Countless men and women demonstrated, protested, sacrificed, and bled for their basic entitlement of equality, but during African-American History Month we appear to only distinguish or reflect on a select few. We recognize the same heroes and heroines over and over again, yet there are some with similar names as these champions that we either do not know or choose to ignore.
Many dedicated their lives to the pursuit of civil rights and equality, and I would like to compare a number of them who have comparable names.
The entire world knows of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the activist preacher who was the most dominant figure in the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s; but there was another Martin. Martin Delany was a radical pre-Civil War abolitionist, Black Nationalist, explorer of Africa and veteran of the American Civil War.
His father was a slave, and all four of his grandparents had been captured in Africa and brought to America as slaves, but his mother was free, and by law this meant Delany was born free. From earliest childhood, he was told by his parents that his ancestors were African royalty. His family fled north when his mother faced prosecution for educating her children.
We know and hear of the continuous activism of the Baptist Preacher Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was an aide to Dr. King and founder of the Rainbow-Push Coalition, and who ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1984. But there were other heroes named Jackson.
We must remember Wharlest Jackson, who was killed in February,1967 in Natchez, Mississippi. He was the treasurer of his local NAACP chapter and one of many blacks who received threatening Klan notices at his job. After Jackson was promoted to a position previously reserved for whites, a bomb was planted in his car. It exploded minutes after he left work one day, killing him instantly.
Another Jackson is Jimmie Lee Jackson, who on February 26, 1965 in Marion, Alabama was beaten and shot by state troopers as he tried to protect his grandfather and mother from a trooper attack on civil rights marchers. His death helped lead to the Selma-Montgomery march and the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act.
And there was a Jesse that we often fail to notice. His name is Jesse Owens. James Cleveland "Jesse" Owens was an American track and field athlete who specialized in the sprints and the long jump. He participated in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, where he achieved international fame by winning four gold medals.
We read and hear about George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery in Diamond, Missouri and became one of the most prominent scientists and inventors of his time, as well as a teacher at the Tuskegee Institute. Carver devised over 100 products, including dyes, plastics and gasoline, using one of these crops, the peanut. He died in 1943.
But there was also George Washington Williams, the author of “History of the Negro Race in America,” widely considered the first objective history of African Americans. He is famous for the oral histories he wrote detailing the experiences of black Americans during the American Civil War. In addition to being an author, Williams was also a pastor, attorney and the first African American to serve in the Ohio House of Representatives.
And there was the African American named George Washington who in 1875 founded Centralia, Washington. He was the son of a black slave, and a jack-of-all-trades who journeyed to the Pacific Northwest to create a new life. Washington settled first in Oregon City, but within a few years crossed the Columbia River into what would soon become Washington Territory.
We read and honor Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, who rose from poverty to become one of the nation’s most distinguished African-American leaders and the most prominent black woman of her time. She was the central figure in the creation of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida, a founder and president of the National Council of Negro Women, and a leading force in developing the black women’s organization movement. She was one of the few blacks to hold influential positions in the federal bureaucracy during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. She was a legendary woman named Mary.
But have you heard of Mary Ellen Pleasant? Almost 100 years before Rosa Parks, San Francisco resident Mary Ellen Pleasant sued a local transportation company for not letting her and other African Americans ride. She won. She also helped to establish the Bank of California. Pleasant earned her title as the “Mother” of California’s early freedom movement, establishing the local Underground Railroad. She financially supported John Brown from 1857 to 1859. In the 1860s and 1870s, Mrs. Pleasant brought several civil rights lawsuits in California, especially against the trolley companies, most of which she won.
Another Mary was "Stagecoach Mary" Fields. Stagecoach Mary was the first African-American woman employed as a mail carrier in the United States, driving her mail route by stagecoach from Cascade, Montana to St. Peter's Mission, Montana.
There are so many more. For instance, I could compare Rev. Ralph Abernathy of SCLC with the great sprinter of the ‘30s, Ralph Metcalfe, who many will say was better than Jesse Owens. Metcalfe was at his best between the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. He won both sprints at the AAU and NCAA for three straight years (1932-34) and won the AAU 200m in 1935-36 to give him a record of five straight wins in this event.
Ralph Metcalfe later became well known in Chicago politics, serving on the city council under Mayor Daley for many years. In 1970, Metcalfe was elected to the U.S. Congress from the 1st District in Illinois, serving until his death.
Did you know there was an African-American educator, newspaper publisher and politician named John Quincy Adams? He is best known as the editor of the Western Appeal/The Appeal of St. Paul, Minnesota from 1886 to 1922.
Between 1876 and 1886 Adams lived in Louisville, Kentucky, where he taught school and was engaged in Republican Party politics at the state and national levels, serving as ganger and storekeeper in the United States Revenue Service. He lost that appointment with the election of Grover Cleveland in 1884. During that period, he and his brother Cyrus Field Adams published the weekly Louisville Bulletin between1879 and 1886. In 1880 Adams was responsible for convening the first Colored National Press Convention and was elected its first president.
There are so many more that we do not know about or remember, but this perhaps will give you the incentive to research and not be satisfied with the few that we continue to celebrate time after time.