They too had a dream: Book spotlights forgotten civil rights leaders

Everybody has heard of Martin Luther King, Jr., but what about Edwin King? Or for that matter, how about Dave Dennis and Mildred Bell Johnson? A new book edited by Florida State University communication professor Davis Houck puts the spotlight on these and other little known players in the Civil Rights Movement.

"In Rhetoric, Religion and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965" (Baylor University Press), Houck and co-editor David E. Dixon, an assistant professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s College in Indiana, have compiled 130 speeches to illustrate how clergy, lay ministers and faithful congregants used religious rhetoric to move the nation toward civil rights for all. The 1,002-page anthology is a collection of diverse voices—male, female, black, white, Christian and Jewish—many of them in danger of being lost to history.

"The problem with much of the civil rights scholarship is that it’s basically a ‘greatest hits’ album featuring the fairly famous civil rights leaders," Houck said. "There’s been much lip-service given to the local folks, but very little by way of primary source material. We hope the anthology is a first step in rectifying some of the imbalance."

Finding the speeches took a great deal of detective work, Houck said. He and Dixon spent more than two years scanning microfilm, sorting through archives, tracking down old recordings and searching the Internet, not to mention the countless hours a group of college students spent transcribing the speeches.

"We selected speeches we thought had some rhetorical value—that is, they were eloquent or poignant and spoke to an important civil rights issue, but they also are speeches and speakers that nobody had taken the time to get to know," Houck said.

Many of the activists featured in the book were unknown even to Houck and Dixon, but they worked hard to find and include biographical information so that relatively obscure leaders, such as Edwin King, a white chaplain of the historically black Tougaloo College in Mississippi, would get their due.

"Dr. (Martin Luther) King got the headlines, the awards and the adulation, but the Ed Kings did the daily dirty work so essential to the movement’s many successes," Houck and Dixon write in the book’s introduction. Ed King, who ran for lieutenant governor of Mississippi in 1964 on the Freedom Ticket, was nearly killed for his involvement in the movement when the son of a local segregationist ran the car he was riding in off the road.

One of Houck’s favorite speeches is by Fannie Lou Hamer, the youngest of 20 children born to sharecroppers who became a civil rights activist at age 44 when she attempted to register to vote in Indianola, Miss. Although Hamer later received some national attention, documentation of her early appearances, such as this 1964 speech that Houck transcribed from an audio recording found at the Smithsonian, have been mostly lost.

In it, she conveyed a message that love for one’s enemies was paramount and that civil rights was, above all, a profoundly Christian call:

"We are not fighting against these people because we hate ’em, but we are fighting these people because we love ’em and we are the only thing that can save ’em now. We are fighting to save these people from their hate and from all the things that would be so bad against them. We want them to see the right way."

Another favorite is a 1956 speech by educator Horace Mann Bond, "A Cigarette for Johnnie Birchfield," a repentant tribute to an interracial incident involving a white man on death row. Houck said Bond’s famous civil rights leader son Julian Bond, the chairman of the NAACP Board of Directors, was overwhelmed upon reading his late father’s speech because he never knew of its existence until the authors sought his permission to reprint it.

So, who were Dave Dennis and Mildred Bell Johnson? An impassioned and fiery orator, Dennis was an original Freedom Rider who helped lay the groundwork for what would become Freedom Summer in 1964. Today he is the director of the Southern Initiative of the Algebra Project. Bell Johnson started the first Girl Scout troop for black girls in Alabama and, as the first African American woman to hold high elective office in the United Church of Christ, she frequently castigated church members for not participating actively in its Racial Justice Now campaign. Her daughter, Alma, would grow up to marry Colin Powell.