Saluting a leader of Southern civil rights

September 24, 2006|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,sun reporter

Hundreds of people, including nationally known civil rights leaders, packed into a Northeast Baltimore church yesterday for a tribute to Victoria Jackson Gray Adams - a woman best known for helping to integrate Mississippi's Democratic Party in the 1960s.

"Her legacy is action," said the Rev. Cecil Conteen Gray, her son and pastor of Northwood Appold United Methodist Church, which hosted the memorial service.

"Right now if you look at all of your [black or female] elected officials ... you did not have that prior to my mother's work. You do not get to Barack Obama if you do not get through Victoria Jackson Gray Adams."

Mrs. Adams died of lung cancer Aug. 12 in Baltimore. She was 79. She had been treated for lung cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital off and on since April 2005. In the end of January, she became sick, recovered briefly and then came back to her son's home in June.

In January, while still in remission, she rode in a car as a grand marshal in the Martin Luther King Day parade in Baltimore.

Mrs. Adams registered thousands of black voters in Mississippi in the 1960s and organized meals and housing for people who came to her home state during Freedom Summer in 1964.

That year, she became the first woman to run for U.S. Senate in Mississippi, losing to Sen. John C. Stennis in the Democratic primary. Later that year, she traveled to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J., where she, Annie Devine and Fannie Lou Hamer protested the all-white Mississippi delegation. The effort was known as the Mississippi Challenge; it focused national attention on the disenfranchisement of blacks in the South.

"I was struck by her spirit of defiance and her spirit of hope," said former Washington Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., who attended the service.

Mr. Barry recalled the Atlantic City protests: "We were on the boardwalk staying in sleeping bags and singing freedom songs. We were excited. We had the support of the country."

Mrs. Adams' activism came at a cost. She and her family were frequently threatened, and attempts were made on her life. Mr. Gray recalled that when he was a child, the family practiced fire drills in case anyone hurled a Molotov cocktail into the home. He recalled bullet holes in her car. None of this deterred her.

Mrs. Adams served on the national board of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, helped found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and won numerous awards for civil rights work.

Yesterday's service was the last in a series of events to pay tribute to her. The first was in Petersburg, Va., where she lived with Reuben E. Adams, her husband of 40 years. Another was held in Hattiesburg, the small Mississippi town that became "ground zero" for the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

During the five-hour service, more than 50 people spoke, including some of her church leaders, civil rights activists and family members.

At one point, when photos of his mother were shown on a screen, Mr. Gray wept, but the mood was mostly upbeat with songs and video clips showing interviews with Mrs. Adams and historic footage of the civil rights movement sprinkled throughout.

Bernice Johnson Reagon, a civil rights activist and curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, inspired the audience to clap, sway and sing "Glory, Glory Hallelujah."

She challenged young people to stir up controversy. "If no one in your life is wishing you didn't show up, you more than likely are not following the essence of Victoria," she said. "I stand here inviting you to get in trouble."

Others remembered her as a woman who loved wearing broad hats, enjoyed shopping and was humble and strong.

June E. Johnson said she was 14 years old when she met Mrs. Adams in a civil rights office in Mississippi. "She was the only person who had high heels on when she registered people to vote," Ms. Johnson said with a smile.

Mrs. Adams gave an address in January at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, The Sun reported. She closed by saying: "My generation is fast leaving the planet. Will you continue the campaign?"

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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