It is Black History Month and it is opportune to cover some of the heroes and heroines of America’s civil rights struggle. It is noticeable how, in the United States, there is a Holocaust museum in Washington but no equivalent institution to remember the victims of slavery or to commemorate the struggle to end desegregation and the fight against Jim Crow.
Very little if any mention is made of the role of Black people in the American civil war, which is depicted as a struggle between the good Whites of the North and the bad Whites of the South. People like Mary Bowser (Richards) who worked in the home of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy in Richmond Virginia.
Bowser had been freed by Elizabeth Van Lew who used her inheritance to free Mary and other slaves. Van Lew co-ordinated what was a veritable Black spy ring at the heart of the Confederacy including Bowser. Another member of this spy ring was John Scobell.
The Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated SouthernUnited States in 1961 and subsequent years to challenge the non-enforcement of the United States Supreme Court decisions Morgan v. Virginia (1946) and Boynton v. Virginia (1960), which ruled that segregated public buses were unconstitutional. The Southern states had ignored the rulings and the federal government did nothing to enforce them. The first Freedom Ride left Washington, D.C. on May 4, 1961, and was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17.
Below are two articles on the Freedom Riders and Diane Nash in particular. I have also copied below a tribute to 6 Black heroines of the civil rights struggle. Coretta Scott King should be well known to people but the other five are less well known.
Also there is an article on the late Congressman John Lewis, who was arrested no less than 40 times. Lewis symbolised the political co‑option of the Black struggle into the American power struggles. Lewis, who campaigned against desegregation supported the Jim Crow State of Israel. Nothing better demonstrates this than the fact that Jo Biden won the Democratic nomination because of the vote of Black people in South Carolina and elsewhere in the South on Super Tuesday.
This is the same Jo Biden who started off his political life as a segregationist and who supported the mass incarceration of Black people under Bill Clinton. There is a lesson here for Black Lives Matter which is also showing signs of sinking into the swamp of Black identity politics.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis occupied an anxious home in Richmond, Virginia, during the Civil War. A steady leak of information dripped from the highest ranks of the Confederacy to the Union. Davis was wary of a mole in his house, but had no idea how to stop the flow of information. Little did he know, a Union spy found her way into deepest parts of the Confederate White House as part of an abolitionist woman’s spy ring.
These women, Elizabeth “Crazy Bet” Van Lew and Mary Bowser, a freed slave who posed as a Davis’s servant, worked together to bring down the political fixtures of the South from the inside out.
Spies were common on both sides of the Civil War. Van Lew organized a spy ring in the heart of the Confederacy and Bowser, with her photographic memory and incredible acting skills, was able to relay critical intelligence to Van Lew, which would then make its way to the Union.
Spying on the most elite members of the Confederacy required the deception of more than just the enemy. In order to keep from exposing themselves, the women needed to fool society around them. They opted to be labeled as senseless and stupid instead of revealing themselves as the canny operators that they were.
Van Lew was born in 1818 into an affluent family in Richmond. After receiving her education as a teenager in Philadelphia, she began to see the injustice of slavery throughout the country. And as she got older, her stance against slavery only got stronger, despite the fact that her family owned slaves.
Following her father’s death in 1843, Van Lew and her widowed mother freed the slaves that the family owned, and Van Lew used the money from her father’s death—$10,000 (about $200,000 in today’s currency)—to buy and free the relatives of the slaves that her family had owned.
“No pen, no book, no time can do justice to slavery’s wrongs, its horrors,” Van Lew wrote in her diary, as reported by author Elizabeth R. Varon in the biography Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, A Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy.
Among the many freed slaves was young Mary Bowser, born Mary Jane Richards. Believed to have been born between 1839 and 1841, Richards remained a servant for the Van Lew family after attaining her freedom. Bowser was given special treatment from the time she was baptized as an infant at the family’s church, and was sent by Van Lew to the North, possibly Philadelphia, to receive a formal education. At the end of Richards’ education, Van Lew dispatched her as a missionary to the West African nation of Liberia in 1855.
Richards stayed in Liberia, which was founded by freed American slaves, until 1860, but was unhappy living there. When she finally came back to America, she was promptly arrested, likely because of a law that prohibited black Virginians who had lived in a free state or gotten an education from returning. She spent 10 days in jail before Van Lew paid her bail.
