"I did not choose the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement chose me."
When Flonzie Brown Wright’s voter registration application was denied in 1960s Mississippi, she decided to run for the office of election commissioner. In 1968, she made history, becoming the first Black woman elected to public office in post-Reconstruction Mississippi.

Brown Wright’s story is one of more than 180 gripping firsthand accounts featured in Voices of the Civil Rights Movement, an award-winning multimedia platform from Comcast NBCUniversal. The collection is also home to interviews with the late Rev. Joseph Lowery, Little Rock Nine member Carlotta Walls LaNier, former Black Panther Party leader Elaine Brown, and more.

As we commemorate Black History Month, hear directly from these voices and many others in the feature below — and read our special collection of essays offering greater insight into a movement that championed the equity and dignity of all.

Hero image: Dr. Albert Gaskins
Dr. Albert Gaskins - Philadelphia, PA
A Pioneering Pediatrician Desegregates Philadelphia Boarding School

Born in 1921, the late Dr. Albert Gaskins was no stranger to discrimination in the United States. “Segregation was there and we had to learn how to deal with it,” Gaskins reflected. His experience was familiar to many Black Americans of his time. Gaskins, who earned his M.D. in pediatrics, recalled attending segregated schools and being kicked off the bus after refusing to sit in the back.

Despite being confined in a culture of discrimination and limited opportunity, Gaskins was resolute. The circumstances in which he found himself would not deter him from achieving his life’s goal: serving others through medicine and education.

“I think the little key thing [is] helping others,” shared Gaskins. “[That's] the basic bottom line of being not just a good doctor, but a good person.”

As a child in Washington, D.C., Gaskins recalled living next door to a physician named Dr. Stratton, who always left the house carrying a medical bag. Feeling inspired, Gaskins recalled, “When [Dr. Stratton] would come back, [you] could see he was tired … but he had the ability inside to continue to move forward. That’s what I want[ed] to be.”

Gaskins attended Howard University for which he credits the mentorship of his teachers, including Dr. Charles Drew — a pioneering surgeon and researcher regarded as the “father of blood banking” — for helping him find his passion in medicine.

“The teachers were wonderful,” Gaskins reflected. “They always helped you … see the correct way to go.”

Drew took note of a curious Gaskins gazing through a microscope to study the effects of Vitamin E on a chick embryo, and encouraged him to apply to medical school. “[Dr. Drew] was always interested in how people were learning things,” shared Gaskins. “You could tell he was trying to bring something out of you that would be helpful.”

In 1948, Gaskins married fellow Howard student Novella Markham, and three years later, moved his new family to Philadelphia — home to segregated Girard College, a private boarding school founded exclusively for white male orphans.

Gaskins, who settled in a white neighborhood, was cautious: “It worked out because we went very slowly and we were positive. … [The neighbors] realized that and … opened up.”

Soon, ever invested in his new community, Gaskins would open the first of three private practices. But, as Gaskins came to find, the racial discrimination at nearby Girard College weighed heavily on the city.

After the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, six Black boys were denied admission to Girard College. The school’s leadership — quick to act to preserve its status as a segregated institution — appointed 13 private trustees, rendering the school a private entity. Girard’s enrollment practices were no longer governed by the Brown decision.

The school’s resistance to integration inspired Philadelphia civil rights activists to action. Cecil B. Moore, President of NAACP’s Philadelphia chapter, led the charge to integrate the school. Gaskins recalled, “[Moore] wanted to open up and show the world what you have here, the people that you are denying, and how we can help to change that.”

Protesters marching to desegregate Girard College in Philadelphia. (John W. Mosley Photograph Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, PA)
For months, protestors marched around the school’s towering walls and down Broad Street toward the Navy Yard to garner attention from the press. Gaskins participated in some of these demonstrations. The groundswell of support for the protests gained media coverage, and not long after, the attention of none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The walls around Girard College were “a kind of Berlin Wall to keep God’s colored children out,” King remarked.

The protests and a successful lawsuit challenging the college’s admission policies helped bring to conclusion a 14-year process to integrate the school.

Following the desegregation of Girard College, Gaskins became the school’s medical director. Later, he would become President of the Medical Society of Eastern Pennsylvania, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and founder of the Coalition of Black Pediatricians of Philadelphia.

“It wasn’t easy, and it didn’t seem to be working sometimes,” Gaskins reflected on his experience marching for Girard College’s desegregation. “But we found out, if you keep going and you’re going in the right direction, it’s gonna work.”

Fueled by an inherent desire to help others, Gaskins championed equal access to education and opportunity in America.

Gaskins, who passed away Feb. 6, 2020, at age 99, reflected: “There are those mountains to climb and rivers to swim, but once you have made that one achievement of getting that diploma that you worked hard to get … [it will grant] you the ability to get where you wanted to go.”

Comcast NBCUniversal’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement platform honors the legacy and impact of America’s civil rights champions. Watch Voices’ full interview with the late Dr. Gaskins, and more than 17 hours of firsthand accounts and historical moments, online and on Xfinity On Demand.
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Dr. Edward S. Cooper - Philadelphia, PA
A Pioneering Physician Rewrites Textbooks and Promotes Equity in Medicine

When cardiologist Edward S. Cooper recalls his patient roster of more than four decades, he won’t readily share that his patients included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Reginald Lewis. Notables, and notoriety, are of no consequence to his fixed priorities: advance medical science, provide compassion to patients, and continue his family’s legacy in medicine.

Dr. Edward S. Cooper, top right, poses with his family of physicians. (Courtesy of Dr. Edward S. Cooper)
At 94, Dr. Cooper is an emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and past president of the American Heart Association. When asked about his life, he will start at the beginning. Growing up in Columbia, S.C., among a family of physicians and dentists, Cooper recalls knowing very early that he, too, would become a doctor.

When Cooper was 7, his younger brother was treated at home for scarlet fever. The prominent local pediatrician, who was white, made a comment that would leave an indelible impression. “He smiled at me and patted me on the head,” Cooper recalls, “and said, ‘You’re going to be a pediatrician someday.’”

As Cooper advanced through his primary and secondary education with top marks, that interaction carried lasting influence: “I could visualize myself fitting into that core of professionals that were helping people. … I liked science. I was good at science. … We had so few [doctors], and the need was so great. … During the Depression, people would pull out their [own] teeth, but if they had a stroke or heart attack … they had to see the doctor.”

At age 15, his passion for science, combined with his competitive academic record, would admit Cooper to Lincoln University and later Meharry Medical College — at a time when many of his classmates were drafted to fight in World War II.

“Pearl Harbor happened right in the middle of my high school senior year,” Cooper recounts. “So, everything changed. … I did get a deferment, because they said that they needed doctors more than they needed foot soldiers. … I agreed. I went to Meharry.”

While in medical school, Cooper was instructed by a supportive faculty — mainly Black professors, along with white professors from nearby Vanderbilt University. The environment at Meharry encouraged students of all backgrounds to push for academic excellence. But while Cooper did not encounter discrimination on campus, he soon discovered an unmistakable disparity in patient death rates at medical facilities.

