By Linda Tarrant-ReidOriginally published in The Westchester County Press, April 7, 2011
“We’ve Come This Far by Faith” and “Steppin’ out on Faith” are very powerful words that have stoked the engine in our push for equality and inclusion in our struggle for civil rights. As a child of the 50s and 60s, I witnessed change. On my family’s summer road trips South, I took for granted the preparations that my parents made to make certain my sister and I were safe as we drove through the dangerous roads of klan country staying in black-owned bed & breakfasts and guesthouses because blacks weren’t allowed to stay in motels, eating the fried chicken and potato salad Mom fixed in the car because we couldn’t eat at the roadside restaurants, having the coffee can at the ready because we couldn’t go to the bathroom at the rest stops or gas stations.
It was all crystal clear, blacks and whites had separate, but hugely unequal access to hotels/motels, restaurants, leisure facilities, hospitals, restrooms, water fountains, pools, libraries, schools, and transportation. Jim Crow statutes, instituted throughout the land, by the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson Decision of 1896, put African Americans in the back of the bus until 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled in the historic Brown v. Board of Education Case that it was illegal to have separate schools for black children and white children. This was the beginning of the dismantling of the racist and separatist machine that kept black folks mute on the political front by denying us the right to vote, kept us economically strapped by denying us access to high-paying jobs we were eminently qualified for, and promoted the systematic redlining of neighborhoods by directing prospective black homeowners away from desirable neighborhoods and denying us access to equal housing.
Now more than fifty years later, many of the legal cases that frame our freedom today are being commemorated. Yes, we have come this far by faith. I recently had the pleasure of working on the 50th anniversary of one such case, Taylor v. Board of Education of New Rochelle, NY. This 1961 desegregation case was the first of its kind filed in a northern city and the “Queen City of the Sound” was dubbed the “Little Rock of the North” by the media. The parents of the eleven brave youngsters who were the subject of the case were represented by the firebrand lawyer from Harlem, Paul Zuber.
Judge Irving R. Kaufman ruled that the New Rochelle School Board had indeed gerrymandered the districts to create an all-black elementary school and ordered the Board of Education to come up with a desegregation plan. The Board appealed Kaufman’s decision and the plaintiffs (the parents and students) were represented by Thurgood Marshall, who would become the first African American Supreme Court Justice and Constance Baker Motley, the first African American woman appointed to a federal bench. Kaufman’s decision stood and the rest is history. The current school board commemorated the 50-year anniversary beginning this past January with several extraordinary events including a symposium featuring Barbara and Paul Zuber, the late attorney’s wife and son; blues guitarist Guy Davis, son of civil rights activists Ruby Dee and the late Ossie Davis; a former alum of the school; and a professor researching the case.
The most moving event of the Taylor Case Commemoration for me was a visit by Carlotta Walls LaNier, one of the “Little Rock Nine.” Ms. LaNier held about 200 New Rochelle High School students in the palm of her hand as she recounted her harrowing experiences as a fourteen-year-old high school student integrating Little Rock Central High School on September 25, 1957. The audience was a diverse sea of young people enrapt by this eyewitness account, hanging on this primary source’s every word and for 90 minutes they were unplugged from their iPhones, iPods, iPads and the rest of the electronic junk that takes up so much space in their malleable minds. This was real learning, straight from the mouth of someone who lived it. Carlotta described walking through the gauntlet of the taunting, angry crowd of white people screaming epitaphs and spewing spit on the group of nine black students. Later, she described what it was like when President Dwight Eisenhower called in the 101stAirborne with their fixed bayonets at the ready to protect the black students as they sought an equal education under the law.
There are many foot soldiers in the march to equality including my parents, Juanita and Mark Tarrant, who stepped out on faith each summer as they traveled through the Jim Crow South with their precious cargo, their two little girls, to visit relatives. Medgar Evers; Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman; Malcolm; Viola Liuozzo; MLK and others who lost their lives for the cause of equality also stepped out on faith when they opted to not sit on the sidelines while someone else did the heavy lifting. And to them and all the soldiers in the fight for equal rights, I say, thank you.