1961 Civil Rights Leaders on Resisting Injustice Today


My heroes are now between 70 and 80 years old. It might seem like a strange thing to say given our youth-obsessed culture, but a 10-day road trip over the summer, in which I interviewed veterans of the struggle for civil rights in 1961, convinced me that courage is the greatest superpower and that lessons learned 60 years ago can guide the fight against voting restrictions today.

Imagine the southern United States around 1961. The Ku Klux Klan and councils of white citizens called the shots and applied, with deadly terror, a system of racial segregation that marred everything from law to custom. Any black person who dared to overthrow the system risked their life. And countless blacks were beaten, raped and murdered during this time for defying the white establishment.

Yet thousands of people fought against the racial apartheid system in 1961 and won. They did not do it with bullets and violence, but with acts of civil disobedience, conviction and raw courage. Let me introduce you to five:

â–ºDavid Williamson Jr. from Rock Hill, SC, took a stand by sitting at a separate dining counter. After being arrested, Williamson refused bail, forcing a separate government to pay to keep him behind bars and feed him for nearly a month. Williamson and the “Friendship Nine” provided a model for bringing about change through non-violent civil disobedience, and others across the South quickly followed this “jail, no bail” strategy. The resulting pressure on public coffers forced the end of separate meal counters.

â–ºPhyllis hyatt, a friend of Williamson’s and fellow Rock Hill resident, has proven that there is more than one way to fight racial discrimination, and that every action against injustice counts. Hyatt was one of the “City Girls” of Rock Hill who risked her life to protest segregation alongside her male counterparts.

Phyllis Hyatt was one of the “City Girls” of Rock Hill who risked her life to protest segregation alongside her male counterparts.

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â–ºDr Tom Ellison from Birmingham, Alabama epitomizes what a lifelong commitment to social justice looks like, not just by speaking but by walking. Ellison has been at the heart of the fight for equality since childhood, inspired by his pastor father, friend and colleague of civil rights icons such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Fred shuttlesworth.

â–ºHezekiah Watkins from Jackson, Mississippi, has been a civil rights leader since childhood. Moved to be a Freedom Rider, the 13-year-old was arrested and placed in a death row cell with two convicted felons. After a lifetime of leadership, Watkins, who by his own count has been arrested more than 100 times, now shares his story of hope as a guide to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum.

â–ºRichard glason took a temporary leave of absence from his job as minister of youth in public housing in Chicago to join the Freedom Riders in 1961. Gleason proves that faith can be a powerful motivator in the struggle for social justice. Everyone is valuable and deserves freedoms, and Gleason has dedicated his life to that fact.

Richard Gleason took temporary leave from his job as minister of youth in Chicago's public housing estates to join the Freedom Riders in 1961.

The equality these civil rights activists fought for is again under attack six decades later. Many states across the country are erecting barriers to voting, many of which are aimed directly at black Americans. All of the civil rights veterans I interviewed share a deep concern over this attack on voting rights in America in 2021.

Augmented reality:Inside, the bus filled with smoke. Outside, a crowd was waiting to attack. What do you do? Enter a Freedom Ride.

I hope that sharing the hope and courage of these civil rights heroes inspires people today. We have a lot to learn from those who came before us; they provide a model for the use of non-violent civil disobedience to combat the racially motivated attacks on voting rights plaguing America in 2021.

Americans resisted racism in 1961 and changed history. This is their fight, in their words.

These five drum majors for change and justice know that the rights and freedoms we enjoy today are not guaranteed. Let us learn from them and, following their example, act.

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