For Black History Month, I wanted to honor a voice who helped make change possible. So often we don’t get to know the individual stories of the people who made up the dedicated crowd during the fight for civil rights. We know the names of some of the civil rights leaders, but we don’t always get the chance to acknowledge the everyday people who showed up, who marched, who boycotted, who passed out fliers, who went to meetings and held on to hope. It’s a beautiful, necessary responsibility we have to preserve and value the memories of those who opened the doors of change.
I’d like to introduce you to one of those brave souls, a friend who demanded justice. Her name is Edna. My parents met Edna at their church, and introduced me to her over 10 years ago. Since that time, Edna’s stories about life during Jim Crow and the civil rights era have inspired and captivated me. Edna’s activism highlights the fact that by joining together, we all have the capacity to alter a nation.
What were you born and raised?
I grew up in the South. Jackson, MS. During my time, the South was segregated. It was called Jim Crow. My birth certificate says Colored. I was around 14 or 15 when I started to notice that things were separate, but they were not equal. My parents were into politics, and I was eight years old when Emmett Till was murdered. I remember seeing his face on the cover of Jet Magazine. It was blown up. It made an impact on me as an eight-year-old child. I can remember the signs on buses that said Colored and white. It was on planes and water fountains. I remember my mother sitting at the back of the bus. There were only a few seats back there.
Seeing those signs does something to your psyche. It’s very demeaning. It’s meant to keep you down. It’s a mental thing. When I go there now, I still wonder where I can go. They were still hanging people when I was a kid growing up. People just disappeared. My uncle went against the grain, and one day he disappeared, too. We never heard from him again. If he were all right, he would have reached out to us. I know something terrible happened to him. That’s just an example of how people disappeared. Families never heard from them again. That kind of stuff leaves a scar on you.
Can you describe the community where you grew up?
I lived in an all-Black community. You only saw whites when you went into town. That’s when I started to notice. People would say we were “separate but equal.” We were separate, but we were not treated equally. We had stores that were Black-run, but white-owned. When we went shopping downtown, Blacks could only shop on one street. It would be bustling with people. Even with everything that was happening, we were happy. We had positive role models. There were teachers, doctors and lawyers. They lived among us, so they were a part of us.
You were a real, thriving community.
Yes! There was an advantage in living in a community like that. No matter how inferior we were made to feel, we had each other. Now, there were a few colorists who adhered to the brown paper bag test. We called it “color struck.” If you weren’t light-skinned with long straight hair, some black people didn’t want to be bothered by you.
“Jeff Sessions used to be called the Confederate Attorney General.”
The idea, this practice, goes way back: the lighter you are, the better you are. It was widely believed that if you have more white blood in you, your mental faculties were better. The men who wrote the Constitution only counted us as three-fifths a person. Slaveholders wrote the Constitution. We weren’t considered human; we were considered property. If you were real light-skinned with straight or curly hair, you got the job. You got the better position. Girls in my class were given better grades just because they were light. When we are prejudiced against each other because of color, skin tone or hair texture, that’s ;ridiculous. Nobody is better than anyone else. I believe the positive will outweigh the negative. We need children now to get some positive images and positive talk in their life, so they do differently. I’ve found that as people get older, these perspectives change.
What differences did you notice between white and Black school systems?
White people had school buses; Blacks had to walk. White students had cars for driver’s education, not the Black schools. How can you learn driver’s education with no car? The white schools had pools, but not the Black ones. My community had a library and a pool and Black students would come to use the facilities.
What other inequalities did you see play out during Jim Crow — before the Civil Rights era?
During World War II, I had an uncle who was a mechanic. He had a white apprentice who he taught. Then he found out that his apprentice was getting paid more than him. And he was teaching him! So, he quit. It was the same in the educational system. Black kids in my school had higher standardized test scores than their white peers, but the Black teachers were paid so much less.
My grandmother had a similar experience. She worked in publishing and had to train her Caucasian boss while making less than him. What parallels do you see between the social and political landscape today and what was happening during the Civil Rights Movement?
Voter registration. Then, Blacks had to take a test and pay a tax to vote; of course, this was done to keep you from voting. The same thing is happening today. They just do it differently. Change the venue on you. Limit early voting. Racism will be here forever. That will never change, at least not in my lifetime. They just find a way to do it in a different form. People are still trying to keep minorities from voting because it is very powerful. I don’t understand Black people choosing not to vote. It hurts me. In my time, people were scared to vote because of threats of violence.
Voting holds power.
And people died for your right to vote.
Shooting down young Black men. And why do we have a higher percentage of Blacks in jail? Racism has infiltrated law enforcement. This is how they keep you down. They are lawyers, doctors and policemen. This is how racism keeps you in poverty. Racism is hidden, but it’s there, and you have to very careful. Some things have changed, and some things have not. People from my generation, from Jim Crow, have experienced such mental trauma. I’ve had to be strong. I’ve had people who have supported and guided me, and that’s been essential to my success in life. If you don’t have strength and support, then these experiences will keep you down.
Tell me more about your political life. How did you get involved? What kind of work did you do?