“I entered the Philadelphia General Hospital as an intern [and] I was the only person of color there out of my intern class,” Cooper recollects. “Each day, two or three stroke cases would come in, very severe. Half of them were in blacks and half were fatal. … I was just struck by it because stroke was in the back of the textbook, in the back of the receiving ward, in the back of the hospital. There was nothing you could do.”

Cooper, although troubled by this observation, was not immediately compelled to specialize in stroke. When his own health failed, his mind and life’s work would be forever transformed.

While an intern, Cooper developed a 104-degree fever and was diagnosed with pneumonia. Cooper’s emotions from that ordeal reverberate as strongly today as they did more than 70 years ago: “I was dreaming of coffins at night. My mother came up, spent two or three weeks. … One night I just felt so terrible, and could hardly breathe. … I said, ‘Good Lord, if you get me through this, I’ll be good. And I promise I’ll do something about this stroke problem.’”

An antibiotic cured Cooper of his illness. He later reflected, “That experience taught me what patients really want: sympathy, tenderness and hope.” Cooper made good on his promise to God, and set off on a career that dramatically advanced stroke awareness, prevention and treatment.

Cooper's strong reputation in the medical community brought him in close contact with notable civil rights leaders. (Courtesy of Dr. Edward S. Cooper)
Over multiple decades, Cooper built a network of medical professionals, and a reputation for patient care, both in stroke and heart health, and in general medicine. Such was the case that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sought out Cooper and Dr. Harold Pierce for treatment of a keloid after he was stabbed. Cooper recalls treating Dr. King: “For four days — EKGs, blood studies, upper GI series — the whole works. … He was in perfect health.

“The thing that most impressed me about [King] was his eye contact — it was riveting. I mean, he’d look at you as if he was looking right to the back of your head. I mean, really unusual.” But what happened next stands out all the more in Cooper’s memory. “One day, [King] said, ‘Harry Belafonte is going to be coming down tomorrow for a meeting. … So, I wonder if you could arrange for somebody to meet and bring him to the room.’” Cooper obliged, and personally escorted Belafonte into and out of the building through a concealed entrance.

Years later, Belafonte and Cooper reminisced about their shared experience, with Belafonte reportedly recounting, "'I remember very well. When a huge crowd of [Belafonte] fans rapidly accumulated, Doc Cooper was like a cat on a hot tin roof. And I say, pretty skittish.'”

While Cooper was trusted by many civil rights icons of the 1960s, he does not self-identify as an activist. But his work reflects Cooper as a medical change agent. He is credited with groundbreaking research on stroke remedies and sealing health gaps for Black Americans, specifically as it relates to stroke treatment and education.

“We’ve got to get people to understand how to prevent disease, so often by lifestyle changes,” explains Cooper. He urges that people quit smoking and work to combat the obesity epidemic, “which is driving so much cardiovascular disease now.” Cooper continues, “We had a 50 percent decline in stroke mortality after stroke became more visible. People understood how to take care and how to prevent it. … It’s still falling but it’s leveling off now because … they’re getting diabetes and high blood pressure and all as a result of the obesity.”

And as the recent plateauing among the general population persists, one group central to Cooper’s lifetime of work is disproportionately impacted. He explains, “Black women are getting more strokes now than before. … That still leaves a lot to be done.” Because of his commitment to tackling strokes and cardiovascular health, untold numbers of Americans have been spared premature death. No acknowledgement of Cooper’s contributions to medicine stands out more than being named the first Black president of the American Heart Association (AHA) in 1992. With his trademark modesty, Cooper’s reaction to the news of his appointment was one of shock: “I was absolutely dumbfounded. … I just could not understand it. But it happened.”

Cooper greets President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore at an event establishing, by presidential proclamation, February as American Heart Month. (Courtesy of Dr. Edward S. Cooper)
Cooper’s tenure at the AHA was marked by an increasing emphasis on fighting strokes, paving the way for what later became a new division at the organization: the American Stroke Association. He partnered with the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, respectively, to secure clearer food labeling and proclaim February as American Heart Month.

And, he worked to recruit greater numbers of minorities in medicine, a responsibility Cooper keenly understands, having benefited from a long family history of physicians and dedicated professors — of all shades — who invested in him throughout his early career.

Cooper shares great hope for the next generation of doctors, and wants young people to remember three simple rules that helped chart his own success: “Stay in school, study hard and strive for excellence.” He remains most proud of his own family.

Comcast NBCUniversal’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement platform honors the legacy and impact of America’s civil rights champions. Watch Dr. Cooper’s interview and more than 17 hours of firsthand accounts and historical moments online and on Xfinity On Demand.

Hero image: Dr. LaVerne Bell-Tolliver.
Dr. LaVerne Bell-Tolliver - Little Rock, AR
In the Footsteps of the 'Little Rock Nine'

“In the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” Chief Justice Earl Warren declared in the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

While the Brown decision decisively put an end to decades of segregation in public education, lack of enforcement and coordinated resistance by segregationists solidified racial inequity in public school systems into the mid-1960s.

Dr. LaVerne Bell-Tolliver, a native of segregated Little Rock, Ark., grew up with an awareness of the gap between the city’s Black and white citizens. Key among her memories is the story of the Little Rock Nine, a group of black students who faced rioting mobs of segregationists on their mission to integrate Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

For much of her childhood, Bell-Tolliver did not directly face discrimination. She was raised in a Black community on Little Rock’s Valentine Street. Life was peaceful, and while she later understood the realities of the world around her, Bell-Tolliver’s corner of the world was well insulated by her family and community.

“Children would be able to be outside,” Bell-Tolliver remembered. “[We] would be able to play until my mother would flick the porch light to say, ‘It is time to come in.’ It was a safe time. It was a very happy time.”

Bell-Tolliver attended Stevens Elementary, an all-Black school — a time she remembers fondly. But in 1961, life would be rocked when her family moved outside her Valentine Street sanctuary to a desegregated neighborhood in Little Rock.

“People would oftentimes curse at us or they would throw things at us,” Bell-Tolliver recollected. “We came face-to-face with a different world than we had known in the past.”

One summer day, Bell-Tolliver’s father grabbed the keys to his car and drove the family down to visit Forest Heights Junior High School, an all-white school. “This is where you’re going to school,” he announced to Bell-Tolliver. Shocked at the revelation, and unable to contest her parents’ decision, Bell-Tolliver processed the life-changing impact that would come with desegregating a school in Little Rock.

She saw how mobs reacted to the Little Rock Nine. She recalled the nearby bombing of the home of the youngest member of the group, Carlotta Walls LaNier. How would crowds react to Bell-Tolliver’s attempt to integrate Forest Heights?

The Arkansas National Guard escorts Carlotta Walls LaNier and a fellow member of the Little Rock Nine on the grounds of Little Rock Central High School, September 1957. (Ed Clark/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
On the first day of seventh grade, a petrified Bell-Tolliver gripped her mother’s hand as they walked up to the school building. Unlike the events at Little Rock Central High School, mobs did not attempt to prevent her from entering the building. Instead, she was greeted with a “Hi” from a young classmate. But the welcome was short-lived.