Richards used aliases from the moment that she was apprehended to the time that she was released, going by both Mary Jane Henley at her arrest and Mary Jones at her release—an early precursor to her ability to take on the role or title that best benefitted her scenario. The records that follow her life bear witness to the many names she used. She married fellow Van Lew servant Wilson Bowser on April 16, 1861, and was then known as Mary Elizabeth Bowser. The Civil War erupted just four days before the marriage.
Shortly afterward, Van Lew began volunteering as a nurse at the tobacco warehouse in Richmond—the capital of the Confederacy—that housed Union prisoners and would later become known as Libby Prison. In July of 1861, she and her mother started to bring food, clothes, books, medicine and other materials to the prisoners.
Unbeknownst to the guards, Van Lew was unofficially helping the Union with her deliveries, hiding messages and plans for escape in her deliveries. She even housed escaped Union soldiers, helping them as they tried to make their way back to the North.
Van Lew’s assistance to enemies of the Confederacy was met with disdain in Richmond, where residents were proud of the pro-slavery stance that their government upheld, shunning—and sometimes threatening—those that were sympathetic to the Union cause. But under the guise of a false persona in which she mumbled nonsense and was easily distracted, “Crazy Bet” was left alone by her fellow Southerners.
Word of Van Lew’s efforts to help the Union reached military leaders in the North, namely General Benjamin Butler, who sent a representative to recruit her as a Union spy. Under the instruction of Butler, Van Lew started to grow her network of spies, having them deliver dispatches in a colorless ink that could only be deciphered when milk was applied to the page.
Van Lew’s most valuable asset in her spy operation was Mary Bowser, who was able to spy for the Union in an entirely different way: from the vantage point of a domestic servant. After cleaning and cooking at several functions for the family of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Bowser was hired as a full-time servant in the Confederate White House.
There, she swept and dusted in the nooks and crannies of Davis home, reading the plans and documents that were laid out or hidden in desks, and reporting her findings to Van Lew. Equipped with a photographic memory, she was a troublesome spy to have behind enemy lines.
There’s not much information as to what Bowser was able to report back as a spy, as all of her dispatches to Van Lew were destroyed out of fear that they would lead to severe repercussions. However, Van Lew’s diary entries imply that Bowser’s reports were critical in helping the Union navigate their way towards victory during the war.
“When I open my eyes in the morning, I say to the servant, ‘What news, Mary?’ and my caterer never fails!” Van Lew wrote. “Most generally our reliable news is gathered from negroes, and they certainly show wisdom, discretion and prudence, which is wonderful.”
As the war came to a close, in 1865, Van Lew was thanked personally by Union General Ulysses S. Grant. “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war,” he reportedly told her.
Grant even gave Van Lew money for her services to the Union. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to cover the money she had already spent operating a spy ring of more than a dozen people; she had largely exhausted her inherited wealth during the Civil War. Afterward, she was left poor and abandoned by her community after it was revealed that she was a Union spy.
On Van Lew’s deathbed, in 1900, the story of Mary Bowser came to light in press accounts. In the Richmond and Manchester Evening Leader, it was reported that Van Lew described a “maid, of more than usual intelligence” who was educated out of state, sent to Liberia and planted as a servant to Davis during the war. A decade later in a Harper’s Monthly interview, Van Lew’s niece, Annie Randolph Hall, identified the woman as Bowser.
Bowser, meanwhile, did not wait long to tell of her incredible exploits. In fact, just days after the fall of the Confederacy, Bowser, using her maiden name Mary Jane Richards, began to teach former slaves in the area. In 1865, she traveled throughout the country, giving lectures about her experiences at war under the name Richmonia Richards.
“Miss RICHMONIA RICHARDS, recently from Richmond, where she has been engaged in organizing schools for the freedmen, and has also been connected with the secret service of our government, will give a description of her adventures, on Monday evening, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, Waverley-place, near Sixth-avenue.”
Fittingly for a former double agent, Richards’ speeches often contradicted one another, leaving historians befuddled as to her actual story. One thing that remained consistent, however, were reports of her sarcastic and humorous speaking style. As Richards traveled the country, records of her whereabouts begin to fade, in true spy fashion. She was last seen meeting abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe in Georgia in 1867, sharing the riveting story of her life as a spy yet again.
WASHINGTON — In the Confederate circles he navigated, John Scobell was considered just another Mississippi slave: singing, shuffling, illiterate and completely ignorant of the Civil War going on around him.
