[As told to the Celebration of Unsung Heroes on the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Movement events of 1963 at the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, California.]
Thank you very much.
I was told that this gathering today was to honor a lot of unsung heroes. That's a very hard mission to do, because there were not just scores, not just hundreds, but there were thousands of unsung heroes, all across the South — both the people who came to work there, [and] people who were part of the Civil Rights Movement, with SNCC and SCLC. I was a Field Secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
There were people who fed us, who took care of us, who died. There were people who came South. There were movie actors. There were lawyers. There were doctors. Lawyers like (William) Kunstler, (Arthur) Kinoy, Marion Wright Edelman, Claudia Shropshire, Don Jelinek — all unsung heroes. There were doctors like my wife's father, Dr. Isadore Kolman, a doctor who worked with the Medical Committee for Human Rights. There were actors like Shirley MacLaine. And there were just untold numbers of people, famous and infamous, and not known, who were there — who helped us and were a part of the struggle. So it's really a hard task to say who all the unsung heroes were — you know, there are unsung heroes in this room who did so much to change this country, not just the South but this whole country. And I'm very grateful.
When I got involved in the Movement, I was 13 years old, in 1960. And I wanted today to just mention particularly the young people in the South who were the backbone of the Movement, a lot of them very young who made up our — who helped us with our work in voter registration, in direct action, sitting in and that sort of thing. And who gave us moral support and who gave us their spirit. And unfortunately I'm [only] going to cite two young people from Selma who are unsung but maybe not quite so unsung, Sheyann Webb and Rachel West who were in Selma.
Rachel's folks, Alonzo West and Alice West, her parents, they hosted a lot of the Civil Rights workers who came in. I stayed at their home many times, for many days. I knew the family very well. They lived right next to Brown's Chapel which was kind of the Civil Rights Center where we'd all march from. And Sheyann was, I think, 8, and Rachel was 9.
There was a book that they co-authored which I brought called Selma, Lord, Selma which I invite you to find in the library or buy it, which is their first person account of that time. There's a saying, and I can't quote it exactly, that says "If we want our history to be recorded correctly and properly and accurately, we have to write it." And they wrote it, so this is their book.
I guess I honor today a lot of those really young people, those babies who are a part of the Movement. These were unsung heroes! Where I worked in Eutaw, Greene County Alabama later, there was Bo Cat and Puddin', and they were of invaluable assistance in the work we did in Greene County. In every place that we worked there were young people. In Perry County, a few months before the march in February of 1965, a young man named Jimmy Lee Jackson, a very young man, lost his life, and he was just shot down in Perry County. But he was not — he was typical of a lot of the young people who worked with us and helped us. There are a lot of other martyrs in our Movement, but there were a lot of very young people who were martyrs.
I wish I could — in fact, I'm tempted to pass this book around that shows Sheyann and Rachel in a line of adults holding hands, crossing hands. I don't know if you can see. I'll risk passing it around, but it's really kind of touching to see these two little children standing. They marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with everyone else. They were there, and they showed courage. And I guess that's the only point I'm trying to make — I'm not sure what message I'm supposed to deliver today, but I think, you know, the young people are sometimes not aware fully of their mortality, but they really did exercise courage as did a lot of young people, real courage.
They were afraid. They thought about it. And the book that they wrote talks about the fact that they were afraid, but in spite of their fear, they made that commitment to struggle, because they got it. Martin Luther King helped them understand what freedom was and what they were fighting for. So they got it, and they struggled for it in spite of their fears.
Now, amazingly, I happened to look online, and Walt Disney, would you believe, did a made for television movie about this book, Selma, Lord, Selma, which I suppose you could probably find online. It's starring a young woman who's now well known in other roles when she grew up, but I invite you to find that online: Selma, Lord, Selma. It's about Sheyann in her own words. All I can say is: Look to these young people as your examples for courage in all the other struggles that we have to wage now and in the future. Thank you.
Copyright © Stu House, 2013
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