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Veterans of civil rights struggle offer their perspective

At the Democratic Convention in Denver, on the morning of the day Barack Obama was to accept the party’s nomination for president, Bennie Newroth heard something she would never forget:

Gospel music, at breakfast.

It wasn’t recorded; it wasn’t arranged. It was spontaneous.

“That morning, there were some ladies from Alabama, who evidently sang in a choir, and they started singing these gospel songs, and they were at a breakfast, and they got caught up in it and they couldn’t stop singing,” recalled Newroth. “So they went out in the lobby and gave a free concert.”

A song line that sticks in her mind is, “I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me,” she said, adding, “They just got so into the significance of the moment.”

Tuesday’s inauguration of the first black U.S. president brings another significant moment, leading local veterans of the civil rights movement to reflect on all that they have witnessed in their lives.

Newroth is among them.

“I went to school at North Carolina A&T,” she said of the agricultural and technical college. “That’s in Greensboro, and that’s where the Woolworth sit-ins were the year before I got there.”

Those sit-ins forced the city to integrate its racially segregated lunch counters. But other venues were yet to be opened to people of color.

“The year I got there was when we integrated the theaters and some other places in Greensboro,” she said.

The movement was not without its dangers.

“We were marching, and I remember seeing people on the sidelines with brass knuckles on, and I had to pause for a moment to think about what that meant, that I could very well be attacked,” she said.

That was back in the early 1960s. A quarter-century later, Newroth was a delegate to the 1988 Democratic Convention in Atlanta, pledged to support the Rev. Jesse Jackson in his run for president. She remembers how different the atmosphere was.

“The ’88 one was exciting, and I realized the responsibility of being a delegate; ’08 was more spiritual, not religious, but spiritual,” said Newroth, who went to Denver just to watch. “Some people said it came off like a rock concert, but no, if you were there, there was something very reverent about it. I saw a lot of people older than me, who were aware of the significance, who never in their lifetime thought they’d see a black man accept the party’s nomination.”

Today Newroth, who declines to give her age, wonders how strongly years ago she believed she would live to see America elect a black president. “I want to say I did, but I don’t know. Obviously I thought we would or I would not have been pledged to Rev. Jackson. So you know, it’s kind of like seeing it to the end. A Barack Obama comes every now and then, and he caught the mood of the country and he was talking change. He wasn’t talking about black change or white change. He was talking about change. So people of all races, all ages, could identify with the message, and that to me is what was exciting.”

Rudy Allen Sr.

The Greensboro sit-ins to which Newroth referred began in 1960.

In 1961, Columbus activists helped end the practice of racially segregating city buses, on which blacks were forced to sit in the back.

It was a year the Rev. Rudy Allen Sr. would never forget.

“We rode the bus intentionally on the front seat as a protest of segregation,” Allen said last week. “When I was arrested for riding the bus back in ’61, it made me realize, and see very vividly, that we were not considered to be first-class citizens, and that was a moment that I always remember.”

In the decades that followed, Allen remained active in the local civil rights movement. In 1975, he and other members of the city’s black ministerial alliance paid an impromptu visit to the county jail, a 1939 building on Sixth Avenue that today is considered unsuitable for housing inmates.

Allen and the other ministers went there because a man had died in an isolation cell called “the hole.”

What effect their inspection had is hard to say. “Nothing really happened, other than I think maybe the treatment was better there after we went and investigated,” he said.

Today Allen believes Obama’s election shows the United States has come a long way, though the journey toward true equality continues.

“The fact that Obama was elected helps me understand more fully that we are being accepted as American citizens. And it’s about time,” he said. “Even when I was a kid, we were told that we could be what we wanted to be. And when you finally got old enough to pursue some interest, you realized that you couldn’t be anything you wanted to be because of segregation, because of discrimination.”

Times have changed. “Now I think that to a great extent, any person who grows up in America can pursue whatever they want to pursue and almost assure themselves that they can reach their goals. If you work hard, you can just about be what you want to be now.”