Confederate officers thought nothing of leaving important documents where Scobell could see them, or discussing troop movements in front of him. Whom would he tell? Scobell was only the butler, or the deckhand on a rebel sympathizer’s steamboat, or the field hand belting out Negro spirituals in a powerful baritone.
In reality, Scobell was not a slave at all.
He was a spy sent by the Union army, one of a few black operatives who quietly gathered information in a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse with Confederate spy-catchers and slave masters who could kill them on the spot. These unsung Civil War heroes were often successful, to the chagrin of Confederate leaders who never thought their disregard for blacks living among them would become a major tactical weakness.
“The chief source of information to the enemy,” Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, said in May 1863, “is through our negroes.”
Little is known about the black men and women who served as Union intelligence officers, other than the fact that some were former slaves or servants who escaped from their masters and others were Northerners who volunteered to pose as slaves to spy on the Confederacy. There are scant references to their contributions in historical records, mainly because Union spymasters destroyed documents to shield them from Confederate soldiers and sympathizers during the war and vengeful whites afterward.
“These kinds of spies and operatives come up over and over again, many of them unnamed and rarely do they receive glory,” said Hari Jones, curator of the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, who lectures on the Civil War’s African American spies.
Jones and other experts are hoping the 150th anniversary of the Civil War will include some measure of remembrance for these officers, some of whom are included in exhibits at the African American Civil War Museum’s new facility, which will hold its grand opening on July 16-18.
Allan Pinkerton, head of the Union Intelligence Service at the onset of the Civil War, detailed his recruitment of black spies in his autobiography, including a couple of successful missions by Scobell and the extraction of valuable papers from a Union defector. Scobell in particular, Pinkerton said, was a “cool-headed, vigilant detective” who easily duped the Confederates around him by assuming “the character of the light-hearted, happy darkey.” Pinkerton said.
“From the commencement of the war, I have found the negroes of invaluable assistance and I never hesitated to employ them when after investigation I found them to be intelligent and trustworthy,”
Harriet Tubman is the most recognizable of these spies, sneaking down South repeatedly to gather intelligence for the Union army while also leading runaway slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad. Often disguised as a field hand or poor farm wife, she led several spy missions into South Carolina while directing others from Union lines.
Another spy, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, was born a slave to the Van Lew family, who freed her and sent her to school. Bowser then returned to Richmond, where Elizabeth Van Lew was running one of the war’s most sophisticated spy rings.
Somehow, Van Lew got Bowser a job inside the Confederate White House as a housekeeper. Bowser then proceeded to sneak classified information out from under Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ nose.
According to the memoirs of Thomas McGiven, the Union spymaster in Richmond whose cover was that of a baker who delivered to the Confederate White House, Bowser
“had a photographic mind. Everything she saw on the Rebel President’s desk she could repeat word for word. Unlike most colored, she could read and write. She made the point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis’ home to drop information.”
Stories about Bowser, who is also known as Ellen Bond, Mary Jones or Mary Jane Richards, show up as early as May 1900 in Richmond newspapers, and her name was revealed in 1910 in an interview with Van Lew’s niece, according to Elizabeth Varon, author of a book about Van Lew.
There is no proof that Bowser existed beyond these recollections. Van Lew, like Pinkerton before her, requested that Union forces turn over all her intelligence records at the end of the Civil War and destroyed them, leaving no proof of her vast network.
Jefferson Davis’ wife, Varina, publicly denied that a black female spy could have infiltrated their White House.
But Varon’s book suggests that Bowser’s true name was Mary Richards, she survived the Civil War and married a man named Garvin. Richards even writes in an 1867 letter that during the Civil War she was “in the service … as a detective.” Others are not as well-known.
Take, for example, the three slaves who escaped the Confederate army on Morris Island, outside Charleston, S.C., in 1863 and went to Union Brig. Gen. Q.A. Gillmore with crucial information.
“They were officers’ servants, and report, from conversations of the officers there, that north and northwest faces of Fort Sumter are nearly as badly breached as the gorge wall, and that many of our projectiles passed through both walls, and that the fort contains no serviceable guns,”
Gillmore said in a report to his army superiors.
Using African American troops, Gillmore later ordered the attack on Fort Sumter, which was retaken by the North in February 1865, almost four years after the Civil War began with the Confederates firing on the federal facility and taking it over.
One such informant was Marie Louvestre (sometimes spelled Touvestre in historical records), a former slave working for a Confederate engineer who was transforming the USS Merrimac into the Virginia, the first Confederate ironclad warship. Realizing the importance of her employer’s breakthrough, Louvestre took some of the paperwork, headed north and requested a private meeting with Navy Secretary Gideon Wells.