“I would be ignored, or I would be pushed or shoved. Some students would … push another person onto me and say, ‘Will the black rub off [of] you?’,” Bell-Tolliver remembered. “If I sat at a table … then the table would clear. … Those kinds of things were a part of my everyday life.”

Bell-Tolliver was the only Black student at Forest Heights for the two years she attended the school. She found comfort in knowing that her faith and community supported her as she faced the incessant challenges and rejection that accompanied her peaceful quest for an equitable education — all the while dismantling the school’s identity as a segregated place of learning.

“The young lady [that said ‘hi’ on my first day] never said another word to me,” Bell-Tolliver reflected. The two would ultimately reconnect decades later, at their 40th class reunion.

Bell-Tolliver, who applied the lessons of the Little Rock Nine to her own experience integrating Forest Heights Junior High School, intimately understands how to channel hardship into opportunity. She carried these lessons throughout her life, harnessing painful memories to further her pursuit to earn a master’s degree in social work and Biblical counseling, and a Ph.D. in family therapy.

“My goal as a child was help this world become a better place in which we could live,” Bell-Tolliver noted. “My goal is still helping people to be able to help themselves.”

Comcast NBCUniversal’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement platform honors the legacy and impact of America’s civil rights champions. Watch Dr. LaVerne Bell-Tolliver’s interview and more than 17 hours of firsthand accounts and historical moments online and on Xfinity On Demand.

Hero image: Elizabeth Williams.
Elizabeth Williams - Philadelphia, PA
Access and Aspiration: A Nurse’s Fight for Acceptance

Elizabeth Williams’ teenage years were filled with aspirations of upward mobility, achievement and a career in nursing; but she would rapidly discover discrimination that cast her as unwanted in a field on which her heart was set.

“As black student nurses, we just weren’t recognized as legitimate,” Williams recalls, a sentiment that would persist throughout her early career.

Decades later, Williams remains confounded by an incident that took place in the early 1960s, when she applied for a head nurse position at a local hospital. She recalls, “The administrator … a white physician … sat down to talk with me about the fact that I had applied. And he said, ‘Now you really don’t want this position, do you?’ Can you imagine someone saying that to you?

“People were allowed to do that to you then. … You were denied the opportunity to work at a place of your choice — the person didn’t want you because of your skin color.”

Williams was born in Steelton, Pa., four miles southeast of Harrisburg, in 1933 — just years after the Great Depression devastated communities across the United States.

Her early childhood education took place at The Hygienic School, a Reconstruction-era institution founded for Black students in 1880. Williams didn’t realize that she was segregated from the community at large. All she knew was that all of her classmates were Black, and her teachers were committed to every student.

“The teachers in that school were really interested in us, were very, very emphatic about us learning and about us doing our best,” Williams noted. Her integrated high school experience, however, demonstrated that not everyone shared the same enthusiasm for her achievement. It was at Steelton High School that Williams first experienced discrimination and barriers to advancement because of her race.

“When I became a high school senior, I wanted to become a nurse and one of my good friends in high school — Marilyn Pottigrew was her name — we both wanted to be nurses,” Williams recollected. “So, she went to the counselor and of course, all kind of assistance was provided to her. Yes, Marilyn was a white student.”

But, as Williams recounts, her attempt to seek the same support from her counselor was rebuffed.

“I [sought] the counselor out and of course, his response to me was, ‘I don’t know what I can do for you,’” Williams recalled.

“As a young person,” she continued, “I just can’t remember exactly how I felt but … I became more determined.”

Responding with a heightened sense of purpose would allow Williams to overcome disparities in resources and support.

“There was no encouragement given to go to school, to go to college,” Williams noted. “We were the forgotten kids because there was no expectation from … our teachers [to attend college].”

Despite a lack of support and encouragement from teachers and her counselor, Williams kept her eyes fixed on her dream of becoming a nurse and began applying to hospitals on her own.

Her first application went to a hospital in Harrisburg. The response: “‘We don’t have any colored students here.’”

After a string of similar encounters, Williams reflects on how constant rejection fueled her ambition: “You just felt like this is the way life is but I have to keep pushing ahead in order to get done what I want to do, regardless of what the system might be telling me.”

Being denied on the basis of race and, in turn, having less access to training and work opportunities than her white counterparts would become a recurring theme in Williams’ educational journey. Fortunately for Williams, she enrolled as a nursing student at Mercy-Douglass Hospital in Philadelphia with the support of her aunt, an alumna of Mercy-Douglass.

“The help of my family … that’s how I got into school,” shared Williams.

Mercy-Douglass Hospital was formed when two institutions founded by Black doctors merged. In the 1940s and 1950s, Mercy-Douglass Hospital School of Nursing trained young Black women looking to launch a professional career at a time when opportunities were limited.

When she arrived in Philadelphia in 1951, Williams experienced a full-circle moment. Though a country girl, Philadelphia felt familiar. “I felt like I was back in the groove at home again with the Black teachers that we had, the Black doctors because they were all interested in us and we were in a loving and supporting environment.”
Williams was warmly received by a group of girls with similar backgrounds and was excited to exist within a space that fought against widespread resistance to hiring Black nurses and doctors. In fact, many Mercy-Douglass nurses went on to integrate Pennsylvania’s health care system.

Elizabeth Williams and fellow nursing students at Mercy-Douglass Hospital. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams)
However, the health system’s resistance to hire placed an implicit pressure on the Black nurses at Mercy-Douglass. Although never told directly that the industry would be harder on them because of their skin color, Williams described an underlying message: “[Staff at Mercy-Douglass] were letting us know, ‘Hey you’ve got to work hard, and you have to do the best you can do because society's not going to look at you the same way as they do anyone else.’”

Mercy-Douglass made it possible for Williams to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse, and its well-regarded reputation landed her a job at a Philadelphia hospital upon graduation.

“Mercy nurses were trained very well,” Williams recalled. “There was a market out there for Mercy nurses because they knew we were good nurses. In Philadelphia, I had no problem getting a job.”

Mercy-Douglass’ training school would close in 1960 due to financial issues and Williams would be forced to matriculate to other hospitals. In retrospect, matriculating elsewhere prompted Williams to discover that Mercy-Douglass was under-resourced. She recalled, “We didn’t know that we didn’t have the same kinds of supplies, or that there were better supplies. … We knew that for a lot of things that we did, we had to improvise, because our hospital didn’t have the money to buy the latest equipment or to get the best of whatever it was that you needed in order to fulfill a procedure.”

She first transferred to a hospital in Essex County, N.J. There, Williams recalls experiencing racial discrimination when trying to participate in class. “No one else put their hand up to answer the question [besides me]. The instructor went to a white student and said, ‘Now, come on, you know this,’ and she never did come back to me,” she recollected.

