Voices of Civil Rights

The exhibition draws from the individual accounts and oral histories collected by the Voices of Civil Rights project, a collaborative effort of AARP, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) and the Library of Congress. Made possible by generous support from AARP, the exhibition celebrates the donation of these materials to the Library of Congress and links them to key collections in the Library.

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Richard Yagami

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the removal of all persons of Japanese descent from the West Coast. Richard Yagami's family was among them.

My father said he and his family were American citizens, and he refused to leave his home in Pasadena, California, where we were living at the time. He fought the army until nearly all citizens of Japanese descent were moved by bus and rail to “assembly areas” or “relocation camps.” My father and the army finally reached a compromise. Our family would enter the assembly center where my father's sister and her family had already been sent. . . . The assembly center was located at the Santa Anita racetrack, where the army had hastily built tarpaper barracks and whitewashed the horse stables to house some of the evacuees. Our family was assigned to one of the apartments that were on the ends of each row of stables. As soon as we were settled, my father got a job making camouflage nets.

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William Minner

The memory of a traumatic childhood incident near his hometown of Spiro, Oklahoma, still brings tears to the eyes of William Minner, director of the Kansas Human Rights Commission.

We had stopped at a spring. It was a very popular place that both blacks and whites would go to get water. We had waited there for about 30 minutes. But the people ahead of us, they were all white. When we had reached our turn, two white men grabbed my dad. They told him that he'd have to wait until all of the white people were finished. Dad said, “We'll get our water another day or we'll come back.” They wouldn't let my dad leave. They said, “You're going to stay here, and when all of the good white people have gotten their water, and when everyone is gone, then you can do what you want to.” When all the white people finished getting their water, Dad got his water. I remember him telling me, “What you saw there was real hatred and prejudice. But this is not going to be forever . . . there's gonna come a day when this won't be anymore.”

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Theresa Joiner

Theresa Joiner grew up in the same neighborhood as Emmett “Bobo” Till. In 1955, Till's murder at age 14 during a visit to Money, Mississippi, shocked the nation. His badly tortured body was displayed at the funeral.

Everybody was holding hands and somewhat going in a circle, filing and going by. There was a clear plate glass over the coffin. And I just remember looking down, and an awful scene. I remember the kids saying, “Is that Bobo?” Some of the kids were saying, “Look what they did to Bobo.” Kids were just in awe; just frightened and saying, “Why did they do that? Why did they do that to him? What did he do? What happened?” It didn't make any sense.

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Rev. Timothy Ahrens

Rev. Timothy Ahrens undertook his own civil rights odyssey, visiting prominent people and places he had heard about in childhood.

I grew up in the North in a very privileged area. My father was an editor for a Christian magazine and interviewed Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders. As a child, I experienced civil rights at the dinner table, and the places were sort of embedded in my mind. They were places that were far away and horrible in the sight of the nightly news. In 2004, I visited people and places that were involved in the Civil Rights Movement. In Birmingham, my hair got cut by James Armstrong, whose children integrated Birmingham schools. I worshipped with Dr. Abraham Lincoln Woods, and he was Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth's right-hand man. I spent an evening at dinner with Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.

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Effie Jones Bowers

Two years after nine black students faced violent mobs on their way to Little Rock's Central High School, Effie Jones Bowers (standing before cameras) helped desegregate nearby Hall High School.

That first day was a scary day. We were trying not to be afraid. We were talking, and I believe they had blocked some cars that had come by, and people were hollering at us, and the police were all out there, and we just knew that we were going to try to be strong. They told us to just go straight and don't look back. We heard people calling us niggers and, you know, they just called us all kind of trash. So we kept going and we got to Hall and we went on up the steps and went in the school. When we got in the school that's where everybody was. They were all standing there in this hall. Then I looked up, and there was a huge Indian statue. I hadn't thought about there being a mascot in there. Then finally someone ushered us which way to go.

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Franklin E. McCain, Sr.

Franklin E. McCain, Sr., was one of four North Carolina A&T University students whose 1960 sit-in at the “whites only” Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, sparked a decade of student protest and activism.

There was a little old white lady who was finishing up her coffee at the counter. She strode toward me and I said to myself, “Oh my, someone to spit in my face or slap my face.” I was prepared for it. But she stands behind Joseph McNeil and me and puts her hands on our shoulders. She said, “Boys, I'm so proud of you. I only regret that you didn't do this 10 years ago.” That was the biggest boost, morally, that I got that whole day, and probably the biggest boost for me during the entire movement.