The Union navy was working on a similar ship, the USS Monitor. Louvestre, Wells said in an 1873 letter,
“told me the condition of the vessel, and took from her clothing a paper, written by a mechanic who was working on the `Merrimac,’ describing the character of the work, its progress and probable completion.”
The Union navy intensified its construction of the Monitor and sailed it down to Virginia, leading to the world’s first ironclad naval battle, a stalemate that kept the rebel navy from breaking the federal blockade of Norfolk.
Union forces weren’t the only ones operating a black spy network in the South.
Black abolitionists also ran a vast private network called the “Loyal League,” “Lincoln’s Legal Loyal League” or the “4Ls,” which spied for the North and spread word about the war among the black slaves. Scobell was a member of the 4Ls, Pinkerton said, and used the network to get information to Washington, D.C.
“I traveled to about the plantations within a certain range, and got together small meetings in the cabins to tell the slaves the great news. Some of these slaves in turn would find their way to still other plantations — and so the story spread. We had to work in dead secrecy,” with “knocks and signs and passwords,”
said George Washington Albright of Holly Springs, Miss., in 1937.
Utmost secrecy was needed for these spies because of the consequences for those who were caught.
James Bowser, a free black from Nansemond County, Va., decided to help the Union army by spying on the South, according to Virginia Hayes Smith of Norfolk, Va., an elderly black lady who related Bowser’s story to Virginia Writers Project field interviewers in 1937. Her recollections were subsequently published in the book “Virginia Folk Legends.”
Bowser’s white neighbors, some of whom coveted Bowser’s farmland, heard rumors of his activities, Smith said. A mob of planters attacked Bowser’s house at night and dragged out Bowser and his son.
“After severely beating both father and son, the horde made Bowser lie on the ground and stretch his neck over a log like a chicken on a chopping block,” said Smith, “Then someone cut his head off. The plan was to kill the boy in the same manner, but the more thoughtful ones disagreed. They suggested that he be left to carry the news of this ghastly example back to the other Negroes. The mob gave in.”
Another Virginian, a free black bricklayer named Martin Robinson, was killed on the spot.
Robinson was considered “faithful and reliable” by the Union hierarchy, and already had helped Union officers escape from the infamous Libby Prison in Richmond, wrote Louis M. Boudrye, chaplain of the 5th New York Calvary.
Union forces wanted to attack Richmond in 1864 to free Union soldiers and spies held by Confederates at Belle Isle, a small island in the middle of the James River. Colonel Ulric Dahlgren was to cross the James River eight miles to the south and press north into the city while other Union forces attacked from other directions. Robinson, who lived in the area, was sent by the Bureau of Military Intelligence to take Dahlgren’s troops and horses to the best place to cross the river.
When they arrived, the river was impassable. Robinson panicked. Dahlgren decided Robinson had deliberately deceived him. However, the river normally would have been passable had it not been for flooding from heavy rains, Confederate veteran Richard G. Crouch said in 1906.
“The colonel ordered him to be hung — a halter strap was used for the purpose, and we left the miserable wretch hanging by the roadside,” Boudrye said.
Now an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, Nash was arrested dozens of times for non-violent protests—including while six months pregnant.
“Diane, you’ve gotten in with the wrong bunch.”
Those were the words that civil rights activist Diane Nash heard when her grandmother found out she was involved in the Civil Rights Movement in 1960. Imagine her grandmother’s surprise when she found out that Nash wasn’t just involved, but was leading the charge of the Nashville student sit-ins. Later, in fact, she would go on to help coordinate the Freedom Rides.
The response of Nash’s family was one that many others would express throughout her journey: fear. And with the violence and discrimination that was rampant throughout the country in the 1950s and ‘60s, it’s easy to see why.
Nash was born in 1938 and raised in Chicago, away from the strong racial divisions that saw African Americans treated as second-class citizens under Jim Crow laws in the South. It wasn’t until she enrolled at the historically black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1959 that she came face-to-face with overt discrimination.
“There were signs that said white, white-only, colored. [The] library was segregated, the public library. Parks, swimming pools, hotels, motels,”
“I was at a period where I was interested in expanding: going new places, seeing new things, meeting new people. So that felt very confined and uncomfortable.”
