Niagara Gazette — Civil rights, to many today, is an abstract notion - something read about in history books, experienced through movies capturing bits and pieces of the struggle.
But to W. Lee Whitaker, the struggles of black Americans in the 1960s was real life. She lived it all growing up in Alabama, surrounded by the people those history books try to portray.
"I came up in the years where there were separate drinking fountains, there was separation on the buses," she said. "A girlfriend and I were the first blacks to be hired by a Fruit of the Loom factory while we were living in Atlanta. We were the ones who broke the color barrier."
Those life experiences will be center stage as she becomes the latest recipient of the Civil Rights Achievement Award at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Celebration, scheduled for 6 p.m. tonight at the performing arts center of Niagara Falls High School, 4455 Porter Road.
Whitaker's experiences with growing up in Troy, Ala. during the height of racial tension meant she wasn't alone in her struggles. Her whole family was involved, even her cousin, Congressman John Lewis, D-Georgia, became entangled in the struggle for equality.
Lewis repeatedly suffered beatings as the family practiced peaceful protesting on the streets of Troy, which a young Whitaker said she initially couldn't understand what was happening.
"At first, I resented Dr. King," she said. "I thought he was the reason (Lewis) came home all those times beaten. But as I grew up, I began to admire them and what they were doing, protesting with nonviolence."
After attending Tuskegee University in Alabama, Whitaker got involved in the fight herself. She said she took part in some peaceful marches, but her involvement scared her father. Protecting his daughter, she said, he had her visit her aunt, who lived in Niagara Falls.
She never left, instead choosing to get married and raise a family. With her husband, Eugene, they have four daughters and five grandchildren.
Whitaker, a certified public housing manager with the Niagara Falls Housing Authority and STAR domestic violence instructor, is also a member of the NFC Corp. – the lending arm for the city – which provides loans to expand area businesses. She also continues the fight of 45 years ago as a commissioner for the Niagara Falls Human Rights Commission, whose goal is to break down barriers and promote equality.
She's also a member of the Niagara Falls Chapter of The Links Inc., for numerous years, where she serves as the chairwoman of the youth committee and has implemented numerous educational and cultural enrichment programs.
Stephanie W. Cowart, a coworker of Whitaker's, submitted the nomination. She said Whitaker exemplifies King's vision of the future through her struggle and involvement.
"She works hard to create the Beloved Community that Dr. King envisioned," Cowart said. "She is a firm believer that human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever the nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language or other status. She believes that all are equally entitled to their human rights without discrimination and she works tirelessly to promote that belief through every avenue possible."
Tonight’s ceremony will also honor The Magdalene Project's Joanne Lorenzo and Falls High School student LaSharee Wallace, with a keynote address by Craig Pridgen of True Bethel Baptist Church, 1112 South Ave.HIGH HONORS The Gazette is highlighting the three award recipients leading up to this year's Martin Luther King Jr. Community Celebration being held on Thursday night. The three winners: • LaSharee Wallace • W. Lee Whitaker • Joanne Lorenzo