While training at Philadelphia General Hospital, Williams was assigned to obstetrics and denied proper training. She recounted the gravity of racial discrimination to her learning experience: “It was just the ignoring of you, the walking past you. I mean this was in serious medical conditions,” like labor and delivery.

Ultimately, it was through her persistence that she was afforded the success she dreamed of in her youth.

“I started out as a nurse on a floor and … ended up as the superintendent of a hospital.”

Williams, 87, remains a member of the Mercy-Douglass Nurses Alumni Association, which seeks to preserve the rich history and influence of Mercy-Douglass Hospital. Her resolve is as strong today as it was when she first defied her counselor’s lack of expectations.

“I think that when you're faced with a lot of hardships,” Williams reflected, “somehow you rise to meet them, and you do the best you can.”

Comcast NBCUniversal’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement platform honors the legacy and impact of America’s civil rights champions. Watch Elizabeth Williams’ interview and more than 17 hours of firsthand accounts and historical moments online and on Xfinity On Demand.
Hero image: Johnnie R. Turner.
Johnnie R. Turner - Memphis, TN
Fighting to the Front: Civil Rights Icon Reflects on Challenges, Championing Equal Access

In 2018, Johnnie R. Turner retired after serving eight years as State Representative for Tennessee’s 85th Congressional District. But decades before her rise to the Tennessee General Assembly, Turner found herself swept up in a rancorous struggle for civil rights in Memphis, fighting for a seat at the front of the bus.

A culture of racial discrimination entrenched the 1940s South, and Turner endured frequent acts of prejudice that would cast her as different and unwelcome, presenting an inferiority which, even at a young age, she was unwilling to accept.

Turner’s resilient spirit became more and more evident as she grew older. And with growing resilience came added frustration toward racial disparities in public places, and the exceptional humiliation she faced on public transit.

One day, as she sat with a friend on the bus, Turner resolved that she would refuse to forfeit her seat. She recalled: "as the bus got crowded [with white students], my girlfriend got up and moved to the back, and I looked out the window, because I just pretended I didn’t see them. And she came up and touched me on my shoulders and she said, ‘Johnnie, if you don’t get up and move, that bus driver … number one: he’s going to call you everything but a child of God; number two: he’s going to call the police; number three: they’re going to take you.’"

Turner heeded her friend’s advice, but a sense of shame returned: "That was the longest walk of my life. … And what really added insult to injury was that the little white girls that took my seat were giggling because they knew I didn’t want to move back."

Turner learned from the experience and years later, she was further tested while trying to balance collegiate studies, and travel home safely.

Recalling the long hours she spent at the library studying, trying to maintain her scholarship, Turner knew that riding alone on bus No. 9 after hours meant a dangerous proposition for a young Black girl in 1960s Memphis.

"There would only be white men left on that bus. They had cursed me out, they would spit on me, and on two occasions, they tried to pry my hands off of the post that I was holding, and almost pulled my arm out of the socket.

"I’d be so afraid, my knees would be hitting together, and I would cross my legs because I didn’t want them to know I was afraid. And, I could see the frustration on their faces. I could see how upset they were because I never showed any expression. ...

"They couldn’t crack me. I just prayed. I said, ‘Lord, please, please don’t let me show how afraid I am.’ ... I could have caught an earlier bus, but I refused to do so. I had the right to ride this bus, just like anybody else."

Bus integration was ordered by the Supreme Court in Browder v. Gayle and Boynton v. Virginia. Widespread opposition and a lack of enforcement, however, effectively sustained segregated seating arrangements on many public buses — meaning that Turner fought for a right each day that had already been granted her.

Black and white passengers ride a segregated bus in Atlanta in April 1956. (AP Photo/Horace Cort)
Perhaps most poignant of all is that Turner suffered in silence. She never revealed her bus experiences to her parents, particularly cognizant that her mother was fighting her own battles working as a maid.

"I never told anybody. I just figured that was my cross to bear. ... I said then, ‘if I could take this, I could take anything. I could handle everything.’"

A determined Turner would complete her university studies and become a Memphis schoolteacher, where she unlocked doors and inspired young people striving for a quality education. In 1996, she became Executive Director of Memphis’ NAACP branch, and championed economic growth in communities of color for over a decade.
Finally, after the 2009 passing of her husband, the late Tennessee State Rep. Larry Turner, Johnnie Turner sought and secured his vacant seat in the legislature. Her civic work was motivated by her very first encounters with discrimination as a child. For eight years, Turner fought to bring everyone a few steps closer to the front row.

"I am going to speak up for what I think is right,” Turner reflected. “Discrimination against anybody is wrong, because I know what it’s like to be discriminated against. I know what it’s like to be humiliated. I know what it’s like to be treated as a second-class citizen. … Making life better in terms of freedom, equality and justice for all has been my life’s story."

Comcast NBCUniversal’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement platform honors the legacy and impact of America’s civil rights champions. Watch Johnnie R. Turner’s interview and more than 17 hours of firsthand accounts and historical moments online and on Xfinity On Demand.
Hero image: Marie Greenwood
Marie Greenwood - Denver, CO
Opening Doors and Minds: Honoring Denver’s First Tenured Black Teacher

With a lifetime spanning 106 years, the late Marie L. Greenwood was full of stories — memories of marrying William, the love of her life; adventures raising four children; love for the music of a young Nat King Cole; and her journey to desegregate public schools in Denver.

"I never even thought about being a pioneer or a trailblazer, but that’s what I was called," explained Greenwood in a 2017 interview. In 1938, Greenwood made history by becoming Denver’s first tenured Black teacher, an accomplishment she says did not come easily.

Her first encounters with schoolteachers — and racial segregation in schools — occurred while attending public, predominately Black elementary and high schools leading up to and during the Great Depression.

While discrimination in schools placed many restrictions on children that looked like Greenwood, her parents instilled in her a belief that education has the power to meaningfully change one’s outlook on, and standing in, life. She recalled, "They wanted me to have an education so that I did not have to do the menial, hard work that they were doing. … And the only way I could do it was to always do my level best." Greenwood did not simply take this message to heart; she adopted it as her credo, trusting she could make a difference for countless fellow youth as an educator.

Greenwood at age 20, during her undergraduate studies. (Courtesy of Marie Greenwood)
Greenwood was pursuing a bachelor’s in kindergarten-primary education in 1935, with the goal of becoming a teacher. Scant diversity and disparity among teaching staffs were apparent. People of color were assigned substitute teaching roles and low-level administrative work. Most troublingly, her ambitions were often brushed off or evoked derisive laughter.

Greenwood was not discouraged. Sensing winds of change in the Mile High City, she took action: "I took the [teaching] test, and to my amazement, I was selected as … [a teacher] of color in the Denver Public Schools."

Denver’s Marie L. Greenwood Elementary School, following its 2001 open. (Courtesy of Marie Greenwood)
It was the culmination of years of sacrifice, and Greenwood was thrilled. But she was also aware that the offer to become a first-grade teacher was entry level. An opportunity for tenure — job security and the highest accolade for teachers — might never come.

