"We get caught up in ignoring what happened in the past. I even have people in my own family who don't like to talk about the civil rights movement because it was a very difficult time for them. It's tough for them to speak on it," said Montravias King, a senior at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. "But it's important that my generation know, that we be reminded of the struggles of our grandparents, our great-grandparents. That will make us more appreciative of the freedoms that we have now. And in return, when things come up that threaten our voting rights, we'll react more swiftly and say, ‘Hey! We recognize this. We've seen this before. We may not have been through it, but we recognize this, so we're not going to allow our right to vote to be taken back, to be suppressed.’"
This is the third in a series of blog posts that share voices from the All Together Now civil and human rights project. The very first workshop in this national series will take place in Elizabeth City on the ECSU campus on Saturday, September 21. To learn more about this free series of Storied Sessions, apply to take part, or find out how to sponsor a workshop, please visit our web site. Even if there's not a workshop in your town, as they unfold over coming months you will be able to access the whole body of stories on our Cowbird.com All Together Now page.
Montravias King knows all about threats to our voting rights. Indeed, he's been making headlines (and national news broadcasts) ever since the Pasquotank County Board of Elections ruled in mid-August that not only was he prohibited from running for City Council, but he could not vote at all. The Board ruled that Montravias' residence in a student dormitory failed to qualify as a "permanent residence," citing the fact that students go home for vacations. Montravias fought the ruling, and on September 3, the State Board overturned the local decision, launching Montravias' electoral campaign.
We're excited to be starting with Elizabeth City, where questions about rights are not the least bit theoretical.
They aren't theoretical for Hezekiah Brown, either. He's a former federal mediator, an arbitrator, and a community activist who lived through the Jim Crow era. "I had to drink out of the separate water fountains," he told us, "where one said 'colored' and the other said 'white.' I rode in the back of the bus. If there were empty seats in the bus, because you were black you had to stand, you couldn't sit in the empty seats. I've eaten at segregated restaurants. Then when I moved from the south to the north and we used to drive back down to Alabama, we had to go around to the side window to eat—if they wanted to serve you. There was no place to relieve yourself as we drove along the highway; if you had to relieve yourself on the highway, they would give you a ticket or arrest you. I've lived through the transition from the time of Jim Crowism I experienced in the forties and fifties, all up through the sixties. And I've seen the change that took place between the sixties and the eighties and nineties. And what I'm terribly upset about is the reversal of some of the gains made by African Americans."
For Hezekiah, the struggle for human and civil rights is ongoing, a historical progression. "Jim Crowism is coming in different forms now than it did years ago. Years ago they had established the Black Codes (post-Civil War laws passed to restrict the freedom of the formerly enslaved). They would frighten whole communities, doing everything to prohibit you from voting. Now, in this day and age, they're doing the same thing through legislation throughout the country. I look at these attacks: voter suppression, the attack on teachers. They've told African Americans and everyone else: 'Listen, in order to get ahead in this country, education is key to your success.' And where we live now in North Carolina, they're doing everything to devastate the teaching profession and the school system. If you're unemployed, they reduced the benefits from $535 a week to $350 a week and you can only draw unemployment for 12-14 weeks, there's no extension of the time. There's a real direct attack on the lower and middle class and poor people. And North Carolina is just a small segment of what it is. I'm sure it's a nationwide drive to do this."
Hezekiah feels the challenge of communicating past progress and reality to younger generations. "Even my children could not relate to what I talked about—how I was raised and how I went through segregated schools in the south, and how we used to walk through white communities to go to segregated schools. They could not believe that. They thought I was kidding when I said that. It took a while for them to realize that I was serious about what I was saying."
Montravias also perceives that gap. "Honestly, I feel that there is a lack of awareness. However, right now many people are beginning to see that if we don't stand up—if we don't participate in our democracy, if we don't exercise our right to vote, if we don't correspond with our legislators and elected officials and let them know how we feel about things that are going on at a national and state level—then we are definitely in trouble." He's seen this firsthand: demonstrators gathered at the North Carolina Board of Elections to hear arguments on Montravias' case, filling the elections board officies and an overflow room.
Both men see the relevance of civil rights struggle for everyone in the community. "I believe that the civil rights movement was not only for African Americans, but it was a beacon for all people," Hezekiah told us. "What Dr. Martin Luther King talked about in 1963 was simply equality for all. You would be judged by the content of your character as opposed to the color of your skin. The civil rights movement led the way for the women's movement and also set the stage for other things, for gays and lesbians and so on. Back then, I don't think the folks who were doing this really realized what it was going to lead to, and how it spread out to cover many, many more people."
Now it's time for all of them to join in dialogue, says Montravias. "I definitely think that a national dialogue, a state and a local dialogue is needed. We have people in our communities and our families that know what it's like to have segregated facilities in this country. We have people that are living right now that know what it's like to be really intimidated at the polls, to be discouraged from voting, to be even afraid of voting. We have people among us right now that know what it's like to face losing their jobs for fear of registering people to vote and for fear of even running for office and making a difference in their community—all because of the color of their skin.
"It's extremely important for my generation and the people who went through the civil rights struggle during that time period to get together and dialogue so that we will understand. It's important that you know the struggle and where we come from, because history tends to repeat itself. We don't want to go back, we want to go forward. We don't want to be divisive. We want unity. It's important that all of us know our stories so we can move forward together and be stronger. A dialogue is needed more than ever, not to divide us, but to unify us."
What does the legacy of fifty years ago mean to you today? Please join StoryCenter and our great partners—national partners the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Southern Poverty Law Center, Color of Change, Equal Justice Society, International Museum of Women, Cowbird, and CommunisPR; and local partners Alternate Roots, American Friends Service Committee, Denver, History Colorado, Coloradans for Immigrants Rights, Greater Phoenix Urban League, DC Public Library, Painted Bride Art Center, Warm Cookies of the Revolution, Elizabeth City Alumnae Chapter Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, AARP Pasquotank County Chapter, Elizabeth City Pasquotank County Community Relations Commission, and Elizabeth City Hope Group—in this wonderful project. All together now!