Among the many facilities that weren’t available to Nash and her peers were restaurants that served black customers only on a “takeout basis,” which meant they weren’t allowed to sit and eat inside. Instead, black patrons were forced to eat along the curbs and alleys of Nashville during the lunch hour.
Nash couldn’t adhere to these rules. In her eyes, that would be agreeing with the unjust laws. But before she could take a stand against these restaurants—essentially protesting the government itself—she needed a plan of action. Enter Jim Lawson, an activist who had studied Gandhi’s nonviolent movement in India, and taught workshops on progress and change through nonviolence at a Methodist church near the university.
The spring after she enrolled at Fisk, just shy of 22 years old, Nash became a leader in the Nashville Student Central Committee, which organized sit-ins at discriminatory restaurants throughout the city. Faced with a fuming community that did everything in their power to remove the students, Nash encountered the frightening scenarios that she had prepared for during Lawson’s workshops.
Charles H. Percy, right, chairman of the platform committee of the Republican Party, speaking with Walter Bradford, Diane Nash, and Bernard Lee on July 20, 1960. AP Photo
Leading up to her first sit-in, in February 1960, Nash worried about being arrested. She’d voiced her concern in the workshops, saying that she’d help with phone calls and organizing but in the end, she would not go to jail. “But when the time came, I went,” she says, of the dozens of arrests she’d face in the not too distant future.
The success of the sit-ins on May 10 that year would make Nashville the first southern city to desegregate lunch counters in the country. But that was only the beginning for the young activist.
In 1961, the Nashville Student Central Committee received a notice from CORE that they were beginning the Freedom Rides, a nonviolent protest to desegregate interstate bus travel and terminals that started in Washington, D.C., before making its way through southern states. The student activists offered to help in any way they could. It wouldn’t be long before they were called on to fulfill that request.
As the Freedom Rides went from one state to another, the participants found themselves in increasing danger from angry communities vehemently against the idea of integration. The aggression came to a head as the Freedom Rides reached Alabama. The buses were burned and the activists beaten on May 14, 1961, forcing them to retreat to New Orleans. From there, it was up to Nash to carry the torch with a new group of Freedom Riders.
“We recognized that if the Freedom Ride was ended right then after all that violence, southern white racists would think that they could stop a project by inflicting enough violence on it,”
“And we wouldn’t have been able to have any kind of movement for voting rights, for buses, public accommodations or anything after that, without getting a lot of people killed first.”
So Nash and her peers continued the Freedom Rides, despite the objections of many powerful people, including Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Kennedy had instructed his assistant, John Seigenthaler, to speak directly with Nash in an attempt to call off the Freedom Rides. With so much bloodshed in Alabama, he urged the chairwoman to back down from the violence that undoubtedly awaited them on the trail.
“People understood very well what could happen,” says Nash, who explained to Seigenthaler that the participants in the Freedom Rides had given her sealed envelopes with their wills, in the event of their deaths. “Fortunately, I was able to return all those sealed envelopes.”
The Freedom Rides concluded in the fall of 1961 with yet another victory for the Civil Rights Movement; the Interstate Commerce Commission made segregated bus travel and terminals illegal, effective November 1st. However, Nash’s strength would again be tested when she faced law enforcement later that year. And this time, she was pregnant.
In 1961, Nash was arrested for “contributing to the delinquency of minors” after encouraging young people to fight for desegregated buses in Mississippi. At the time, she was living with her husband, James Bevel, in Jackson. The couple, who met through activism, had been spreading a message of nonviolence within the community.
Nash’s attorney had wrongly advised her that she did not need to appear in court, which resulted in a warrant for her arrest. Six months pregnant at the time, Nash went to court to surrender to the authorities. She was facing a two-year prison sentence.
“When I surrendered, I sat in the front seat of the courtroom and the bailiff told me to move back and I thought ‘I [might be here] for two years, I’m not moving anywhere,’” she says. “So they charged me with contempt of court for refusing to move to the back.”
The contempt of court sentence lasted for 10 days. While in jail, the only thing on Nash’s mind was her unborn child. She was determined to do everything she could so that her child would enter a world that was equal for all Americans, regardless of race.
After serving out her sentence for contempt, the judge declined to hear Nash’s other case. Nash believes the federal government tapped her telephone line and listened in when she told organizations in the Civil Rights Movement that she was pregnant and headed to jail for up to two years. On the heels of the horrific imagery of the bloodied and beaten Freedom Riders that had been spread far and wide, they surmised that Mississippi didn’t want to find itself, once again, at the center of a national political debate.