Nonetheless, Greenwood knew that accepting the job would mean achieving a personal goal, and much more.

"I had to keep that door open for other minorities to come in," Greenwood said of her motivation to accept the job. Fully aware of the long-range academic and social challenges to becoming a teacher, she hoped her success would motivate other teachers of color and challenge any detractors.

"All I heard all my life [from my parents] was that, ‘no matter what, you’re as good as anybody else. … With hard work, you could make it,’" Greenwood reflected. But for a Black teenage girl growing up in 1920s Colorado, "making it" was subjective — and to her academic advisor at Denver’s East High School, expectations were minimal.

"I was the only brown freshman in the whole class,” Greenwood recalled. “The girls’ advisor … was checking on the freshmen to see if they were planning to go to college. I said, ‘well I am planning to go to college.’ She looked up at me as though to say, ‘you must have lost your mind.’

"She informed me that if I went to college, ‘my father would be just losing money because all I could ever do would be to work in somebody’s house.’

"I just said, ‘I’m going to college,’ and I walked out."

It was this interaction that motivated Greenwood to attain "a GPA so high" that she was awarded a scholarship to the Colorado State College of Education to earn her bachelor’s. "And," Greenwood beamed, "we all know what the result was."

After completing college, and accepting the first-grade teaching job at Denver’s Whittier School, Greenwood would become the first Black teacher to achieve permanent tenure in Denver Public Schools — in just three years.

"Teachers come in all colors — dedicated teachers, prepared teachers — and it had nothing to do with the color of [their] skin if they could do the job. And I proved that," Greenwood reflected.

The doors had opened for Greenwood, and soon after, the school board hired more Black teachers in Denver’s public schools.

Greenwood’s commitment to education and to dismantling racial barriers was recognized again by Denver Public Schools in 2001. Instead of a new teaching position, she was offered a school named in her honor: Marie L. Greenwood Elementary, known today as Marie L. Greenwood Academy. She reflected: "To have lived this long and have that kind of recognition ... just feels so good. ... I never dreamed anything like this could possibly happen to me."

For decades following Greenwood’s retirement, her passion for teaching young minds remained evident. Students, parents and staff frequently visited Greenwood in an independent living facility, where she delighted in catching up on the latest news from the school. She shared, "It’s just such a blessing that anyone from my school thinks enough of me to keep in touch and let me know what’s going on."

Greenwood posing with her "one-of-a-kind" mug. (Courtesy of Marie Greenwood)
And, it was not a visit to Mrs. Greenwood’s without story time. Reading to the children — well past age 100 — is what she enjoyed most.

Reading to the children was her platform to connect with, teach and impact young people — and relay her standard high expectations: "[Children today] need to know about those of us who worked and kept going. … They have to learn, nothing is free. ... Always be your best. Even if you’re digging ditches, you dig the best ditch."

Comcast NBCUniversal’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement platform honors the legacy and impact of America’s civil rights champions. Watch the late Marie Greenwood’s interview and more than 17 hours of firsthand accounts and historical moments online and on Xfinity On Demand.
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Purcell Conway - St. Augustine, FL
Sand, Surf and Segregation: A Fight for Civil Rights in St. Augustine, Florida

“Purcell, you can’t get arrested. I don’t want you to get arrested.”

Purcell Conway was accustomed to his mother’s frequent plea. At 16, he was a determined civil rights activist — publicly standing against the racial injustice that defined life in 1950s St. Augustine, Fla. His mother knew the dangers that nonviolent civil disobedience carried in the Jim Crow South, and grew concerned over his involvement in the movement.

Despite the known risks, Conway recognized that inaction could subject him to a lifetime of injustice — a destiny he was unwilling to accept.

Conway was born into an America where the wheels of the civil rights movement were just beginning to turn. Raised in St. Augustine’s historically Black West Augustine and Lincolnville neighborhoods, his childhood memories include several watershed moments: the murder of Emmett Till, the arrest of Rosa Parks, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, and the terrorizing of a prominent neighbor.

Dr. Robert Hayling, considered the “father” of St. Augustine’s civil rights movement, lived on Conway’s block. Hayling’s home became a target for racist attacks, including high-powered rifle shots through his walls and front door that killed his dog.

Violence followed civil rights leader Dr. Robert Hayling into his home at 8 Scott St. in St. Augustine. (Courtesy of Voices of the Civil Rights Movement)
Meanwhile, a sit-in protest at the local Woolworth's lunch counter ended in the arrest and imprisonment of nine Black teens and seven children. Four of the children were incarcerated for six months and came to be known as "the St. Augustine Four." Two of those children were Conway’s classmates.

But there were covert acts of discrimination, too. As a child, Conway would ask his mother why she addressed white people as “Mister” or “Miss,” yet they always called her by her first name. Conway shared that whenever he asked his mother these questions, she would tell him to “leave it alone.”

When Conway’s white neighbor offered him a sandwich and served it to him on the floor — next to a dog’s food bowl — both Conway and his mother decided to act.

“From that day forward, [my mother] started demonstrating, and my father started demonstrating,” Conway recollected. “And a lot of the Black adults started demonstrating with their kids.”

Conway realized that what he was experiencing was more than just a movement — it was an opportunity to secure a better future.

“[For me], fear had nothing to do with it. I’m thinking about [my future] … kids I may have or a wife I may marry, and most of my friends felt the same. We were going to challenge the system and were not going to stop demonstrating until we got some resolution.”

Conway began meeting with students from Ford Memorial College to discuss the civil rights movement and work out a plan to demonstrate in groups.

Young demonstrators take to the streets in St. Augustine. (AP Photo/Harold Valentine)
As Conway, fellow students, and leaders like Hayling continued demonstrating in the streets of St. Augustine, prominent national civil rights leaders would take notice.

In the summer of 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organized and led evening marches to St. Augustine’s Old Slave Market, often facing counter demonstrations by the Ku Klux Klan and encountering violence that garnered media attention. Weeks before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy were arrested while trying to have lunch at the segregated Monson Motor Lodge restaurant.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. walks alongside young demonstrators in St. Augustine. (AP Photo)
“Many in the Black community called [Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson] agitators,” Conway shared. “The agitators were the young folk who are being denied basic civil rights. We were the agitators. Dr. King and his entourage just brought focus to that.”

In June of 1964, Conway and four friends joined civil rights activist Al Lingo and other nonviolent demonstrators to integrate St. Augustine Beach as one of many “wade-ins” taking place at the city’s segregated pools and beaches. Before long, Conway and his fellow demonstrators were surrounded by those who wanted to keep the sand and surf segregated.

“We were in the water maybe five minutes before this huge crowd started approaching us from the north and south,” Conway recalled.

Conway and his friends watched as mounting numbers of counterprotestors approached, waving Confederate flags and threatening the demonstrators. Lingo turned to Conway, and recommended they leave before things got “out of hand.” Conway’s group attempted to escape to their car, but they were quickly encircled.