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Hazel LeBlanc Whitney

Hazel LeBlanc Whitney and her husband, Rev. S. Leon Whitney, were active in civil rights in Jackson, Mississippi, when NAACP leader Medgar Evers was murdered.

President Kennedy sent a telegram to my husband saying that he wanted to meet with him and the other ministers the morning before Medgar's funeral because the administration wanted firsthand information. So I flew—it was my first time flying—I flew to Washington with him. We had listed what we wanted: number one, we wanted just the right to vote—Medgar had fought in Germany. He had a Purple Heart and all that stuff. We wanted black cross guards in our black community. We wanted black men to be able to drive the garbage truck as well as pick up the garbage. The end. That's what Medgar died for.

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Carolyn Byrd

Born in Meridian, Mississippi, and raised between Jackson and New York, Carolyn Byrd was living in New Jersey when she joined a group of young people to travel to Washington, D.C., for the 1963 March on Washington.

We came out of Newark on what was called the “Freedom Train.” I had never seen that many people gathered. It was mind-boggling. There was a fellow in our group who met a person he had gone to grade school with and hadn't seen in years. We went back to our communities gung-ho.

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Sarah J. Rudolph

Sarah J. Rudolph lost her right eye and her little sister, Addie Mae Collins, in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Addie was standing by the window. Denise McNair asked Addie to tie the sash on her dress. I started to look toward them just to see them, but by the time I went to turn my head that way there was a loud noise. I didn't know what it was. I called out Addie's name about three or four times, but she didn't answer. All of a sudden, I heard a man outside holler, “Someone just bombed the 16th Street church.” He came in, picked me up in his arms, and carried me out of the church. They took me over to the hospital. . . . The doctor told me after they operated on my face that I had about 22 shards of glass in my face. When it was all over with, they took the patches off my eye and I had lost my right eye, and I could barely see out of my left eye. I stayed in the hospital about two and a half months.

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Rutha Mae Harris

As a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Freedom Singers, Rutha Mae Harris toured extensively with the group, which raised money for SNCC operations and ensured the role of music in social protest.

We started singing songs at the mass meetings. Songs of the movement gave you energy—a willingness and a wantingness to want to be free. Whenever there was a march to be taken place, there were songs that we would use to motivate the people to get in the line. One such song was “I Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Freedom.” Most of the songs from the movement were taken from spirituals, gospel, and rhythm and blues—any type of music. Someone in the audience would start and say, “Come and go with me to that land. Come and go with me to that land.” And the rest would just repeat it.

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Rev. James Jackson

Rev. James Jackson joined the Selma-to-Montgomery march two weeks after the original march ended abruptly and violently on what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Jackson is pastor of Brown's Chapel A.M.E. Church, staging point for the march.

After the injunction, civil rights workers could not meet in churches. For a period of six months, there were no mass meetings. Dr. Frederick Reese had invited Dr. King to come to Selma to speak, but he didn't have a church because they had closed their doors. They were obeying the injunction that the judge had issued. But Dr. King approached Rev. P.H. Lewis, the pastor of Brown's Chapel at that time, and asked him if they could come to Brown's Chapel. Rev. Lewis in turn asked our bishop. Bishop Bonner originally said no, then he rethought it and decided that yes, they could come. So Dr. King, when he came to Selma, he spoke at Brown's Chapel. And from that point on, Brown's Chapel became the headquarters of the movement in Selma.

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Sister Antona Ebo, F.S.M.

In 1965, after Alabama state troopers attacked voting rights marchers on what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” Sister Antona Ebo and other nuns from the Franciscan Sisters of Mary traveled to Selma and joined the march to Montgomery when it resumed two weeks later.

They decided to put the sisters in the front. Rev. Davis Anderson was speaking for the group. Mayor Joseph Smitherman said, “You have not been given a permit for this demonstration, and so you should not be here in the street.” I'm looking at all these guys with their billy clubs and dogs and the fire hoses behind them. Rev. Anderson is responding, “You do know we have a right to walk on these streets. And we just brought a few of our friends from St. Louis to walk with us.” Then the reverend says, “The first person to speak will be Sister Antona Ebo from St. Louis. Sister, come over here and speak.” Honey, I walk over there, and all I said is what I'd been saying: “I'm here to defend the rights of all the citizens of Selma.”

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Dorothy Mays

Dorothy Mays saw Viola Liuzzo, a white housewife from Detroit, at a gathering of demonstrators two days before Liuzzo was murdered as she drove a black voting rights worker home from the Selma-to-Montgomery march.

I don't know that I was introduced to Viola Liuzzo, but I knew who she was. When the march was over . . . we were riding on the bed of a pickup truck when a man flagged the truck down. Back in that time, people stopped to pick people up if they needed a ride—you didn't have to know them. He told us that Viola Liuzzo had been shot, and she was dead. We took his word for it and just put him on the truck with us, and that truck didn't stop until we got to Selma. When we got to Selma, we said we were lucky that they didn't shoot at us when we stopped to pick him up.

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Mary Frances Mays

When voting rights marchers descended on Lowndes County, Alabama, in 1965, despite the danger to her family, Mary Frances Mays fed them and let them camp out in her fields. Years later, the street she lives on was renamed “Freedom Road.”

I didn't ever have any fear. I wanted to go vote, but I didn't have nobody to carry me because they was scared. And when I did go over there to vote, they asked me, “How many grains of corn on a cob? How many seeds in a watermelon?” I said, “How do you know unless you cut it open and count it?” That's what they were doing over there then. I told them, “You don't know yourself.” Honey, I didn't bite my tongue.

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Percy Green, II

In the early 1960s, Percy Green, II, went from gang member to in-your-face activist with the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) in St. Louis, helping lead demonstrations against companies that refused to hire African Americans.

We went to Southwestern Bell Telephone Company. We demanded 600 jobs for minorities, and we gave them 10 days to do it, knowing full well we weren't going to get any more in 10 days than we were in 6 years. Why not shorten the time that we were going to give them and get on with the fight? We did that with Southwestern Bell, Union Electric, Laclede Gas, and other companies. We developed our program around more and better-paying jobs for the black man because he was the chief breadwinner in our social structure.

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Harold Dahmer

Harold Dahmer had just returned home from the Army when the Ku Klux Klan firebombed his family's home in 1966. His father, Vernon Dahmer, Sr., a voting rights activist, was severely burned and died from his injuries.

My brother Dennis came and woke me up. He told me the house was on fire and he got me out of there. The house was engulfed in flames. My father was covered with smoke and soot, skin was hanging off his arms. My aunt carried him to the hospital. We waited for the fire truck to get there; it took about 35 or 45 minutes to get there and it was just six miles away. Let's just put it this way, they weren't in any hurry to get there. I knew what we were doing about voter registration, but it never occurred to me that something like this would happen. We were just trying to help other people.

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Hilario Romero

Hilario Romero, a self-described Nuevo Mexicano Mestizo of Native American and Hispanic heritage, made his mark in civil rights as a behind-the-scenes organizer and strategist.

I've spent my whole entire life working on civil rights. In the Chicano movement and the American Indian movement, I was behind the scenes. I was not a marcher or a protestor, I was the planner. I would say, “Here is the way we need to do things,” and pass it on to the committees. I felt that if we had a good plan, then we were in good shape. And what I was more concerned about was doing it in a nonviolent way. Maybe that's why I wasn't a protestor, physically out there upholding signs and yelling. Because I think I would have gotten myself in more trouble.

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Alida Montiel

Alida Montiel awakened to the power of social protest—and the role Native Americans could play—through the filtered light of the nightly news. Montiel (right) and her daughter, Smoyma, are members of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

Whatever information came out about the Civil Rights Movement about the marches, the March on Washington, I was glued to the TV. I saw Martin Luther King. I saw Jesse Jackson. I wondered, “Where are the Mexicans? Where are the Indians? They've got to be in there somewhere. We should be on that march.” I told my father that I wanted to go to that march. But me being so young, he didn't want me to go. Years later, there was a Chicano Moratorium march in Los Angeles. I told my father again, “I want to go to that march.” Again, he was scared because of the violence that might occur. When I was a sophomore in high school, myself and other Mexican-Indian students and Mexican students, Hispanic students, we formed the first-ever united Mexican-American student chapter at our high school.

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Phyllis Ballenger

When she began working as a teacher's aide at a school for deaf children in Wilson, North Carolina, sign language interpreter Phyllis Ballenger found a link to her own civil rights story.

When I started working with deaf children, I didn't know sign language or anything, but I picked it up right away. I enjoyed seeing the children learn something that they didn't think they could do. They would look up at you and smile; there was so much love. I always worked with the kids who were deaf and had other handicaps. Eighteen years ago, I started working as a teacher/researcher at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. I sympathized with the student protest here a few years ago when they demanded a deaf president—and we got one. Being black and knowing all the things we've been through, I could see the similarities in our struggles.

Phyllis Ballenger, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Lester Sloan, © AARP 2004 (45)

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