March 28, 2019 By Mark Gosney
For Black History Month, the Advance Memphis staff shared a story every morning that centered around a brave hero of the African American Community. These heroes include remarkable women and men such as Maxine Smith, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Alberta Williams King. It was such an honor to highlight their courage and bravery in the face of great injustice and hate. We are sharing these stories with the hope that you also might be encouraged to persevere. These stories remind us of Galatians 6:9, which tells us to, “not grow weary of doing good.” So many of us cannot imagine how weary these individuals must have been yet they kept going; and today we have benefited from their lives and legacies. The Advance Memphis staff were honored and humbled to acknowledge these immense contributions and others like them.
Alberta Williams King
“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” -Ephesians 4:2
Alberta Williams King was the mother of Martin Luther King Jr. King often spoke of the positive influence that his mother had on his moral development, describing her as “the best mother in the world.” Mrs. King attended high school at Spelman Seminary and went on to get her teaching degree from Hampton Normal and Industrial Institute. During her time in college, she met a young minister named Michael King. Shortly after completing school, they announced their engagement during Sunday Services at Ebenezer Baptist Church. She was a committed member here and was a powerful force amongst leadership. She founded the Ebenezer choir and was an organist there from 1932-1972. She went back to school at Morris Brown College, and received a BA in 1938. She was also an active member in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom.
Alberta played a huge role in the person that Martin Luther became. She worked diligently to instill a sense of self-respect, love, and justice within her three children. King looked back on his childhood as one spent “in a very congenial home situation” with parents who “always lived together intimately.” Just like her son, her life was taken by murder, and in 1974, as she played the organ during Sunday services at Ebenezer, Alberta was shot by a 21-year old man from Ohio who claimed that, “all Christians are my enemies.” She died later that day at the age of 70.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” – 2 Timothy 4:7
Attucks was the first known casualty of the American Revolution and the Boston Massacre of 1770. While his life prior to the day of his death is fairly mysterious, we know that he died an American hero, fighting for his country. What we do know about his life is that his father is thought to be Prince Younger, a slave who was brought to America, and his mother is thought to be Nancy Attucks, a Natick Indian. In the Boston Gazette on October 2, 1750, William Brown, a resident of Framingham, Mass. Advertised for the recovery of a runaway slave named “Crispas”– usually thought to be the Crispus in question.
What is for sure known about him is that on the day of the Boston Massacre, he was part of a group of colonists that began to taunt a small group of British soldiers. As tension grew, one of the soldiers was struck, causing the others to fire their muskets, killing three Americans. Attucks was the first to fall, becoming one of the first men to lose his life for the sake of his country in the American Revolution. His body was carried to Faneuil Hall, where it lay in state until March 8th.
Fannie Lou Hamer (Written by Al Blanks)
“That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” – 2 Corinthians 12:10
When we speak of the modern Civil Rights fight in America, we tell of strong, courageous men like Dr. Martin Luther King, Reverend Ralph Abernathy or Stokely Carmichael. The most popular women mentioned during this same era were often known for their quiet strength such as Rosa Parks or Coretta Scott King. In the Mississippi Delta, there were strong and courageous men like Amzie Moore who fought for the right to vote. There was a strong and courageous woman like none other. I would call her the “Mother of the Movement in Mississippi”. Though, she appealed to Presidents, spoke before legislative bodies and shared podiums with the likes of Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer fought and bled for the rights of Mississippians to vote.
Born October 6, 1917 to Ella and James Townsend, Fannie Lou was the youngest of 20 children. Though she was born in Montgomery County MS, her family moved to Ruleville in Sunflower County to become sharecroppers on a plantation. As Fannie Lou grew older and wiser, she eventually became the bookkeeper on the plantation. It was around this time that she met her soon-to-be-husband, Perry “Pap” Hamer. She would hold this job at the plantation for many years where she and “Pap” stayed.
Though she attended conferences in Mound Bayou with speakers like Thurgood Marshall in the 1950s, Hamer’s activism did not start until much later. In August 1962 while attending a meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Hamer was challenged to register to vote. Though it was dangerous and even life-threatening to vote at this time, Fannie Lou registered and signed up to volunteer to register others across the state of Mississippi. While on a bus traveling to an event, Hamer’s started to sing hymns like “Wade in the Water” & “Walk With Me Lord” to strengthen those she travelled with. This also reflected the deeply
spiritual nature of her activism. Upon returning to the plantation from a trip to a voter registration rally, Hamer was fired and sent away from the plantation she had called home most of her life. But that would not stop her. She continued to travel across the US to advocate for voters’ rights. She was jailed and beaten on numerous occasions. During a speech in Harlem in 1964, spoke of her existence in Mississippi. She stated that she did not live in Mississippi, she only existed. She spoke these words of her existence:
“We have made an appeal for the president of the United States and the attorney general to please protect us in Mississippi. And I can’t understand how it’s out of their power to protect people in Mississippi. They can’t do that, but when a white man is killed in the Congo, they send people there. And you can always hear this long sob story: “You know it takes time.” For three hundred years, we’ve given them time. And I’ve been tired so long, now I am sick and tired of being sick and tired, and we want a change. We want a change in this society in America because, you see, we can no longer ignore the facts and getting our children to sing, “Oh say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed.” What do we have to hail here?”
Though I was only 11 years old, I remember the time that Fannie Lou Hamer died. I remember my parents having a copy of her obituary. I would think that my Father knew her since he also grew up on a plantation in Ruleville. It is easy to see how Christianity played a role in Fannie Lou Hamer’s activism and life. She often sang hymns while traveling to rallies. She also spoke of her Christian faith while making speeches. The thing I admire most about Fannie Lou Hammer is her resolve. Until her last days, she fought courageously for the right to vote in Mississippi.
“…and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” – Hebrews 12:1-2
While many have heard of the name Frederick Douglass, what is typically not highlighted is his deep spiritual life. At the age of thirteen he became a Christian, and hence forth felt that he was put on this earth to advance the gospel by loving his neighbor as himself. By working as an abolitionist, he simultaneously unmasked America’s hypocrisy while working to free millions of slaves. He was driven by his love of Christ, and stated, “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding-women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”
Through Douglass’s undying belief that the Christianity of slaveholding America was no Christianity at all, as it directly contrasted 1 Corinthians 13’s call for a patient, kind, and just love, he became a powerful force in the fight for freedom. He used his 77 years of life to fight for the themes of the gospel that Christians hold dear– justice, peace, and love. Not only did he help his brothers and sisters escape slavery, but stood for women’s rights, taught slaves to read the New Testament, and became a prominent author and speaker. He is the embodiment of Hebrews 12:1-2, which says, “and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” We can honor his legacy by devoting our lives to better the lives of our neighbors, staring darkness in the face and knowing that it does not hold a candle to the hope that we hold.
“Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story– for He redeemed from the hand of the foe.” – Psalm 107:2
In 1957, Smith applied to attend college at the University of Memphis but was rejected because of her race. She went to attend Spelman College, where notable alums such as Stacey Abrams have attended, and continued her education at Middlebury, where she received her M.S. degree in French. Through this rejection from University of Memphis, her attention was brought to the local NAACP chapter of Memphis, which she joined and became secretary of in 1962.
Her rejection from U of M sparked a passion for education in Smith, and she became a leading force in the fight for civil rights by organizing lawsuits, sit-ins, and marches. In 1971, Smith won election to the Memphis Board of Education, becoming the president in 1991, the same year that Herenton became the first African American Mayor of Memphis, a campaign she fought tirelessly for. Her life is a reminder that God can redeem the very place where you feel rejection. In Smith’s case, she was rejected from a college because of her race. Because of that, she spent her life in that very same field, doing God’s redemptive work and bringing the Kingdom of God nearer.
Rebecca Lee Crumpler
“Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” – James 1:12
Rebecca Lee Crumpler was the first African American woman in the U.S. to earn an MS degree and to become a licensed physician. She studied at New England Female Medical College, and upon graduation went to practice medicine in Boston. At the beginning stages of her practice, she helped underprivileged women and children and she continued this after the Civil War ended in 1865 when she moved to Richmond, VA, as she believed it to be “a proper field for real missionary work.” She went on to work for the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide medical care to freed slaves. As one can imagine, she was subject to intense racism and sexism while in the medical field. Later, she moved to Bostin in 1883 and she published A Book of Medical Discourses which was dedicated to the medical care of women and children. It was not only of the first publications written by an African American author about medicine, but the only book written by a female physician in the 19th century.
You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the Lord will give you, Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and the Lord will be with you. – 2 Chronicles 20:17
Sojourner Truth was born in 1797 as Isabella, a Dutch-speaking slave in rural New York. She was separated from her family at age nine and was sold several times before ending up on the farm of John and Sally Dumont. Similarly, to other slaves in the rural North, she had little contact with other African Americans, and she suffered from physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her slave-holders. Inspired by her conversations with God, which she held alone in the woods, Isabelle walked to freedom in 1826. Although tempted to return to Dumont’s farm, she was struck by a vision of Jesus, during which she felt “baptized in the Holy Spirit,” and she gained the strength and confidence to resist her former master. Like countless African Americans before her, she called on the supernatural for power to survive injustice and oppression.
In 1828, Isabella moved to New York and soon became a preacher in the Pentecostal tradition. Her faith and preaching brought her into contact with abolitionists and women’s rights advocates, and Truth became a powerful speaker on both subjects. She traveled extensively as a lecturer, particularly after the publication of The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, which detailed her suffering as a slave. She had a unique and valuable view of the Bible as a woman and also former-slave.
After the start of the Civil War, Truth became increasingly political in her work. She fought for the inclusion of blacks in the Union Army, and, once they were permitted to join, volunteered by bringing them food and clothes. She became increasingly involved in the issue of women’s suffrage but broke with leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton when Stanton stated that she would not support the black vote if women were not also granted the right. Truth also fought to resettle freed slaves and saw the 1879 Exodus to Kansas as part of God’s divine plan. Truth’s famous “Ar’n’t I a Woman?” speech, delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention is a perfect example of how, as Nell Painter puts it, “at a time when most Americans thought of slaves as male and women as white, Truth embodied a fact that still bears repeating: Among blacks are women; among the women, there are blacks.” By the end of the Civil War, Truth had met with Abraham Lincoln, had her arm dislocated by a racist streetcar conductor, petitioned the government to make western lands available to freed blacks, and made countless speeches on behalf of African Americans and women. In 1875, she retired to her home in Battle Creek, Michigan, where she remained until her death. Truth died on November 26, 1883. In her old age, she had let go of Pentecostal judgement and embraced spiritualism. Her last words were “be a follower of the Lord Jesus.”
An excerpt from Truth’s “Ar’n’t I a Woman?”:
“Than man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody helps me any best place. And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm. I have plowed, I have planted, and I have gathered into barns. And no man could head me. And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne children and seen most of them sold into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me. And ain’t I a woman?”
Thomas Oscar Fuller
“The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty…”- 1 Corinthians 12:21-23
In 1898, Fuller was elected in the North Carolina State Senate. He won the race despite racial prejudices, and once he was in office, black North Carolinians had hopes that he would push for racial equality, as he was the only African American in the senate. He believed that accommodation was the best way to fight for equality, and that by emphasizing harmony and love between races, equality would eventually come. However, this upset prominent black leaders in the community, as they were rightly itching for change to come. On the other hand, it certainly didn’t please racist whites who wished to eliminate all African Americans from public office.
Upon deciding that he could ultimately influence larger groups of people out of office, he left North Carolina and became the minister of the First Colored Baptist Church in Memphis. Fuller had clearly found his calling and became one of the most esteemed black ministers in Memphis. As a minister, he exercised his true beliefs, which one could call selective accommodation. He began to express his undying pride in being African American, refusing to accept the narrative that blacks were inferior in any way. In 1902, Fuller was named principal of Howe Institute, where he fostered a sense of black pride and stressed the value of education. In contrast to most schools in Memphis which only provided grammar school to African Americans, Howe Institute provided religious education, classical studies in Greek and Latin, and a liberal and broad education. In 1931 he took a hiatus from Howe Institute and used the time to research and write, publishing books such as Bridging the Racial Chasms (1937), The Story of the Church Life Among Negroes in Memphis (1938), & History of the Negro Baptists in Tennessee (1936.) Through this, Fuller becomes one of the most valuable African American history writers to be published in Tennessee during the first half of the 20th century. His life is a reminder that we all have a God-given talent that we can use to further God’s Kingdom. When politics didn’t work out, Fuller turned to ministry and education, and was able to make a significant impact there. Through Fuller’s work, he was able to education thousands of students, working against the grain of racism through hard work and dedication.
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The mission of Advance Memphis is to empower adults in South Memphis to break cycles of unemployment, establish economic stability, reconcile relationships, and restore dignity through knowledge, resources, and skills by the power of Jesus Christ.
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