“They're threatening and stating they gonna throw us in the ocean,” Conway shared. “They brought these … weights that they said they were going to wrap around our legs and our waists and take us as far out into the surf as they can and throw us and drop us.”

A white boy Conway recognized from town approached him and punched Conway in the face with brass knuckles, splitting his lip. Lingo stood behind Conway and encouraged him to “stand your ground.” Moments later, Lingo collapsed after being struck over the head with a pipe.

Peaceful demonstrators are met with violence from white segregationists at St. Augustine Beach. (AP Photo/Horace Cort)
State troopers were called in to disperse the segregationists and allow the wade-in demonstration to peacefully continue. Conway and his friends watched from the beach as violence between the troopers and the white mob ensued.

“Now, I'm really confused. I cannot understand these white men fighting other white men for my rights. [The state troopers] beat the Klan and their sympathizers into submission.” By the time the troopers informed Conway and his friends that it was safe to go in the water, the surf was red with blood.

Despite having been legally desegregated, attempts to keep Black community members away from public pools and beaches persisted. However, the wade-in campaigns that Conway and other activists joined, despite threats of violence, raised awareness and influenced demonstrations nationwide.

From the violence along the shores of St. Augustine Beach to painful memories of humiliation and discrimination in his youth, Conway still thinks back to his mother’s plea not to get arrested as he ventured out to demonstrate. Conway recalled that his entire family — mother, father, and three brothers — once sat in jail at the same time. Nevertheless, Conway understood progress came at a cost, and equality was, and is, worth the struggle.

Conway reflected on the culmination of the St. Augustine movement, among others: the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“The Civil Rights Act is passed. Many thought that was the end of it. All right, we won, that’s the end of it. Not so. People need to continue to step up and make their voices heard. … It will change the way this country is for the better.”

Comcast NBCUniversal’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement platform honors the legacy and impact of America’s civil rights champions. Watch Purcell Conway’s interview and more than 17 hours of firsthand accounts and historical moments online and on Xfinity On Demand.
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Purnell Steen - Denver, CO
Pianos and Protests: Orchestrating Change in Denver

“There weren’t any racial problems at all. We just had individual kid problems.” Purnell Steen’s memories of his childhood in Denver are as vivid today as they were in the 1940s. Years before he became a renowned jazz pianist, Steen found his passion for music while growing up in a multiracial neighborhood in the Mile High City.

“I started studying music at the age of 4. I wanted to be a concert pianist,” Steen recalls. “And then when my cousin, Charles Burrell, came to Denver to desegregate the Denver Symphony in 1949, then the deal was sealed. I knew that I wanted a career path in music in some kind of way.”

For Steen, who was so captivated by his love of music, it wasn’t until high school when he began to experience his “great cathartic awakening.”

“My cousins went to such exotically named schools such as Booker T. Washington, Phillis Wheatley, and I said, ‘Who are these people?’,” Steen recollected. He recognized that his early education prevented him from attaining an understanding of — and an appreciation for — his Black American heritage.

After auditioning to attend The Juilliard School, Steen was waitlisted and ultimately denied — he recalls four Black students nationally would be admitted that year. Steen instead enrolled at a nearby university to study piano but soon found that faculty would not support his career aspirations.

“Negroes don’t perform classical music,” the Dean of the College of Music declared. Steen tried in vain to convince the Dean that Black Americans excel in all forms of musical performance — citing his cousin’s trailblazing career.

“They let him in and there’ll never be another,” the Dean retorted. Steen realized he would not be supported as a music major and ultimately chose to major in history.

Undeterred, Steen felt compelled to address discrimination in higher education. In the early 1960s, he became a member of the NAACP National Board of Youth and leader of the Boulder, Colo., branch of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

Purnell Steen, top center, meets with his peers. (Courtesy of Purnell Steen)
Steen’s leadership roles thrust him into a series of nonviolent protests, including a “sympathy demonstration” at Woolworth’s in downtown Denver, and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963. Steen was starting to break in his marching shoes.

“With every fiber in my body, I will continue to do what I can,” shared Steen. “[I will] make sure that freedom for all people is a reality in the United States.”

In 1963, the university hired a new president who approved segregated university-endorsed housing. In response, Steen led a group of students to stage a sit-in demonstration outside of the president’s office.

As Steen recalled, “[The president] wouldn’t give an inch and we weren’t about to either.”

Steen continued his activism as he and fellow student lobbyists were sent to Washington, D.C., to attend the weeklong First Student Leadership Conference on Religion and Race on behalf of the NAACP. There he met Mississippi native Dee Benson, who published a campus newspaper exposing the horrors of racial violence and injustice in Mississippi. For his act of journalism, Benson’s life was threatened.

Steen, captivated by Benson’s story, accompanied Benson to the Department of Justice Building in Washington, D.C., to seek help of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

Energized by his audience with Kennedy, and encouraged by his successful advocacy on the part of Benson, Steen’s involvement with the movement deepened. He continued his activism throughout the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s to open doors for students that walked in his footsteps.

As he pursued a career in music, Steen would ultimately defy the Dean of Music’s low expectations. His success as a musician has been marked by numerous pinnacles, from performing at NATO headquarters for the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, to sharing his love of music through his band, Purnell Steen and Le Jazz Machine.

“I wrestled with God wanting to know why I was put on this earth and what my mission on this earth is, and somebody finally said it’s your gift of music. And the joy of music that you bring to people’s lives.”

Comcast NBCUniversal’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement platform honors the legacy and impact of America’s civil rights champions. Watch Purnell Steen’s interview and more than 17 hours of firsthand accounts and historical moments online and on Xfinity On Demand.
Hero image: U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty Images)
Rep. Terri Sewell - Birmingham, AL and Washington, DC
Walking in their Shoes: Alabama’s First Black Congresswoman Honors Sacrifices of Her Elder Generation

U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, the first Black woman elected to Alabama’s congressional delegation, reminds herself daily that her personal success is not her birthright; rather, that it was made possible only as a result of the blood, sweat and tears poured out by the men, women and children who came before her.

Sewell represents Alabama’s 7th Congressional District, the focal point of numerous notable civil rights events in the 1960s. She thinks often about a tragedy that occurred just two years before her birth.

It was Sunday morning, Sept. 15, 1963, a day that began like any other for parishioners of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. It was the city’s largest Black parish, and a hub of civil rights activism where leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth rallied the community. On this particular morning, 400 congregants had gathered to attend service.

Shortly before 10:30 a.m., a box containing more than a dozen sticks of dynamite detonated beneath the church steps. Twenty-two churchgoers were wounded, but most poignantly, the lives of four young girls attending Sunday school were cut short.

The Four Spirits statue in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park memorializes the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing — Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley. (AP Photo/Hal Yeager)
The murder of Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, aged 11 to 14, shook the nation. But it wasn’t until 2013 — 50 years after the Ku Klux Klan bombing — that the victims were officially acknowledged for their sacrifice with what Sewell described as, "the highest civilian honor that Congress can bestow upon anyone."