As a result, the government reduced Nash’s sentence for “contributing to the delinquency of minors” without formally addressing it. This left Nash in a predicament. She didn’t want the prejudiced justice system she had been fighting against to think that she was indebted to it. She was ready and willing to serve her full sentence, after all.
“When I got home, I wrote Judge Moore a certified return-receipt letter. I said, ‘In case you should change your mind and you want me, here’s where you can reach me,’” Nash recalls. And though the judge never took her up on the offer, Nash was always ready to do what was necessary to make a mark. To change the world, she says with a laugh, “sometimes you have to be bad.”
Below are a few of the women who contributed to the fight for equal rights for Black American women.
While their stories may not be widely known, countless dedicated, courageous women were key organizers and activists in the fight for Civil Rights. Without these women, the struggle for equality would have never been waged. “Women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement,” activist Coretta Scott King asserted in the magazine New Lady in 1966. Here are a few of their stories.
1. Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray (1910–1985)
The Draftswoman of Civil Rights Victories
The writings of The Rev. Dr. Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray were a cornerstone of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the 1954 Supreme Court case that ended school segregation, but the lawyer, Episcopal priest, pioneering civil rights activist and co-founder of the National Organization for Women wouldn’t be made aware of that extraordinary accomplishment until a decade after the fact.
In 1944, Murray was the only woman enrolled at Howard Law School—and at the top of her class. While discussing Jim Crow laws, Murray had an idea. Why not challenge the “separate” in “separate but equal” legal doctrine, (Plessy v. Ferguson) and argue that segregation was unconstitutional? This theory became the basis of her 1950 book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, which NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall called the “bible” of Brown v. Board of Education.
In 1965, Murray and Mary O. Eastwood co-authored the essay “Jane Crow and the Law,” which argued that the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment should be applied to sex discrimination as well. In 1971, a young lawyer named Ruth Bader Ginsburg successfully argued this point in Reed v. Reed in front of the Supreme Court. Murray was named as a co-author on the brief.
Murray died in 1985, and in the decades since, public awareness of her many contributions has only continued to grow. Murray was sainted by the Episcopal Church in 2012, a residential college at Yale was named in her honor in 2017, and she has become an LGBTQ icon, thanks, in part, to the progressive approach to gender fluidity that she personally expressed throughout her life. Despite all this, as she wrote in the essay “The Liberation of Black Women” in 1970: “If anyone should ask a Negro woman in America what has been her greatest achievement, her honest answer would be, ‘I survived!’”
2. Mamie Till Mobley (1921–2003)
Inspirational Mother of a Martyr
Mamie Till Mobley’s story is one of triumph in the face of tragedy. Though she never sought to be an activist, her resolve inspired the civil rights movement and “broke the emotional chains of Jim Crow,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson would remark upon her death.
On August 28, 1955, Mobley’s 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, was brutally murdered in Money, Mississippi, by two white men who claimed that Till had “wolf-whistled” at one of their wives. When Till’s mutilated corpse was found three days later in the Tallahatchie River, Mississippi officials tried to dispose of the body quickly, but Mobley obtained a court order to have her only child’s remains returned to Chicago. Though his casket arrived padlocked and sealed with the state seal of Mississippi, Mobley insisted that her son’s brutalized body be displayed during his funeral. “I want the world to see what they did to my boy,” the grieving mother explained.
“Mrs. Mobley did a profound strategic thing,” Jackson later toldthe New York Times. “More than 100,000 people saw his body lying in that casket…at that time the largest single civil rights demonstration in American history.” Until her death in 2003, at the age of 81, Mobley advocated for underprivileged children and against racial injustice. Although she never got justice for her son (his murderers were acquitted by an all-white male jury), Mobley didn’t let it dampen her spirit. As she told a reporter: “I have not spent one minute hating.”
3. Claudette Colvin (born 1939)
The Teenager Who Refused to Give Up Her Bus Seat Before Rosa Parks
When Claudette Colvin‘s high school in Montgomery, Alabama, observed Negro History Week in 1955, the 15-year-old had no way of knowing how the stories of black freedom fighters would soon impact her life. “I knew I had to do something,” she later told USA Today. “I just didn’t know where or when.”
Colvin got her chance on March 2, 1955, when she boarded a bus in downtown Montgomery. She and three other black students were told to give up their seats for a white woman. Colvin, emboldened by her history lessons, refused. “My head was just too full of black history,” she stated in an interview with NPR.
“It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.”
Colvin was arrested and eventually put on indefinite probation. Though Colvin’s courageous act occurred nine months before Rosa Parks’ similar protest, the NAACP chose to use the 42-year-old civil rights activist as the public face of the Montgomery bus boycott, as they believed an unwed mother—Colvin became pregnant when she was 16—would not be the best face for the movement. Colvin felt slighted, but later joined three other women—Mary Louise Smith, Aurelia Browder and Susie McDonald—as the plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the case that ultimately overturned bus segregation in Alabama.
Colvin rarely talked about her heroic actions until the 1990s. “I’d like my grandchildren,” she said, “to be able to see that their grandmother stood up for something, a long time ago.”
4. Maude Ballou (1925-2019)
In 1955, Maude Ballou—a young mother who had studied business and literature in college and was program director of the first black radio station in Montgomery, Alabama—was approached by her husband’s friend, a young minister and activist named Martin Luther King, Jr., to be the personal secretary.
After agreeing, Ballou became the Rev. Dr. King’s right-hand woman from 1955 until 1960, years of great unrest and transforming events that included the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the publication of King’s first book, Stride Towards Freedom, and the Prayer Pilgrimage for Peace in Washington, D.C.
Her work placed Ballou in enormous danger. In 1957, she was listed as number 21 on the Montgomery Improvement Associations list of “persons and churches most vulnerable to violent attacks.” (King was at the top of the list.) Her children’s lives were threatened, and KKK members watched her at work through the windows of the church. But Ballou just kept on working. “I was a daredevil, I guess,” she toldThe Washington Post in 2015.
“I didn’t have time to worry about what might happen, or what had happened, or what would happen,” said Ballou, who went on to serve as a teacher and college administrator. “We were very busy doing things, knowing that anything could happen, and we just kept going.”
Ballou passed away on August 26, 2019. She was 93 years old.
5. Diane Nash (born 1938)
Freedom Rider and Nonviolent Student Activist for Desegregation
A native of Chicago, Diane Nash hadn’t experienced the shock of desegregation within the Jim Crow South until she attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. The “Whites Only” signs scattered throughout Nashville inspired Nash to become the chairperson of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) in 1960, where she organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters throughout Nashville. Nash kept the group’s commitment to nonviolence front and center at the sit-ins, which proved very effective in ending the discriminatory practices within the restaurants.
The following year, Nash took over responsibility for the Freedom Rides, a protest against segregated bus terminals that took place on Greyhound buses from Washington D.C. to Virginia. The Freedom Rides, which were initially organized by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), encountered a mob of angry segregationists as they entered Anniston, Alabama, and were brutally beaten and unable to finish the route. SNCC—under the direction of Nash— continued the protest from Birmingham, Alabama, to Jackson, Mississippi.
Before setting off with a group of 10 students from Nashville, Nash received a call from John Seigenthaler, assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy Jr., who tried to persuade her to end the Freedom Rides, insisting the bloodshed would only continue if they persisted. Nash, unshaken by the stance of the White House, told Seigenthaler that they knew the risks involved and had already prepared their wills before continuing the Freedom Rides.
Nash later moved back to Chicago and went on to serve as an advocate for fair housing practices. Her contributions to the success of Civil Rights movement have been increasingly recognized in the years since. In 1995, historian David Halberstam described Nash as “bright, focused, utterly fearless, with an unerring instinct for the correct tactical move at each increment of the crisis.”
6. Coretta Scott King (1927–2006)
Human Rights Activist, Pacifist, Musician
In 1968, just days after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his wife, Coretta Scott King, took his place at a sanitation workers’ protest in Memphis. A few weeks later, she kicked off his planned Poor People Campaign. She had long been politically active, but her husband’s death galvanized her activism.
King earned a bachelor’s degree in Music and Education from Antioch College, and had met her future husband while studying at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. In the early years of the civil rights movement, she hosted a series of popular “Freedom Concerts,” raising thousands of dollars for the movement.
After her husband’s assassination, King campaigned tirelessly to make his birthday a national holiday, and raised millions to establish the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. An avowed feminist, she was active in the National Organization for Women, and was an early advocate for LBGTQ rights. During the 1980s, she was a vigorous opponent of apartheid.