This is not the end of the movement, he said: “I said you can be what you want to be, but it’s still tough to be what you want to be in a lot of areas. I don’t think anybody believed a black could have been elected this early. Even after all the years of supposedly equal opportunity for everybody, it took a long time. In Columbus, it’s tough for a black to be elected citywide. So the struggle isn’t over. I agree that we’ve come a long way, but the struggle isn’t over yet, not by a long shot.”

Lula Bass

Years before Allen and other activists ended discrimination on Columbus city buses, legions of black residents in Montgomery, Ala., started the Montgomery bus boycott.

Lula Bass was one of them.

Today she’s 72, retired from the Muscogee County School District, in which she taught English for decades. In 1956, she was a student at Alabama State University.

“Even though I was 19 years old and in college, it was not like students today who have their own personal transportation. My only transportation was the bus,” she remembered. “And then when the bus boycott began, the thing I noticed was that even people like myself and many, many others, who had only that transportation, were willing to give it up. There was such strong unity. People walked miles and miles and miles.”

The excitement of the movement packed mass meetings.

“People would pack lunches just to be in the meetings, so you could get inside the building, because there would be people who didn’t even get inside the building because everybody wanted to be there.”

The government did its best to derail the effort. When black churches bought buses to get elderly people to work, the city alleged they were operating a taxi service without a permit. “So they had to go to the church and take an offering inside the meeting, and then pass it out to the different bus drivers so they could buy gas,” Bass said. “So it was real challenging how the struggle went, and yet it was successful.”

Today Bass sees the inauguration of America’s first black president as a historic moment that was a long time coming, but bound to come. “Martin Luther King always said these days would come,” she said.

Mattie Wright

Four years after the Montgomery boycott desegregated that city’s buses, another movement began in Atlanta. Like in Greensboro, N.C., college students organized sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters.

“I was in graduate school in Atlanta,” recalled Mattie Wright. Now a retired school administrator and former science teacher here in Columbus, she was at Atlanta University in the early ’60s. “Julian Bond was the captain of all of this at Morehouse University, so I could participate,” she said.

It was not her first experience in desegregating restaurant seating. Earlier, when she was attending Fort Valley State College, she was involved in a similar effort in Macon.

She had to be more careful then. State authorities had warned students that anyone involved in such civil disobedience would be expelled.

“They told us state school students if we participated, we would not be granted a degree from any state school in Georgia,” Wright said. “And so my mama told me in no uncertain terms, ‘You get kicked out of school, and you don’t get the degree, that’s it, as far as I’m concerned. You will not get any money to go back to school.’”

So Wright did what other college kids long have done just for fun: She snuck off campus: “You know how you would say you were going home on the weekend, but you didn’t go home? Any time we would get to participate, we would sneak off campus. We knew we weren’t supposed to go, but the campus just kind of looked the other way. That’s what I remember particularly was the fear of participating in the sit-ins because we were threatened by the state.”

She also remembers what she had to do to get her first teaching job. “The state of Georgia made us sign an oath that we were not members of the NAACP and would not support the NAACP in any fashion or form,” she said.

The country has come a long way, so far that her grandchildren can’t grasp how it used to be. “They just say, ‘But Grandmama, how did you take that?’ That’s their attitude. My own children remember some of it, because they remember growing up, and our traveling back and forth from Georgia to South Carolina, when there were no bathroom facilities and no restaurant facilities. That’s their memory of it, but that’s all.”

Like Bass, Wright sees Obama’s inauguration as a point in history that was bound to come: “I’m excited about it, being the kind of science major that I am: If water runs long enough on rocks, it can wash them away. And I think persistence has been the name of the game, and patience. And having patience, faith and persistence, a change can come. A change will come.

“I have come from the point wherein as a little kid, I remember my granddaddy and my daddy couldn’t even walk on the sidewalks in south Georgia,” said Wright, who grew up in Toombs County.

“And to see this come to fruition is just awesome.”