Unsung white champions in black history

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Like those who remained, my eyes were riveted to the long list of credits after a showing of the movie Selma. Among those who played the roles of Dr. King, Coretta Scott King, Dr. Abernathy, John Lewis and others, two names in particular caught my attention; Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb, both white, who lost their lives in the struggle for voting rights.

But first some context.

February is Black or African American History Month as celebrated in the United States. It began in 1926 when Dr.Carter Woodson instituted a week-long celebration of the contributions African-Americans have made to history. He chose the week of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Over the years, the observance expanded, and now the entire month of February is celebrated as African-American History Month, also known as Black History or Black Experience Month.

As is usually the case, when important people are thought about in black history, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, Marcus Garvey, Thurgood Marshall, President Barack Obama, Harriet Tubman, and other familiar names quickly come to mind.And deservedly so. The truth is, however, what’s rarely mentioned in the same breath are the names of white and other folks who played extremely important roles in black history.

Thus – and this is in no way intended to rewrite history, or to usurp the original intent of celebrating Black History Month, but rather to expand the list of names of other significant contributors to it – I decided to depart from tradition and bring attention to other champions, some known, others perhaps not so known. Certainly there are many, many others. I start with Viola Gregg Liuzzo.

Politically and socially active, Liuzzo was a member of the Detroit chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). And, having spent some of her youth in Tennessee and Georgia, she knew firsthand about the racial injustices African-Americans often suffered in the South.

On March 21, 1965, more than 3,000 marchers led by King began their trek from Selma to Montgomery to campaign for voting rights for African-Americans in the South. The group reached Montgomery on March 25, and King gave a speech on the steps of the state capitol building to a crowd of 25,000 people. During the march, Liuzzo drove supporters between Selma and Montgomery. That night, Liuzzo was driving another Civil Rights worker with the SCLC back to Selma when another car pulled alongside her vehicle. One of the passengers in the neighboring car shot at Liuzzo, striking her in the face and killing her. She was the only white woman killed in the Civil Rights movement.

James Reeb was born in 1927 in Wichita, Kan. A Unitarian minister, Reeb followed his moral compass squarely into the fray of the civil rights movement. He was active in the Civil Rights movement while serving as minister in Boston and worked in Washington DC as well. A member of the SCLC, Reeb left his wife and four young children and took part in the Selma to Montgomery protest march in 1965. While in Selma on the 8th of March, Reeb was attacked by a mob with clubs, suffered massive head injuries and died two days later.

At the screening of the movie Selma, Reeb’s son became emotional as he watched an actor portray his father on screen.

Stanley David Levison was a businessman from New York and a lifelong activist in progressive causes. He is best known as an adviser to, and close friend of King’s, for whom he helped write speeches and organize events. He had initially been introduced to King by Bayard Rustin, a Quaker, in 1956 in New York City. Though King had offered to pay Levison in exchange for his help, Levison refused on every occasion, stating that “the liberation struggle is the most positive and rewarding area of work anyone could experience.”

Julius Rosenwald became a partner in Sears, Roebuck and Co. In 1896 he became a vice president of Sears, Roebuck and Co. After he stepped down as Sears president in 1924, he devoted most of his time to philanthropy. Over the course of his life, he donated millions of dollars to public schools, colleges and universities, museums, Jewish charities and black institutions.

Rosenwald was most famous for the more than 5,000 “Rosenwald schools” he established throughout the South for poor, rural black youth, and the 4,000 libraries he added to existing schools. In 1927, Rosenwald received a special gold medal from the William E. Harmon Awards for Distinguished Achievement in Race Relations for his contributions to the education of black youth.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professor of Physics Michael S. Feld directed the MIT George R. Harrison Spectroscopy Laboratory until his death. Feld first came to MIT in 1958 as an undergraduate and went on to do his PhD there. During his 52 years at MIT he was an active contributor to the Institute community; he was particularly proud of his work helping to develop a welcoming ambience for minority students, staff and faculty.

Feld had an amazing track record of mentoring African-American scientists, including the late Challenger astronaut Ronald McNair, who received his PhD under Feld’s supervision. In turn, Ron became Feld’s karate master.

Side note: The late Ron McNair’s brother is a regular contributor on LinkedIn and authored an inspiring book on his brother’s life. He is a highly-sought after speaker, not only during Black History Month, but throughout the year and can be reached at (404) 271-1090.

Andrew Goodman was born in New York City, the middle of three sons of Robert and Carolyn Goodman. His family and community were steeped in intellectual and socially progressive activism and were devoted to social justice. In 1964, Goodman volunteered along with fellow activist Mickey Schwerner to work on the “Freedom Summer” project of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to register blacks to vote in Mississippi. In mid-June, Goodman joined Schwerner in Meridian, Miss., where the latter was designated head of the field office. They worked on registering blacks in rural areas to vote.

Michael Schwerner was born and raised in Pelham, New York. His mother was a science teacher at New Rochelle High School and his father was a businessman. Schwerner attended Michigan State University, originally intending to become a veterinarian. He transferred to Cornell University. While an undergraduate at Cornell, he integrated the school’s chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity. He entered graduate school at the School of Social Work at Columbia University.He later led a local Congress of Racial Equality group on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, called “Downtown CORE,” and participated in a 1963 effort to desegregate Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Maryland.

The situation in the South led Schwerner and his wife, Rita, to volunteer to work for National CORE in Mississippi. Bob Moses assigned the Schwerners to organize the community center and activities in Meridian, making Schwerner the first white to be posted permanently outside Jackson. He also organized a black boycott of a popular variety store until it hired its first black.

Schwerner and fellow workers James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were murdered in 1964 in Philadelphia, Miss.

William Lloyd Garrison worked as a compositor for his hometown newspaper and became involved with the opposition to slavery, writing then becoming co-editor of the Quaker Genius of Universal Emancipation newspaper. Garrison made a name for himself as one of the most articulate, as well as most radical, opponents of slavery. While some other abolitionists of the time favored gradual emancipation, Garrison argued for “immediate and complete emancipation of all slaves.”

His outspoken views repeatedly brought him trouble; he was imprisoned for libel when he called a slave trader a robber and murderer; the government of the State of Georgia offered a reward of $5,000 for his arrest, and he received numerous and frequent death threats. In 1831 he founded an anti-slavery newspaper of his own, The Liberator, which he continued to publish and edit for 35 years. In 1833, Garrison founded the American Anti-Slavery Society.

So yes, two days from now we begin the celebration of African-American History Month. It is also a time to remember the long list of many others who made significant contributions to that history as well, including the Quakers who housed runaway slaves along the “Underground Railroad,” and those who paid the ultimate price and the spouses, children and other loved ones they left behind.


Terry Howard is a diversity guru, trainer, writer and corporate story teller who resides in Douglasville, Georgia. He also serves as senior associate at Diversity Wealth and can be reached at (470) 558-7310 or wwhoward3@gmail.com

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