Sewell was the sponsor of a bill that posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal to the girls, an action that came as the result of a sense of personal duty.

"I am a direct beneficiary of the [civil rights] movement. I know that I drink deep from wells that I did not dig," Sewell reflected. "I get to walk the halls of Congress today, because Addie Mae, Denise, Carole and Cynthia cannot. ... I walk in their shoes.

"The four little girls are a symbolic representation — an embodiment — of the promise of America, and their loss of life is a lost opportunity. ... We, who have been beneficiaries, must make every effort to live up to the promise that their loss of life symbolizes."

Former President Barack Obama signs a bill awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the four young victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Obama is joined (left to right) in the Oval Office by Birmingham Mayor William Bell, Dr. Sharon Malone Holder, Attorney General Eric Holder, Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), Thelma Pippen McNair, Lisa McNair and Dianne Braddock on May 24, 2013. (Mike Theiler-Pool/Getty Images)
Since becoming a congresswoman, Sewell has sought to make good on that promise, dedicating herself to elevating public awareness of the four Birmingham girls and other pioneers and milestones that helped forge new achievements in civil rights.

The year 2020 marked the 55th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," a day of violence in which peaceful marchers were assaulted on their journey from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. They marched in defiance of the policies that kept them separate, but not necessarily equal, and above all else, protested for their right to vote.

Sewell again worked to honor those who opened doors for future generations of people of color. She mobilized fellow lawmakers and secured unanimous passage of a bill to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the "foot soldiers" who "were so brave to be brutally beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge."

Sewell reflected, "We have to find strength in the fact that there were, in a generation ahead of us, folks that didn’t just complain, but they … nonviolently organized and protested. ... It’s a testament to the enduring nature of our American values that are so enshrined in the Constitution."

It is the persistence and sacrifice of Selma’s marchers and Birmingham’s four young "heroines," Sewell said, that make it possible for her to hold the keys to an office on Capitol Hill.

She contemplates that reality each day, and is encouraged and committed to ensuring that yesterday’s sacrifices continue to create new opportunities for tomorrow’s youth: "We cannot rest on our laurels. We have to build upon [the sacrifices of others] and run our leg of the race with as much gusto ... empowered and emblazoned by the fortitude and bravery of those that came before us."

Comcast NBCUniversal’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement platform honors the legacy and impact of America’s civil rights champions. Watch U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell’s interview and more than 17 hours of firsthand accounts and historical moments online and on Xfinity On Demand.
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Rev. William B. Moore - Fayetteville, NC and Philadelphia, PA
Sitting In and Taking a Stand: A Civil Rights Activist's 61-Year Journey

"We would sit at the lunch counters and say, ‘We’d like to order a burger, french fries and a Coke,’ and [the staff] said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’ … We did not get up. We did not leave."

For the Rev. William B. Moore, memories of racism are still fresh. But most pronounced in his memory is how, and why, he responded with civil disobedience. “Sitting in” was not a concept Moore conceived. Instead, it was a direct reflection of lessons he learned from his parents and as a student at North Carolina’s Fayetteville State University in the early 1960s.

Attending college was among few options outlined by Moore’s parents. "You either did one of three things: you went to college, you went to work or you went into the military … [there was] a sense of expectation and hope," Moore recalled. A fearful outlook or any sense of inferiority were unwelcome at home, despite the prevalence of Jim Crow policies in nearly every other aspect of his life.

Segregation in transportation, schools and restaurants was commonplace, but that didn’t hinder Moore’s family and church elders from infusing a sense of pride and courage in him. They reinforced a guiding principle, "that your failure ought not be your failure to try." Their resolve in the face of ubiquitous discrimination set a powerful example for Moore, and an early awareness that his existing status must not be his ultimate destiny.

As a freshman, Moore was intrigued by extracurricular events at colleges in nearby Greensboro, N.C. He recalled, "I read about what was going on. … The conditions that we faced in Fayetteville were no different than what was faced in Greensboro. … Students [there] came together and decided to march, [sit in] and to demonstrate peacefully." Some restaurateurs began to respond, drawing back on decades of segregation and racial inequity.

Observing an effective student movement fewer than 100 miles away, Moore decided to act. He gathered a group of fellow Black classmates united by common experiences in the Jim Crow South. Their chief objective: to signal discontent with the status quo. Their method: expanding the sit-in movement to Fayetteville.

A 20-year-old Moore, top center, poses with fellow members of the Fayetteville sit-in planning committee. (Courtesy of the Rev. William Moore)
They got to work right away, marching day after day from campus to local segregated restaurants. Sitting at "whites only" lunch counters, Moore was never served his desired burger and fries. Instead, he and his classmates were tendered jeers, taunts and repeated requests for their immediate departure.

Moore explained that even as students, they weren’t compelled to leave. They endured the mistreatment and remained seated until they "made a point."

Moore himself never experienced physical violence at his sit-ins, but his persistence vexed many business owners enough to close down early — resulting in lost income, and a "victory" for Moore and team. "Even though change did not come rapidly," Moore reflected, "[we] were very resilient, very persistent."

Sit-in protests continued to spread across the South. More than 70,000 Black students mobilized, dispersing from their campuses to peacefully protest the discrimination they encountered at every turn. Freedom rides swept public buses, "wade-ins" inundated segregated swimming pools and "pray-ins" filled the pews of "whites-only" churches. Even presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was compelled to react, illustrating the newfound impact that empowered Black students had on the national civil rights conversation. Moore was quick to recognize the value of civil disobedience as a force in righting wrongs — a lesson he learned and has taught throughout adulthood as an ordained minister.

For more than four decades as pastor of Tenth Memorial Baptist Church in Philadelphia, the Rev. Moore has worked tirelessly to build a new coalition: a community bound by common faith, a devotion to collective advancement and neighborhood pride. Advancing his younger parishioners, in particular, is a priority.

Channeling memories of his own family’s persistent high expectations, Moore also has a firsthand understanding of how educational environments invite young people to be observant, ask tough questions, and pursue activities and career paths that help improve the world. To that end, Moore’s parish invests in their children beginning at an early age: "We open … a no-touch savings account that’s set aside specifically for their education. As they go up the ladder, we invest more and more."

The initiative is making a difference, landing Tenth Memorial’s youth at institutions like Brown, Harvard and Temple. And, they don’t leave forever; Moore delights that many "come back and use their talents in the church."

For graduates who return – and all aspiring youth alike – he encourages them to further their ambition and idealism well into adulthood. It’s Moore’s way of "passing the baton" to the next generation, reminding them that change can start with the actions of an individual.

"If there is a public action that you can believe in, and you want to do it, then do it,” Moore shared. “Democracy is messy and bringing people from hate to love can also be messy. But you have to remain vigilant. And if you’re vigilant, higher ideals will bring people together [around] common ideas, to bring about a change."

