Unsung civil rights heroes

We have all heard (I hope!) of Rosa Parks and her refusal in 1955 to give up her seat to a white person and move to the back of the bus, triggering the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott and strikes and walkouts and other forms of civil disobedience that highlighted the racial discrimination of those times and eventually led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But there were other lesser-known people who also showed courage and determination in expanding the right of everyone to be treated equally and with dignity.

I earlier described the case of Mary Hamilton in 1964. She is the person who, after being arrested at a civil rights demonstration, was jailed for contempt of court in Alabama for refusing to answer a judge’s questions until he addressed her the same way that he addressed white people and not simply by her first name Mary. Her conviction was upheld by the Alabama Supreme Court but overturned by the US Supreme court.

In summarily throwing out her conviction, the court pointed to a case it had decided the previous year of Ford T. Johnson, Jr. who in 1963 refused to be moved from his seat in a traffic court in Virginia and go over to the side reserved for black people. He was convicted of contempt and it was upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court but the US Supreme Court overturned it, saying:

It is clear from the totality of circumstances, and particularly the fact that the petitioner was peaceably seated in the section reserved for whites before being summoned to the bench, that the arrest and conviction rested entirely on the refusal to comply with the segregated seating requirements imposed in this particular courtroom. Such a conviction cannot stand, for it is no longer open to question that a State may not constitutionally require segregation of public facilities.

Major social changes are often led by charismatic figures. But we should not forget that the foundations for such advances are often based on the acts of ordinary people who took stands for justice.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    Consider the courgaeous stance of John Roberts, who stood up for the personhood of corporations.

  2. Donnie says

    Damn “Social Justice Warriers”….who do they think that they change change something?????? /snark

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … ordinary people who took stands for justice.

    But two of the three examples you give involve people prosecuted for where they sat!

  4. Cuttlefish says

    I wish Betty and Barney Hill were known for their civil rights activism, instead of for their alien abduction.

  5. Seth says

    Also the many, many socialists, Communists, atheists, and secularists who organised and bled on the front lines of the movement, but whose contributions have been obliterated in the wider society’s effort to hand the victories (such as they were) entirely at the feet of black churches. See: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2012-02-22/black-atheists-civil-rights/53211196/1

    Lastly, I would also say that Martin Luther King, Jr. is an ‘unsung’ civil rights heroes; the sanitised ‘I Have A Dream’ version that is taught nowadays is simply a fairy tale that holds very little of real history within it. King was widely considered the most dangerous man in the United States (the FBI designated him as such, for example) up until the very day he died. Only post-mortem have we been able to appropriate his image as one universally admirable, when the real revolutionary has been forgotten.

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    King was widely considered the most dangerous man in the United States (the FBI designated him as such, for example) up until the very day he died.

    Really? I thought he and Malcolm X had a “good cop, bad cop” thing going.

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