Thursday, April 15, 2010

NAACP Pioneers Felt Obligated To Fight On

Photo by The Commercial Appeal files
 Attorneys H.T. Lockard (left) and A.W. Willis confer with some of the eight students who made history in Memphis in September 1959, when they became the first African-American students to enroll at what was then Memphis State University.
NAACP Pioneers Felt Obligated To Fight On   
Legal Activists Returned To Their Hometown Bringing Vitality And Determination To Effect Change
By Zack McMillin
Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hosea T. (H.T.) Lockard is 88 now, his mobility diminished to a careful but determined one-step-at-a-time move through his house with a walker.

Like his peers who pioneered the NAACP's legal activism, Lockard can peer back over the decades and appreciate the hard-won progress that is now so evident and taken for granted in February 2009, 100 years after the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

He knows that in a country in which African-American politicians ascend to places of power -- including President Barack Obama -- questions inevitably are raised about the need for organizations like the NAACP or commemorations like Black History Month.
But he hopes this centennial generates reflection and appreciation.

"I would hope the masses would look in retrospect and imagine what the conditions were then and then come forward in their minds with the gradual pace we have made changes and to look with relish on advancement thus far," says Lockard, a retired Criminal Court judge who was the first African-American member of the Tennessee governor's cabinet. "If we do nothing but educate and interpret the uneducated about the achievements, it would be a full-time job."

Before retirement from the bench and physical ailments like the stroke that hit him years ago, Lockard brought a considerable vitality to the Memphis NAACP in its fight against local segregation and inequality.

He can recall vividly the sense of purpose he carried with him that Christmas Eve night in 1950 when, as a World War II veteran and LeMoyne College graduate from Ripley, Tenn., he returned to Memphis from St. Louis "down 51 Highway in a Pontiac I had bought with almost my last savings on four bad tires with no spare."

He had gone to law school in St. Louis and had wanted to stay -- conditions were much better for a black man five hours upriver -- but finally determined he would apply his ambition and legal training to the cause of making Memphis better.

When he visited the local branch of the NAACP, at the Abe Scharf YMCA at Linden and Lauderdale, Lockard found an older crowd discussing things like police brutality and segregation in public facilities.

"It was music to my ears," Lockard says now. "Good music, because that's what I wanted to get involved in and help bring about the change. So I kind of joined and I was accepted wholeheartedly in part because I was a young man -- only 31 -- and I showed the zest and zeal and vigor and vitality. I was ready to roll up my sleeves and go and ready to tackle anything needed to be tackled."

This was a few years before the movement in Memphis would come to include other now-colossal names of the local civil rights movement -- Benjamin Hooks, Jesse Turner, Maxine and Vasco Smith, Billy Kyles, Russell Sugarmon, A.W. Willis, among many others.

As Vasco Smith, a dentist and husband of Maxine (the longtime local director of the Memphis NAACP branch) once put it in the journal Southern Voices: "For a while, Lockard was pretty much the whole show. He did an outstanding job, and he probably laid the foundation for a lot of the things that happened later on."

He would be joined by so many others, and their efforts led to important victories, mostly won through the legal process, in areas like desegregation of the Memphis Street and Railway, public buildings and restaurants, and, of course, in education.

Like Lockard, those others chose to return to Memphis and enlist in the NAACP's cause because they felt a sense of obligation, despite knowing they could live other places where the obstacles were not so obvious nor the white citizens so malicious.

Hooks, a trailblazer as judge and Federal Communications Commission member, was the national director of the NAACP for 15 years and has received much attention lately, including a compelling Inauguration Day segment with Dan Rather.

Sugarmon, now 79 (born in the same year as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), graduated from Booker T. Washington High School at 15. After he finished his undergraduate degree at Rutgers, in New Jersey, he completed an application to Harvard Law School. Where it asked why he wanted to go to Harvard, the now-retired judge recalls writing, "Because I do not like my hometown."

