By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette — “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).
Our meandering conversations during the long walk back home from Grand Island where we had begun and ended our juvenile runaway adventure confirmed for me that as much as we had in common as young boys, our paths, had we continued our attempted escape from the confines of Niagara Falls, would certainly have taken us to very different destinations; I would have likely wound up at a Mississippi lunch counter sit-in while Tommy would have likely landed at an astronaut training program someplace else.
It was the early 1960s. With our parents’ blessings Tommy and I had been best friends since kindergarten at Our Lady of the Rosary School in the mid-1950s. We were definitely aware that we were not the same color; some of our classmates sometimes cruelly reminded us of the obvious.
We were buddies; our skin color really did not matter to us.
By 1963, on the cusp of turning a full-grown 16 years old, I had become acutely aware of what had been going on down south for as long as I could remember; it was impossible not to notice that there was growing opposition to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v Board of Education desegregation ruling as the Civil Rights Movement began to expand beyond the classrooms to other public facilities, accommodations, housing, jobs and private businesses as well.
When Jet Magazine published the gruesome pictures of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s horribly disfigured body after he was so brutally murdered on Aug. 28, 1955, barely one year after the court’s landmark ruling, the terrible reality of extreme racism left a permanent scar on most American’s conscience.
The September 15, 1955 issue of the magazine’s cover included a lovely picture of a bathing suit clad Beverly Weathersby.
No one was prepared to see what lay ahead on pages eight and nine; the sad picture of Emmett’s parents as they stood next to the body of their son, savagely beaten, shot in the head, mutilated beyond belief. According to the Jet story, “more than 600,000, in an unending procession later viewed the body, his mother wanting, “all the world” to witness the atrocity.”
We were changing as a country, so too were Tommy and I; my attention was shifting away from our childhood fascinations with bugs and space travel, and more toward my relationship with history and the future. I began to ask more questions, sought more answers, and along the way, I discovered Niagara Falls’ unique role in the continuum.
In her best seller, “The New Jim Crow”, author, attorney Michelle Alexander writes, “Between autumn 1961 and the spring of 1963, 20,000 men, women and children had been arrested; in 1963 alone, another 15,000 had been imprisoned.”
The dramatic high-point of the Civil Rights Movement occurred in 1963.
The southern struggle had grown from a modest group of black students demonstrating peacefully at one lunch counter to the largest mass movement for racial reform and civil rights in the 20th century” and I was being willingly swept up in it.
But, as I soon discovered, Niagara Falls, more than 100 years earlier, had already set its course in the campaign for equal rights.
Many of the local black hotel waiters, cooks, chambermaids and others who participated in well documented Underground Railroad activities, including the celebrated Harriet Tubman had been here long before the Civil War, and along with white abolitionists, were deeply engaged in the efforts to free as many as they could, helping some who were being pursued under the Fugitive Slave Laws to escape capture by fleeing into Canada.
By July, 1905, at a series of meetings held right here in the region W.E.B. Dubois and William Monroe Trotter led a group they named the Niagara Movement in a call in opposition to the rampant lynching, racial segregation and disenfranchisement of people of color, setting forth a Manifesto which became the basis for the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP.
Black and white Niagarans remained steadfast throughout the struggle; by 1963, they began to confront some of the issues that still haunt the city today.
As my friend and colleague, Norma Higgs pointed out a few years ago, “During this period members of 10 of Niagara Falls’ black churches, led by their ministers worked together, to come up with a plan to see more blacks hired in local retail establishments.
They conducted surveys led by Otis Cowart, a spokesperson for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and demanded the hiring of blacks or face picketing.
Rallies were conducted and church members were asked not to shop at these retailers and picketing began to coincide with the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.”
The W. T. Grant store on Main Street was chosen as the first crusade and picketing continued until Sept. 21, when management reached a settlement ensuring that blacks would be given equal employment opportunities at their store.
It was for Niagara Falls, a reaffirmation of principles that we will continue to struggle to fully realize from Washington, D.C. to Main Street, right here at home!Contact Bill Bradberry at firstname.lastname@example.org.