Comcast NBCUniversal’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement platform honors the legacy and impact of America’s civil rights champions. Watch the Rev. William Moore’s interview and more than 17 hours of firsthand accounts and historical moments online and on Xfinity On Demand.
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Elaine Brown - Oakland, CA
A Black Panther’s Journey in Breaking New Ground

Elaine Brown is accustomed to breaking new ground — and overcoming adversity is a challenge she’d conquered long before she made history in the 1970s as the first and only woman to lead the Black Panther Party. Of the many Black-led organizations advocating for the civil and human rights of Black Americans at the time, “none had women in leadership except the Black Panther Party,” asserts Brown, 77.

Fortunately, Brown was up for the challenge — and the many difficulties her controversial appointment would bring into her life. Her well-earned reputation as a brilliant, bold, unyielding supporter of the liberation of Black people in America and beyond lives on today, as further evidenced by the more than five decades she has lent her support — and her voice — to speaking out on issues of equality and justice. “We were there to challenge the entire structure and scheme,” says Brown, of the Panthers’ efforts to make American society more equitable. “And so it is that [which] gave me, and gives me, meaning and purpose today.”

Promoting self-determination and an end to police brutality facing Black Americans — both of which topped the Black Panther Party’s agenda from its inception in 1966 — are the core of Brown’s activism. “Freedom, that's what we wanted; [the] power to determine the destinies of our Black communities,” explains Brown, mother of one adult daughter. Similar themes have since emerged in the Black Lives Matter movement of present-day, serving as a reminder of the lasting impact that both the Panthers and Brown have made on America and the world; an impressive feat for a Black girl raised in poverty in Philadelphia by a devoted dress-factory worker mother. She would not learn of her absent father, a well-respected neurosurgeon, until the age of 14.

In her young adulthood, Brown’s desire to pursue a songwriting career inspired her relocation to California, where the Black Panthers were born and largely based. Her time there would introduce her to the then-bourgeoning organization known for its brash, unapologetic message of Black pride. Brown’s outlook forever changed following a chance encounter with a local Black Panther Party leader: “I met this incredible man named [Alprentice] ‘Bunchy’ Carter, who was the founder and leader of the southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party. I knew that I had to do something.”

And something she did. She began volunteering, studying the Party’s literature, training on the ways of the Panthers, and — for a time — writing for, and selling, the Party’s newspaper. Being around Black people, Brown reflects, was refreshing and exciting; as Brown had spent much of her life in virtually all-white school settings, divided between the elite world of her classmates and the impoverished Black community where she lived. “Ultimately, all those things certainly influenced my consciousness as to the issues that I saw that were affecting me, being poor, being deprived as it were; not having the things my white classmates had,” remembers Brown. “It had nothing to do with me. It had everything to do with a scheme of things that went back hundreds of years, but that certainly made a difference in my thinking as to how I would end up [as] a Black Panther.”

Her commitment to the organization reached new heights once she met Black Panther Party Co-Founder Huey Newton at an airport, upon her return from a delegation trip organized by fellow Panther Eldridge Cleaver. She’d previously only seen Newton on posters, but there he was in the flesh, and Brown was smitten: “He was this incredibly beautiful man; very strong, very intelligent looking, totally powerful. And he gave me ultimately a big hug and said, ‘Welcome home, comrade.’ I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I had never met anybody so beautiful in my life.”

Black Panther Party posters featuring the likeness of Co-Founder Huey P. Newton. (Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

She and Newton had clicked, affirming her service to the Panthers. “I spoke with him all night that first night about our struggle and what we were doing and why we were doing it,” she recalls. That first meeting would inspire a lifelong admiration between the two, a shared passion for helping Black Americans free themselves from the shackles of racial injustice and the horrors of police brutality, or as she puts it, “problems in the street, problems from the police.”

It would be an arduous uphill battle to take on, but the Panthers were committed. By 1969, FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover had famously declared the Black Panther Party, “the greatest threat to internal security of the country,” and promised Americans it would not exist by the end of the year. At the time, many of its top brass were also regularly being gunned down in retaliation of the Panthers’ growing political and social influence, including leaders John Huggins and Carter, who had recruited Brown. “In Los Angeles, and in Southern California, we had someone … get killed every month,” remembers Brown.

Despite the growing existential challenges facing the organization, Brown was down for the cause. And, with Newton as a close ally, she quickly rose up the ranks — serving as Minister of Information and eventually Chairperson in 1974. “I was educated thanks to all that time I spent in those good white schools,” quips Brown, of how her education had helped her ascent in the Panthers — an education she would later learn had been subsidized by her father.

During her tenure, Brown championed numerous service initiatives for the community, including the free Busing to Prisons Program, Free Legal Aid Program, Liberation School and the groundbreaking Free Breakfast for Children Program. The breakfast program was particularly innovative, ultimately providing morning meals to tens of thousands of economically disadvantaged schoolchildren nationwide. It is also believed to have served as an early model for the free and reduced-cost meal programs offered in American public schools today.

Black Panther Party Chairperson Elaine Brown, top center, at a 1975 press conference in Oakland, Calif. (Bettmann/Getty Images)
Though Newton’s controversial decision to appoint her as the first woman chairperson was pivotal, it also eventually helped inspire Brown’s decision to leave the organization altogether. She says she faced sexist treatment and threats of violence while leading the male-dominated organization, marking one of her most impactful, yet most challenging years as a Panther. Brown reflected in her memoir, “A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story”:

“A woman in the Black Power movement was considered, at best, irrelevant. A woman asserting herself was a pariah. If a Black woman assumed a role of leadership, she was said to be eroding Black manhood, to be hindering the progress of the Black race.”

She cut formal ties with the organization in 1977 when Newton, whom she describes as “one of the great leaders in our struggle in the pantheon of great leaders that we have had in the United States of America,” resumed his role. Leaving was disheartening, as the Panthers had very much become family, but she has no regrets. “Everything I did, I did because I believed it was right,” Brown says.

Her passion and commitment to shattering social barriers — and supporting the issues that had drawn her to the organization — persisted. In 1998, Brown co-founded the grassroots Mothers Advocating Juvenile Justice, which advocated against children being prosecuted as adults in the state of Georgia. Five years later, she co-founded the National Alliance for Radical Prison Reform, which was created to provide reentry support for thousands of incarcerated people upon their release. Brown is also CEO of Oakland & the World Enterprises Inc., a nonprofit organization “dedicated to launching and sustaining for-profit businesses for cooperative-ownership by formerly incarcerated people and other people facing monumental social barriers to economic survival.”

As the popular saying goes, Elaine Brown doesn’t just talk the talk, she has committed her life to walking the walk, no matter the cost. For that, she forever reigns in history, American history, as a changemaker much like the organization that largely sparked her activism. Brown doesn’t hesitate to credit the organization that sparked a fire within her: “The legacy of the Party I believe is solid,” she gushes. “I don't think there was any greater. … We were the greatest effort ever made by Black people for Black liberation.”

Comcast NBCUniversal’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement platform honors the legacy and impact of America’s civil rights champions. Watch Voices’ full interview with Elaine Brown, and more than 17 hours of firsthand accounts and historical moments, online and on Xfinity On Demand.
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