Niagara Gazette

Local News

January 16, 2013

Personal experience drives W. Lee Whitaker forward

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.

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