My family was educationally and politically oriented. I was in the 10th grade when the Freedom Riders came through.They came in from the north and stopped in my town. Three of them were killed. Their names were Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.
“The young people changed things.”
Well, every day, we’d have to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and say a prayer in school. When I heard this line — “Liberty and justice for all” — I would always think, “It’s not liberty for all. It is liberty for the white privileged.” I started going to meetings with a friend of mine. Medgar Evers was working on voter registration. He was a motivator for young people. Medgar Evers helped bring change — justice — to Blacks. You didn’t see other minority groups much. I walked to meetings. Many people were afraid to go to meetings. People had to sneak out of their houses to go. Parents were afraid to be openly against segregation. They were afraid to lose their jobs. It’s not that they were weak. This was their livelihood, and they were afraid to lose it.
That was why you had so many students coming out, because they weren’t working. A lot of those parents worked for white people. There were people who stepped up to the plate and demanded justice. It didn’t happen overnight. Things began to change gradually.
Rosa Parks sitting on the bus made changes, but those changes didn’t reach all parts of the nation — it didn’t change all places. Dr. King wasn’t down there where we could see and talk to him, but Medgar Evers was. It was through his leadership that change came. I had a cousin who was very bold and was threatened to be killed because of his work.
The young people changed things. We passed out fliers to get others involved.We started boycotts and put places out of business. I participated in boycotts. Boycotting is very effective because money hurts people. We would walk down the street marching and singing. I was 17 years old when I saw people attacked by dogs. I had a friend who had a dog sicced on her. I stopped being physically active after they set the dogs on people. I’m still afraid of dogs today. I continued working for the movement, but that was the end of me being physically involved in marches.
Still, Medgar Evers played a key role in your political life and civil rights activist.
The night he was assassinated did something to my mentality. I was in my freshman year at Jackson State. It was summer, 1963, when he was killed. He was shot down in his driveway coming home from a meeting. Our leader. I didn’t forget what he told us, what he taught us: to further our education, to make a change in life. Medgar Evers changed our whole lives and then, when he got killed, that changed our whole lives. I almost wanted to give up. The person who did it got away with it for years until his nephew told people what he’d done.
“I consider myself a survivor of Jim Crow.”
We need education. If people were more informed, life would be better. Better jobs, better healthcare. Know our history. Be involved. Talk to older people, too, the ones who have wisdom. When I was young, older people were there encouraging the young people to be active. You’ve got to be aware of what’s going on in your life. I’m not bitter. I’m just aware.
How important are allies?
Some people don’t realize if white people hadn’t come and given money and lost their lives, there wouldn’t have been a movement. Don’t have hate. They are people just like we are.
What did Black history look like when you were growing up?
When I was in school, it was called Negro History Week. It wasn’t until the ’60s that “Black” and “African American” came about. All Black teachers stressed Black history. They should have hit on some more people, but we knew about Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver. Later on, I learned a whole lot more. I got an encyclopedia about Black people and our history.
The curriculum hasn’t seemed to change in all this time. Black history and civil rights could span a year!
At least they are doing a month. We have to know our history. Black people played an important role in this country. It’s important to know.
It’s imperative for well-rounded identity formation.
Yes. When you meet people, you never know what they’ve gone through. I had a friend who was a Black Panther and lawyer. People were determined to make a change. That’s why I ended up doing social work. Others ended up being teachers, doctors and lawyers. I look back now at how we were raised. It was a way of life; we made it through. I consider myself a survivor of Jim Crow. Not only me but all who are self-sufficient and maintain a healthy way of life. Some made it out, and some didn’t, but most did. You are blessed — you didn’t have to experience this.
I am. What are your thoughts on Trump and Charlottesville?
It goes back to slavery and how they select the leader of this country. The Electoral College got started after slavery because the South wanted representation and felt theirs was not equal to the North. That’s where the Electoral College came from, and it should have been done away with long ago. He did not win the majority vote. Anytime a man like him can get up and make fun of disabled people or speak about women the way he does, and still win — I thought you had more decent people in this country.
It’s rich, privileged, white men that Trump appoints. People who have a history of marginalizing people of color. Jeff Sessions used to be called the Confederate Attorney General. Dr. King’s wife even wrote a letter condemning his appointment in the ’80s. Most red states now still have that Jim Crow mentality. I remember a woman who held up a sign saying, “Nigger, don’t you wish you were white.” A lot of areas are like this still. It’s not just in the South. It’s all over.
Trump, and the Republicans’, whole agenda is about keeping minority groups down. Eliminating social services, free health care and SNAP. They are stirring up hate groups who have always been here.
I don’t see any change. It’s sad, and I hate to be negative. It’s a regression instead of progress. It looks like we have gone backward. You still have a lot of us doing good, but it’s not enough. I have concluded I will never see justice in this country. Not in my lifetime, but there will be a revolution one day.
Where do we go from here? Is there a new Civil Rights era coming?
We must make a positive change in the way we think and act, or we’ll be left behind. Our leadership was killed off. When we make it, we have to reach back and help those who are struggling. You were made to think you are not as good as white people, but I have never believed we are inferior. I was never taught to hate. Just pray for them. We are all here for a purpose. For a reason. And we still have a lot of work to do.