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Saturday, May 9, 2009

White Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

Most people are very familiar with key figures of the civil rights movement such as Emmitt Till, Rosa Parks, and Medgar Evers. But, other than prominent politicians such as American Presidents of the time, what other white figures played important roles in initially securing American civil rights? This questions seems to draw blank looks with the possible exception of answers relating to groups such as the Freedom Riders from northern universities. This article features three examples of Caucasian civil rights leaders. Please, let me introduce Ralph McGill, Virginia Foster Durr, and Joel Elias Spingarn. Ralph McGill Ralph McGill attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. After working in Nashville as a sports editor for a few years, he moved to Atlanta, where he gained some renown as editor of the editorial page of the Atlanta Constitution. He wrote pointed editorials on the Cuban revolt in 1933 and the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938. But, more importantly, he used the paper to highlight the effects of segregation in America. In response, many angry readers sent threats and letters to McGill. Some acted on the threats and burned crosses at night on his front lawn, fired bullets into the windows of his home and left crude bombs in his mailbox. As he became a syndicated columnist reaching a national audience in the late 1950's, McGill was labeled by the Ku Klux Klan as "Southern-enemy-number-one." He became friends with both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, acting as a civil rights advisor and a behind-the-scenes envoy to several African nations. In 1959, McGill won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He also received honorary Doctor of Law degrees from dozens of universities and colleges, including Harvard. In 1964, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Ralph McGill is mentioned by name in Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From Birmingham Jail" as one of the few enlightened white persons to understand and sympathize with the civil rights movement at the time of the letter. Virginia Foster Durr Raised in Birmingham, Alabama,Virginia Foster Durr returned with her lawyer husband to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1951, where she became acquainted with local civil rights activists. In Montgomery, a group of people in her town arranged to have integrated church meetings of black and white women. Locals as well as people from within the church posed tremendous opposition to the integration . In her autobiography, Mrs. Durr wrote how the head of the United Church Women in the South (UCWS, an integration group) came to one of the meetings. Opponents to the meeting took the license plate numbers from the cars and published them in an Alabama Ku Klux Klan magazine. Naturally, the women of the UCWS received harassing phone calls. Some had family members who publicly distanced themselves from their activities because such association was bad for business. As a result, the women became too afraid to continue their meetings. Even their husbands began getting phone calls from people who threatened to stop doing business with them if their wives went to any more integrated meetings. Several of these husbands took out notices in the papers disassociating themselves from their own wives. One man disassociated himself from his aunt, and another disassociated himself from his daughter. But, as Studs Terkel wrote, "Durr became a rebel who could step outside the magic circle, abandon privilege, and challenge this way of life. Ostracism, bruises of all sorts, and defamation would be her lot while her reward would be a truly examined life and a world she would otherwise never have known." Virginia Durr chose to remain in the public eye of the Deep South of the 1950's and not shrink from what she believed to be her obligation to support civil rights. In December, 1955, Virginia and her husband, along with E.D. Nixon bailed Rosa Parks out of jail after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat for a white person. Virginia Foster Durr became a staunch supporter of the sit-in movement and Freedom Rights. She and her husband offered sleeping space to students coming from the North to protest civil rights abuses. Durr remained active in state and local politics until she was in her nineties. In 1985 she published her autobiography, "Outside the Magic Circle." She was also a sister-in-law to (though her sister's marriage) and good friends with Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugo Black.

Joel Elias Spingarn

Joel Elias Spingarn, born in New York City, was an influential liberal Republican and professor of comparative literature at Columbia University from 1899 to 1911. He is widely held as mainly responsible for settling a dispute between W.E.B. DuBois, whom he'd known at Harvard, and the followers of Booker T. Washington.

In doing so, he helped realize the concept of a unified black movement through the founding of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In addition to being one of the founders of the NAACP, he became its second president, and chairman of its board from 1913 until his death.

In 1913 Spingarn established the Springarn Medal, still given annually to an African-American who has shown great achievement. During World War I, he volunteered for service in the army, succeeded in setting up a special camp to train black officers, and was a delegate to the convention that established the American Legion.

Joel encouraged the works of African American writers during the Harlem Renaissance, a period of intense black literary activity in the 1920s. He was also crucial over the years in pursuing anti-lynching legislation and introducing court cases challenging disenfranchisement, Jim Crow discrimination in public transportation and accommodations, and segregation in schools and in the armed forces.

During his life, Spingarn spoke many rallying words ("I have a dream...of a unified Negro population"). This Spingarn quote would eventually live forever in the history of the civil rights movement. The quote is believed to prefigure Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington.

Langston Huges wrote this about Joel Spingarn, "As an American, he wished to see his country free of racial stigmas. Within the (one) month, Joel Spingarn held conferences and addressed meetings in eight cities, spreading the gospel of the NAACP throughout the Middle West, soliciting support, recruiting members, and creating good will."

The civil rights movement required cooperation between good people, both black and white. Even now though, not a lot of information is disseminated about the white heroes of racial equality. Suffice it to say, these three Americans added immensely to the success of the movement as we know it today.

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