King understood that she would be remembered as a widow and human rights activist, but, as she once said, she hoped to be thought of a different way:
“as a complex, three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood human being with a rich storehouse of experiences, much like everyone else, yet unique in my own way…much like everyone else.”
John Lewis was arrested 40 times during the civil rights movement.
Activists who practiced civil disobedience in the 1960s knew their opponents wouldn’t show them civility in return. Congressman John Lewis, a leader of the civil rights movement who co-founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was arrested 40 times between 1960 and 1966 for protesting racist laws and practices in the Jim Crow South. During the first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights on March 7, 1965, state troopers and “deputized” white men beat him so badly they fractured his skull.
Lewis, who died on July 17, 2020 at age 80, often spoke of what he called “good trouble.” Getting arrested for trying to march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge—which bears the name of a Ku Klux Klan leader—was an example of this. Speaking atop the same bridge 55 years after the events of that day, known as “Bloody Sunday,” he urged listeners to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”
Lewis’ first arrest was during a lunch counter sit-in in 1960. On February 1 of that year, four Black college students had sat at a “whites-only” lunch counter at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. As expected, the staff refused to serve them; but the students refused to leave. They remained in their seats and stayed until closing. The next day, they came back with more students to do it again.
The Greensboro sit-ins sparked a wave of similar protests in which students protested lunch counters’ racist policies by publicly violating them. Lewis, Diane Nash and other members of the Nashville Student Movement began organizing sit-ins in their city. On February 27, Lewis sat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Nashville where angry white patrons beat him and his fellow protestors and tried to pull them off their seats. When the police arrived, it was the protestors, not the attackers, whom they arrested. This was 20-year-old Lewis’ first arrest.
“I didn’t necessarily want to go to jail,” he recalled in a 1973 interview for the Southern Oral History Program.
“But we knew…it would help solidify the student community and the Black community as a whole. The student community did rally. The people heard that we had been arrested and before the end of the day, five hundred students made it into the downtown area to occupy other stores and restaurants. At the end of the day ninety-eight of us were in jail.”
The pressure worked: That spring, lunch counters in Nashville began serving Black customers.
The Freedom Riders
The next year, student activists traveled through the south on public buses to protest the federal government’s refusal to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1960 ruling in Boynton v. Virginia that segregated public transportation was unconstitutional. Lewis was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders who started off on May 4, 1961 in Washington, D.C. Many more joined the trip or started their own Freedom Rides that summer. One of those who joined was Lewis’ fellow Nashville activist Reverend C.T. Vivian, who died at age 95 on July 17, 2020, the same day as Lewis.
The first violent attack on the Freedom Riders came only five days into their journey, when Lewis attempted to enter the “white” waiting room in the Greyhound terminal in Rock Hill, South Carolina. A group of angry white men beat up Lewis and two other Freedom Riders. On May 14, a white mob in Anniston, Alabama set fire to a bus carrying nine Freedom Riders and then beat up the passengers.
White mobs continued to attack Freedom Riders in Birmingham, where the city’s police commissioner arrested Lewis and his fellow riders. Afterward, the commissioner drove them to a remote area near the Tennessee border known for Klan terrrorism and left them there. In Jackson, Mississippi, police officers arrested Lewis, Vivian and other Freedom Riders, sending them to Parchman Farm. At the infamously brutal state penitentiary, guards beat them and forced them to work on the penitentiary’s massive farm without pay.
Once again, the arrests drew national attention—as activists hoped they would—putting pressure on officials to act. That fall, the Interstate Commerce Commission finally enforcedBoynton v. Virginia by demanding that interstate bus services integrate their bus seating and terminals.
The Legacy of ‘Good Trouble’
After the Freedom Rides, Lewis continued to play a key role in the civil rights movement. In June 1963 he became the chairman of SNCC. The next month, he was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now. We do not want to go to jail. But we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood, and true peace.”
For the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Lewis “live-tweeted” the day as he’d experienced it. “I was hit in the head by a state trooper with a nightstick. My legs went out from under me,”he wrote. “I thought I saw death. I thought I was going to die.” TV stations broadcast the violent footage around the country in 1965, pressuring the government to act by passing the Voting Rights Act later that year.
In 1987, Lewis became a U.S. Congressman, representing Georgia’s 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He held the position until his death in 2020. Yet even as a Congressman, he continued to get into what he called “good trouble.” His last arrest was on October 8, 2013. Posting a picture of it online, he tweeted: “Arrest number 45, protesting in support of comprehensive immigration reform.”