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Unsung heroes of Columbus civil rights struggle about to get deserved attention

KRT

On July 9, 1963, a 15-year-old boy and four classmates walked into the Bradley Memorial Library, took books from a shelf and sat down to read. They were black. The library was white.

The 15-year-old, Charlie Porter, was there because he had been taught the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and took it seriously. Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation, was 9 years old and Columbus was still completely segregated. A short distance away, in Albany, black students were protesting in large numbers. Columbus’s NAACP Youth Council opposed their conservative elders, who’d worked with the city’s white power structure to keep out Martin Luther King Jr.

It wasn’t long before police arrived, arrested the group for unlawful assembly and took them to the police station, where Charlie was interrogated and told by Capt. Clyde Adair to use the black library and don’t “rock the boat.”

The three-day “read-in” involved dozens of black teenagers and was mostly orderly, but protests began to crop up elsewhere and city leaders feared violent outbreaks. The NAACP Youth Council agreed to cease protests and work out a plan. On Aug. 2, the Muscogee County school board voted unanimously to desegregate all schools and libraries. No credit was given the teenagers for this decision.

On graduating from Spencer High, Charlie left Columbus to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. There he became a Muslim, renamed himself Ibrahim Mumin, and built an inspiring life working for African-American and human rights as a community organizer and, now, a neighborhood development consultant. He served as a bridge builder as chairman of the board of the National Conference for Community and Justice, whose name he helped to change from National Conference of Christians and Jews.

In Columbus in 2015 for his 50th Spencer High anniversary, Mumin asked an employee at the Columbus Museum for material on the library “read-ins,” as the Ledger had dubbed them. “Oh, we didn’t have anything like that in Columbus,” he was told.

The story of the idealistic teens who integrated Columbus libraries lay dormant until this year when Wayne and Shirley Wiegand published “The Desegregation of Public Libraries in the Jim Crow South.”

On Feb. 6 and 7, Columbus will honor these hometown civil rights heroes with two events. On Feb. 6, Wayne Wiegand will speak at the Mildred Terry Library. On Feb. 7, he, along with Ibrahim Mumin and two other protestors, Gwendolyn Smyre and Cleophus Tyson, who was NAACP Youth Council president, will conduct a town hall at the Columbus Museum with high school students in the morning and a public panel discussion in the evening.

As a writer who has worked to integrate black and white history, I was heartened when I spoke in Columbus to find well-integrated audiences eager to discuss difficult topics.

People of both races told me they wanted more of these opportunities in Columbus. I hope these upcoming events will draw many people eager to broaden and deepen the integration these brave teenagers began over a half century ago.

Karen Branan, a Columbus native, lives in Washington, D.C. She is the author of The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, A Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth. She may be contacted at karenbranan@gmail.com or karenbranan.com.

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