There is a whole generation of heroes that are dying and their heroic deeds are being forgotten. They are the quiet heroes of our state’s and country’s most recent revolution – the civil rights revolution.
It has been fifty-seven years since Rosa Parks refused to move on the bus in Montgomery and sparked the bus boycott that propelled a twenty-five-year-old Baptist preacher to greatness. It has been forty-seven years since a twenty-five-year old sharecropper’s son named John Lewis walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on the road that would lead his people to freedom and himself to Congress. It has been forty-nine years since Harvey Gant of Charleston quietly walked into the registrar’s office at Clemson and forever changed South Carolina’s history.
These are a few of the names we all remember, the heroes who those many years ago took great risk in noble deeds that have forever changed our state and nation for the better.
In his famous letter from the Birmingham jail, Dr. King said, “One day the South will recognize its real heroes.” He was right, and we have.
But there are others, countless hundreds, even thousands, of quiet heroes across our state and the South that also helped make this revolution succeed, and we need to recognize them, too. While the famous folks whose names are a permanent part of history get most of the attention, the civil rights revolution only succeeded because of the countless acts of tolerance and courage by everyday people, the unsung heroes who have been largely forgotten.
They are the mom-and-pop restaurant owner who one day took down the whites-only sign, not because some federal marshal told them to, but because they realized that it was time for change. It was the businessperson who nominated a black man to join the Rotary Club and never referred to his race. It was the plant manager who, on his own initiative, took down the “White” and “Colored” signs over the water fountains.
Sometimes these changes happened without resistance; other times these folks were the subject of taunts and social ostracism, but yet they held firm. These are the unsung and unrecognized heroes that need to be recognized.
There are many ways this can be done. Please forgive me for using a personal example. My father was a Presbyterian preacher and in the late 1950’s we moved from Greenville to Anniston, Alabama. In 1962, when the Freedom Riders came through Anniston, their bus was burned and the passengers were savagely beaten. A picture of the burning bus was flashed across the national and global news wires and became one of the iconic images of the civil rights movement.
A while later, two black preachers called my father and asked if they could simply come talk with him about the racial problems in the community. He said yes and one thing led to another. The city fathers soon appointed the first bi-racial committee in the South and asked my father to be chairman. The commission was recognized by President John Kennedy as a national model.
My father was not a crusading liberal taking to the streets agitating for change. He was an eight-generation Southerner who simply believed that all God’s children should be treated the same, and when asked by his fellow preachers, he acted on that simple belief. That alone was enough to earn him the top spot for a time on the Ku Klux Klan’s hit list in George Wallace’s Alabama.
Forty years later, at the urging of his children, my father wrote a short book about his experiences, and this triggered a whole series of events in Anniston to recognize the everyday real heroes of the town – black and white. There have been many oral histories, first person articles in the local newspaper, murals have been painted on the site of some key events, markers erected and many special programs and events directed to educating Anniston’s children about their shared history.
No one would claim that Anniston today is a racial oasis, as they still have many problems, but they have made great strides simply by looking back, recording and commemorating their common heritage and engaging the people who lived through the turbulent times.
And the town did it themselves. There was no federal grant or big company sponsor, just the people of the town making a sincere effort to honestly look at their history and recognize its real heroes.
We in South Carolina need to do the same. There are countless near-forgotten stories of brave people who took action in these dangerous times that have helped make our state a better place.
How do we get started? One of the main catalysts for Anniston’s recent actions was the local newspaper, The Anniston Star and its publisher H. Brandt Ayers. A simple search for ‘freedom riders’ on the paper’s site will lead to dozens of articles about what the city has done. Another site is BeyondtheBurningBus.org.
All that’s required for us in South Carolina to begin to recognize our real heroes is for us to decide to do it and make it happen. This column is distributed by the SC Press Association to every newspaper in the state. Any publisher or editor can take the initiative to get started in their local community. If they won’t, their readers can follow the Anniston example and start themselves. (Editor’s Note: LikeTheDew readers are encouraged to take up Phil’s challenge and post their stories here.)
We can recognize the real heroes of our communities. It’s time we did.