Tuesday, February 7

Civil rights era heroes who died in 2021 leave rich legacies


USA TODAY’s “Seven Days of 1961” explores how sustained acts of resistance can bring about sweeping change. Throughout 1961, activists risked their lives to fight for voting rights and the integration of schools, businesses, public transit and libraries. Decades later, their work continues to shape debates over voting access, police brutality and equal rights.

JACKSON, Miss. In the hours after his death, word spread quickly that Bob Moses had passed.

USA TODAY national correspondent Deborah Berry learned the news as she landed in Jackson. An exhibit at the airport displayed photos of civil rights legends. A black and white picture of Moses hung on the wall.

Berry and photographer Jasper Colt were in Mississippi – the heart of the civil rights movement – ​​to work on USA TODAY’s “Seven Days of 1961” civil rights project. Everywhere they went that week in July, veterans and historians mourned Moses’ death. Moses, a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, inspired activists and helped mobilize Black communities in Mississippi.

Here’s “someone who was willing to risk it all to get boots on the ground and go do the work and to lift up communities,” said Robert E. Luckett, interim director of the Council of Federated Organizations’ Civil Rights Education Center. The center aims to preserve the history of the Council of Federated Organizations, an umbrella organization of civil rights groups co-founded by Moses.

This year also marked the loss of other freedom fighters, many of whom, like Moses, worked in hostile territories in the South to dismantle Jim Crow and register Black residents to vote.

Some veterans were included in history books. Most were not. They came from Washington, DC; New-York; California; and Boston. Many activists left college to work for organizations such as SNCC or the Congress of Racial Equality. Most were locals battling segregation in their own backyards and often against their white neighbors, employers and co-workers.

Jul 27, 2021;  Jackson, Miss, USA;  July 27, 2021;  Jackson, Ms.;  Robert Luckett, director of the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University, sits during an interview with USA TODAY reporter Deborah Berry (not pictured).  On March 27, 1961, nine Black college students sat at a table in the “whites only'' public library in Jackson, Mississippi.  They were quickly arrested, sparking a campaign that would energize the community and students at other black colleges in Mississippi to hold prayer vigils, boycotts and marches against segregation.  Experts said the effort would also help mobilize young activists in other states.
Pamela Junior, director of the Mississippi Museum of Civil Rights, talked about the loss of veterans like Bob Moses.
TOP: Robert Luckett is the director of the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University. ABOVE: Pamela Junior is the director of the Mississippi Museum of Civil Rights.
TOP: Robert Luckett is the director of the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University. ABOVE: Pamela Junior is the director of the Mississippi Museum of Civil Rights.
LEFT: Robert Luckett is the director of the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University. RIGHT: Pamela Junior is the director of the Mississippi Museum of Civil Rights.
JASPER COLT and DEBORAH BARFIELD BERRY, USA TODAY

In South Carolina, Mack Workman and eight other men, the “Friendship Nine,” chose to do 30 days in jail in protest instead of paying bail after staging a sit-in at a lunch counter in 1961 in Rock Hill. Four of the “Friendship Nine” have died.

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“We did this together, and it is something I would never forget,” said Workman, 79.

Pamela Junior, director of the Mississippi Museum of Civil Rights, said she is worried that many civil rights veterans, mentors in their 80s and 90s, are dying and younger activists don’t have the same “warrior spirit.”

“The community is hurting because you don’t know who is going to die next,” Junior said.

Here are some other civil rights veterans who died in 2021. As the old folks say, they have “gone home to glory.”

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www.usatoday.com

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