fall of 1959.

In the meantime, Governor Faubus tried to stop integration by closing down all four Little Rock high schools.  The board even fired 44 high school teachers who were later re-instated.  But the damage was done:  all of the Little Rock high school students could not attend school during "The Lost Year".  Some of the Little Rock Nine transferred to other schools due to the harassment, but three remained to graduate.  Melba Patillo Beals ended up becoming a teacher at Central High which is 60% Black today. 

So as my son heads back to high school tomorrow, I can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that he can do so freely without harassment.  We take education for granted, but it came with a high price for the Little Rock Nine. 

Photo of one of the Little Rock Nine courtesy

*First published in 2012.

Wednesday 10 February 2016

Brown vs Board of Education

And I remember going inside and my dad spoke with someone and then he went into the inner office with the principal, and they left me out to sit outside with the secretary. And while he was in the inner office, I could hear voices and hear his voice raised as the conversation went on. And then he immediately came out of the office, took me by the hand, and we walked home from the school, and I just couldn't understand what was happening, you know, because I was so sure that I was going to get to go to school with Mona, Guinevere, Wanda, and all of my playmates.

*This is a quote from Linda (Brown) Thompson, daughter of Oliver Brown, plaintiff in the case Brown vs. Board of Education, taken from 2004 PBS Documentary.

Linda Brown grew up in Topeka, Kansas in the 1950's.  Although she was black, she lived in an integrated neighbourhood where she had many white friends.  The neighbourhood school Sumner Elementary, however, was segregated.  Eight-year-old Linda watched her friends Mona, Guinevere and Wanda walk the seven blocks to the white school while she walked six blocks in the other direction and then hailed a bus to the black school one mile away.

Black families in the neighbourhood joined forces and with sponsorship from the NAACP, they filed a lawsuit called Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.  The lawsuit tried to undo the case of Plessy vs.Ferguson of 1896 which stated that all schools must be "separate but equal".  As long as the black schools were equal to the white schools, the lawsuit claimed this practice to be consititutional.

Although Brown was the plaintiff, the lawsuit included 12 other parents and was filed on behalf of their 20 children.  Oliver Brown, a lifelong resident of Topeka, was a welder in the shops of the Santa Fe Railroad.  He was also an assistant pastor at his church; perhaps his leadership in the church made him a good candidate to lead the lawsuit.  According to Oliver's youngest daughter, Cheryl, the black school buildings in Topeka, Kansas were equal to the white school buildings (unlike many of the schools in the Deep South).  The black teachers were well educated.  However, for the Brown's, it was the principle of the matter.

The lawsuit was filed in the district court of Kansas on February 28, 1951, but the plaintiffs lost.  However, Oliver Brown took the case to the Supreme Court and on May 17, 1954, Justice Earl Warren and his court ruled 9-1 in favour of the plaintiff.  Segregated schools were declared unconstitutional in the United States.

Linda Brown was able to join her friends Mona, Guinevere and Wanda at Sumner Elementary thanks to the courage of her father, Oliver, and the 12 other parents.

Photo of newly integrated classroom courtesy

*First published in 2012.

Tuesday 9 February 2016

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

He La.  Two syllables.  To the average person, they mean nothing.  But to the average scientist they mean something.  And to Deborah Lacks, they meant everything.  These two syllables changed history.

He La is the world's first immortal cells.  Over the past six decades, scientists have studied them to research everything from cancer to polio to infertility.  They have travelled across the country, around the world, even to the moon.  He La spawned a multimillion dollar industry.  He La is big.  Yet its beginnings were small.

Henrietta & David Lacks courtesy

He La stands for a real person, Henrietta Lacks.  A Black American woman, she was born and raised in the 1920's in Clover, Virginia.  Still a teenager, she married her first cousin.  The couple had five children.

Henrietta's husband, however, was a philanderer, infecting his wife with both gonorrhea and syphillis (and likely HPV, the human papilloma virus, an unidentified condition in the 1950's).  Offered treatment at the local hospital, she turned it down, likely because she couldn't afford it.

After the birth of her youngest child, Henrietta said she had a "knot" inside her.  Her husband took her to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland where she was diagnosed with a tumor on her cervix. Henrietta underwent an operation where the surgeon removed part of her cervix, and stored some of her cancer cells.  Doctors treated her with radiation, but the cancer continued to spread.  At the tender age of 31, Henrietta Lacks passed away, leaving five young children motherless.

Unknown to her husband or children, doctors at Johns Hopkins started experimenting with her cancer cells. While previous cells had only survived for a short time, Henrietta's cells continued to regenerate.  It became apparent that her cells were immortal.  While the original doctor who took her cells seemed content to use them for research alone, other recipients of the cells started to use them for profit.

As the cells continued to multiply, their identity was kept top secret.  At one point, someone mistakenly claimed that He La stood for Helen Lane, a mistake that many mistook for the truth.  Others suggested that He La stood for Helga Larsen.  Will the real He La please stand up?

He La cells courtesy

Finally, in the early 1970's, when the original scientist to work with He La, George Guy, passed away, his colleagues published an article about the cells and revealed their true origin, Henrietta Lacks.  The following decade, an Illinois high school science student, Rebecca Skloot, first heard about He La.  Her teacher planted a seed which would grow like the cells and eventually lead to a book, The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks.  

Ms. Skloot poured over documents, surfed the Internet and made connections to find out as much as she could about He La.  Then on day she hit the jackpot -- she tracked down Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's daughter.  While Deborah was dubious that Rebecca might want to profit from her mother's cells, she slowly came to the realization that she simply wanted to get to the bottom of her mother's story.  Deborah, a young child when her mother died, shared the same desire.  The two women bonded over the issue, forging an almost decade long friendship.

Today, He La cells continue to grow.  If measured on a scale, scientists estimate their weight to be 50 million metric tons.  Rebecca Skloot's book is a #1 New York Times Bestseller and has been translated into 25 languages.  Oprah Winfrey is producing a movie about He La.  Two syllables that changed history.

*First published in 2014.