In B Street Theatre’s current Family Series production of Martin Luther King Jr. & The Sound of Freedom, many people who stood along Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement are highlighted. In this blog, we’ll go into detail these figure’s acts of bravery which changed our country forever
Rosa Parks & Claudette Colvin
Rosa Parks became a figure head for the Civil Rights movement on December 1, 1955, when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She became known as the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement as her one decision started the Montgomery Bus Riots. But Rosa Parks was not the first person who refused to move.
At the age of 15, Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on March 2, 1955. She told the bus driver who was attempting to remove her from the seat, “It’s my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it’s my constitutional right.” Colvin was arrested on several charges, including violating the city’s segregation laws, but Claudette Colvin fought back through the legal system. Along with four other plaintiffs, Colvin took the state of Alabama’s segregation laws to court in the Browder v. Gayle case. Colvin and the other plaintiffs won, and the federal government deemed that segregated buses were not constitutional.
Claudette Colvin moved to New York City in 1958, but continued to write about the unjust laws which kept African-Americans from advancing in society. In an interview with Newsweek, she said, “”I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, ‘Sit down girl!’ I was glued to my seat.” She, along with Rosa Parks, began the fight against segregation in Montgomery, Alabama.
Fannie Lou Hamer
Born in Montgomery County, Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer was a crop sharer for most of her life. She settled in Sunflower County, Mississippi with her husband ‘Pap Hamer’, who drove a tractor. On one fateful day, while walking by the Ruleville, Mississippi town center, Fannie Lou saw a sign posted by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and decided to investigate. She joined SNCC and worked as a field worker on the voter registration committee. The committee worked on preparing blacks to read and write so they could register to vote. Seventeen people tried to register and were turned back one day. When her boss was informed of the drive to register, he threatened Fannie Lou and her family with expulsion from the plantation. She left that night and stayed with friends but it wasn’t long before her location was discovered and she and her friends were shot at that night by the KKK.
She refused to back down. In 1963, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was formed because no help from the Federal Government regarding the right to vote was apparently coming. The party registered 60, 000 new black voters across the state of Mississippi. Delegates from the party were sent to the 1964, Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey where they challenged the seating of the Mississippi delegation.
Fannie Lou took the opportunity to describe to the convention, and to the world, the horrific way she was treated after they left the voter registration workshop in Charleston, South Carolina in June 1963. She said that on the way home, they were hungry and wanted to stop at a Trailways bus terminal in Winona, Mississippi for food. Fannie Lou decided to stay on the bus while the others went into the terminal. They were not served but were arrested. She was also arrested. She was taken out of her jail cell and placed in another cell and, under the orders of a State Highway Patrol officer, was beaten by two black prisoners with a police blackjack—ordered to do so unless the prisoners wanted far worse punishment. The first prisoner beat her until he was exhausted. The law enforcement officer then ordered the second prisoner to beat her. It was three days before members of SNCC were allowed to take her to the hospital. Fannie Lou told the convention that as a result of this beating, she suffered permanent kidney damage, a blood clot in the artery of her left eye, and a limp when she walked. Her riveting testimony to the convention informed the country about the treatment blacks were receiving at the hands of whites in the state of Mississippi and the rest of the south.
Fannie Lou Hamer continued her activism, as she led the cotton picker’s rebellion in 1965 and was instrumental in helping to bring a Head Start program to her hometown of Ruleville, Mississippi and was involved in other programs throughout the state. Fannie Lou was a Democratic National Committee Representative from 1968-1971. She ran for the Mississippi State Senate in 1971 and was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1972.
A minister from Boston, Massachusetts, James Reeb was one of many northern clergymen who heard Dr. Martin Luther King’s call on March 8, 1965 and headed down to Alabama to march for freedom. Reeb was known in Boston as a minister who challenged his congregations to acknowledge the injustice African-Americans faced in this country and to do something about it. He turned his words into actions when he ventured south to face these oppressors. He was a part of the group that began the march to Selma, only to turn back when violence faced them.
That same night, a group of ministers went out to dinner at a place called Walker’s, one of the few racially integrated restaurants in the area. While others departed by car after dinner, Reeb and two other Unitarian ministers, Orloff Miller and Clark Olsen, left on foot. The three headed, side by side, to the chapel where Dr. King was to speak. James Reeb walked on the outside, nearest the street. They had not gone far when four or five white men came at them from across the street. Frightened, the three walked faster. They realized one of the men had a stick. When the attackers reached the three ministers, one swung his heavy stick and smashed the side of James Reeb’s head. Miller and Olsen were beaten and kicked on the sidewalk. When the attack was over, it was clear that Reeb was seriously hurt.
They called an ambulance, but because the driver of that ambulance was black, the police refused to help Reeb and it took several hours before he went into surgery. He would die on March 11, 1965.
The death of James Reeb caused nation-wide outcry over the violence in Selma. President Lyndon B. Johnson immediately sent the Civil Right’s Act to the Congress floor. Reeb’s sacrifice shed a light on the brutality which opposed the basic liberties that African Americans were fighting for. Dr. King, instead of appearing for the signing of the Civil Rights Act, went to Reeb’s funeral and gave a moving eulogy for the minister who gave up everything for the liberty of his fellow man.
Martin Luther King Jr. & The Sound of Freedom closes with performances Saturday and Sunday at 1:00 PM. Get your tickets now and come see this important and moving play.