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Commentary | Feb. 5, 2015

Americans of all colors contributed to civil rights movement

By Air Force 2nd Lt. Loyd Bradley 673d Comptroller Squadron

Year after year in the month of February, we take the time to acknowledge prominent African-Americans who have made a difference in American history.

More often than not, we tend to focus on the Civil Rights movement and the individuals who played prevailing roles in ensuring equal rights for African-Americans and the like.

We are not often reminded of people such as Stokely Carmichael, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or Solomon Seay, Jr., who was one of three African-American attorneys in Montgomery, Alabama during the Selma marches.

The average grade school education tends to miss and neglect many great details of African Americans during the Civil Rights movement - but there is another group which has enjoyed the same unfortunate treatment in the history books. 

We fail to recognize  the movement was not just the lonely work of the African-American community, but the all-around effort of the American people.

During the Civil Rights movement, having white Americans in powerful positions supporting the cause was invaluable.

Walter Reuther, the former president and leader of the United Automobile Workers union, was instrumental in helping ensure  African-Americans were heard.

Respected as one of the most powerful people in Detroit at the time, he took full advantage of his position and spoke in support of African-American causes and equality.

Reuther made routine speeches, and even addressed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Most notable was Reuther's speech at the 1963 March on Washington, D.C. - the same march we remember for Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech - in which he challenged Congress to enact civil rights legislation immediately.

A famous painting, titled "The Problem We All Must Live With," hangs in the White House and highlights the story of Ruby Bridges.

Bridges was the first African-American to attend an all-white school in the South.

We are missing one of the best parts of the Ruby Bridges story if we forget to include the story of another woman: Barbara Henry.

Henry was a white woman from Boston who agreed to teach Bridges after she was ostracized by the school and local community.

The community was in an uproar, and many parents threatened not to allow their child to attend William Frantz Elementary School now that, incredibly, an African-American would be learning in the same building.

In order to minimize the effect on the entire school, Henry taught Bridges one-on-one for an entire school year, despite facing heavy criticism, hatred and even death threats.

Kind and daring gestures such as those displayed by Henry continued to give the people - of all colors - hope in the struggle for human rights, justice, and equality.

Immediately following the Civil Rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., there was still a tremendous amount of work that needed to be done for the people.

Morris Dees recognized this and co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Despite understanding the repercussions he would face defending the rights of the African-American community, he pressed forward.

The lawsuits he originally filed were lawsuits to open public employment, integrate the Alabama state trooper force, and dismantle hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

Because of his efforts and the efforts of people like him, remarkable strides were made in the movement towards equality, for all of us.

Again, having powerful people support the dream Doctor King spoke of made it more likely for it to become a reality.

President John F. Kennedy's involvement in the Civil Rights is not always highlighted; however, he too played a vital role in making the dream come true.

After being elected President, Kennedy was very hesitant to speak out about the Civil Rights movement in fear of losing the support of the South.

Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not pass before his murder, the stance Kennedy took on civil rights before his death put the plan in motion.

Kennedy had placed African-Americans in key positions in his administration; his strategic move was a bold statement and allowed changes to be made at the highest level with hopes of driving others to follow.

Thanks to his courageous actions, blacks were able to gain the rights and liberties owed to them as Americans.

It is clear  our traditional canon of civil rights leaders, even in the strictly African-American category, fails to acknowledge many important contributors.

We are remiss to go another year without giving a full picture to the history of the civil rights movement and giving faces to the many white stories that marched alongside black leaders and played pivotal roles in the cause.

It is time we break away from our comfort zone, and acknowledge people such as Huey P. Newton, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, and A. Phillip Rudolph, a labor leader and social activist.

The standard classroom's history textbook does a subpar job highlighting these events. 

It falls to us to understand that one group without the other would have yielded little progress, if any at all - and that progress of the
one without the other is meaningless.

It is time we acknowledge all parties involved and to educate our youth, ourselves, and those around us this Black History Month.