Meaning, he wanted to do something about it, and using the law seemed like the best route. Though he could not afford Harvard, Sugarmon's education there was eventually provided by the University of Tennessee Law School, in an effort to avoid integration or lawsuits. And Sugarmon brought that training back to his hometown, joining Lockard, Hooks, the Smiths, A.W. Willis and a growing corps of bright and determined young African-American residents. Working for the NAACP and using the courts, they won desegregation of public transportation, of restaurants and public facilities, and started the long, frustrating path toward integrating public schools.

As Hooks likes to put it, the landmark Supreme Court ruling calling for school desegregation, Brown vs. the Board of Education, "has been successful on everything but education. It brought forth everything that came after. And all that was won on the backs of the NAACP."

Johnnie Turner, the director of the Memphis branch, which was founded in 1917, is hoping to use the centennial year to remind people of the NAACP's significance in blazing a path to progress -- and appeal to people to help the organization retain its relevance and prominence.

"People like Rev. Hooks and H.T. Lockard, these are the walking legends and the people who have lived all of the things we hope to transmit to our youth," Turner says. "We see these young black men and women now, sitting in board rooms, who say, 'I am sitting here because I am smart.' They need to recognize they stand on the shoulders of the lynched and the killed and the mutilated who suffered to get them where they are today."

Warner Dickerson, president of the local NAACP branch, says the centennial is a chance to remember those victories, but preaches continued vigilance in a country that has often lagged in its idealistic ambitions of freedom and equality for all of its people.

"Historically, America has said these things all along, but I am not prepared to become gullible and believe it is over," Dickerson says. "We are all proud of Barack. We have had historical moments. But I don't believe racism is over in America."

Hooks, pointing out the minuscule percentage of black members of corporate boards, says, "It doesn't take Einstein to know something is happening to that coin flip."

Lockard, Sugarmon and Hooks all take pains to point out that black residents of Memphis had it better than those in other places, and that in fact things like the political machine of E.H. "Boss" Crump, cynical though its motivations may have been, did see to it that Memphis' electorate included black voters.

Sugarmon to this day praises former police chief Claude Armour, a man he says was unapologetic about his racist views but unflinching in his duties to carry out the law when school desegregation began. Lockard will say, of his legal adversaries, "They were gentlemen of the very highest quality."
Yet, they all recall harrowing moments. Lockard remembers the nasty phone calls at all hours, and one particular evening when it seemed the police and fire departments were intent on harassing his household. Hooks talks about efforts in places like Brownsville, Tenn., where "when you went up there to talk about (civil rights), they'd run, they'd been whipped so much."

Sugarmon remembers a drive back from Somerville, Tenn., one night with Hooks and A.W. Willis, when they noticed the lights from traffic behind them growing stronger.

"A.W. said, 'Look at all those cars; it's like a funeral procession,'" Sugarmon says. "Benny Hooks says, 'Why the hell would you say something like that at a time like this?'"

Sugarmon says a bullet came through the window, fired from a car on the side of the road, but they escaped back to Memphis unharmed.

"Since nobody got hurt, I said, 'I am proud; we must be doing something right,'" Sugarmon says.
Now in the twilight of their lives, these legal veterans who fought for the NAACP find themselves being honored and admired by many of the very people and institutions they battled for so long. Maxine Smith, who never shied from controversy, says she often is stopped by people who apologize and ask her forgiveness for the hate they directed toward her.

"I just tell them, 'It's OK, I didn't know you hated me,'" Smith says.

Like her old neighborhood friends Hooks and Sugarmon, Smith says it feels nice to be appreciated.
Sugarmon says he mostly feels gratitude.

"The main thing I feel is lucky to be born at a place and in a time when something could be done," Sugarmon says. "Could you imagine living in a time when there is no threat, no challenge, you are just there, passing the time? I would hate that. When there is something worth attacking, something worth challenging and you can get to do that, that is a gift.

"To have a role that mattered, that's my reward."

Lockard says the hymn "Amazing Grace" captures his feelings best, because he believes those battles fought and won by the NAACP required what he calls "God's grace."

"With that mindset, all the negative stuff disappears," Lockard says. "Everything negative is taken away."

Zack McMillin is a reporter for The Commercial Appeal. Contact him at 901-529-2564. 

More Civil Rights Movement On W.E. A.L.L. B.E. :

No comments: