King united their voices into a brave chorus

January 20, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

IN JULY 1975, shortly after the death of Lillie May Jackson, an Evening Sun editorial writer observed that she had been one of Baltimore's "earliest and fiercest fighters for her people's rights."

That tribute met with some scorn from Hans Froelicher Jr., an educator and one of Baltimore's civic leaders.

"What do you mean `her people's rights'?" he asked in a letter to the editor. "Are they not your rights and my rights? Was not Mrs. Jackson really fighting from the heart for your heart and mine and for our self-respect?"

As we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday is commemorated tomorrow, that exchange offers an important perspective.

Though now we see him as an Olympian figure, King drew energy from the relatively anonymous: Lillie May Jackson, Hans Froelicher, even nameless editorial writers.

He came to the civil rights movement, one might say, by invitation of a seamstress, Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus. A yearlong boycott knocked down a humiliating barrier and gave King a platform for challenging America's failed commitment to justice.

In retrospect, we see how black America (and parts of white America) had been preparing to demand rights promised by the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Active in the NAACP, Ms. Parks spent a week at the Highlander Folk School's workshop on interracial cooperation in Tennessee. According to an account in Parting the Waters, America in the King Years, by Taylor Branch of Baltimore, she came back imbued with possibilities for progress - and, it would seem, a sense of her power to resist.

She was not the first black American to say "Hell no, I won't move." Unknown thousands made similar statements from the days of slavery.

A Howard University professor refused to relinquish his whites-only seat on a train in Maryland in the early 1900s. His case went to a Maryland appeals court, which held that he could legally be forced into segregated seating as long as the train began and ended its trip in the state.

It took 50 years or more to roll back that Maryland law and others.

During World War II, William O. Lee of Frederick refused to move during a bus ride in Virginia. The driver insisted Mr. Lee move to the back of the bus in compliance with state law. Though he was then in the Navy - and wearing his uniform - a state trooper escorted him off the bus late at night in the middle of nowhere.

King pulled all this longing and disjointed resistance into a vibrant, moral force. Some followed him into the street. Others began to see how they could influence thought as well as deed.

An editorial writer, for example, made a point about Mrs. Jackson, and a reader responded. Didn't the writer realize her fight was for the soul of white America as well? Not everyone did realize then - and now.

Surely the writer was right about one thing: She was fierce. The calm and polite way hadn't worked. So, without other leverage, she made "in your face" an effective tactic long before the phrase was invented - and never tired of using it.

The late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, also of Baltimore, who worked with her in the local NAACP, confessed to putting the phone down during her rants. "Yes, Mrs. Jackson," he'd say occasionally. He'd pick up eventually, hoping she was winding down.

The late Robert Watts, a civil rights lawyer and later a judge, told of brothers on the bench who gave in just to get Ma Jackson's volume down.

She was, in fact, yelling at blacks, too. Though paid only a fraction of what whites were paid, blacks would not participate in a pay equity lawsuit: They feared for their jobs. People in some parts of the state were sanctioned for belonging to the NAACP.

A retired principal in Montgomery County volunteered, and the case was won.

In the mosaic of law and attitude, every tile relates to the others, accenting and defining until the intended picture emerges, focused and obvious.

William O. Lee's forebears in Frederick formed a "Free Colored Men's Library" in 1913, hoping to provide a resource for themselves and others who wanted better lives.

The library faded away by the 1930s, but the idea of self-improvement endured.

As a young man, Mr. Lee and his black friends ran into city parks to harass the policeman posted there to keep blacks out.

They sat upstairs at the movie houses and hid their anger when they weren't allowed to try on school clothes.

After his Navy years, Bill Lee went to college and became a schoolteacher and a beneficiary of Mrs. Jackson's equal pay suit. He and a white colleague ignored a prohibition on white and black kids competing on school playgrounds.

He found a way around discriminatory lending practices and built a nice ranch house.

He raised his family, served a term on the Frederick City Council and retired.

Like Ms. Parks, he made his personal statement. He overcame - and prospered - as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lillie May Jackson and members of the Free Colored Man's Library knew he could.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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