In February, Hearst Television celebrated Black history by having courageous conversations. The fight for civil rights and justice goes back generations and has looked different each decade. We’re speaking with community leaders, elders – those who have lived through victories and troubled times, to talk about their experiences, and compare them with what we still struggle with today.
You can watch all of our conversations with these community leaders below.
As the daughter of one of the most impactful civil rights leaders, the late Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Ruby Shuttlesworth Bester had a front-row seat to historic moments and movements. The 76-year-old made her own history along the way.
"Our history, as a people, has been and is hope. Because we've been moving forward," she said.
Now the president and CEO of the Greater Sacramento Urban League, Cassandra Jennings grew up in a segregated North Carolina town. Jennings talked about where she grew up and how life has changed since the 1950s and '60s.
"People are resistant to say there are some things that are wrong. I know some people apologize to me saying, you know that this is awful what's happening and what they've allowed to happen. Others act like it doesn't exist," Jennings said.
Maine civil rights pioneer Gerald Talbot shares his story of hope and renewed faith. Talbot, 89, participated in the March on Washington in 1963 and became the president of the Portland chapter of the NAACP in 1964. He served in the Maine Legislature from 1972 to 1978, making him the first Black legislator in the state.
“I lost my belief in God because of what we went through in housing, in jobs,” Talbot said.
Author Karen Gray Houston was a little girl when her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, became a focal point in the civil rights movement of the 1950s. One day, her mother dressed Houston and her brothers in their “Sunday best” attire to go on a bus ride to sit with children in the front of the bus. Little did Houston know that the seat was something her family helped fight for — and planned from inside her family home.
“What happened in 1955 gave a lot of Black people courage to engage in some other movements that made a difference in history,” Houston said.
Civil rights activist Howard Fuller, 80, former Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent and retired Marquette University professor, said he fights every day for people who look like him, and draws comparisons of the civil rights movements of years past and the social justice protests of 2020.
"Let's be clear, this is not the first time nor the last time we'll have conversations about race. Unless we address the lack of Black power in this society, you will be talking about this when you are as old as me. Although I don't see the potential for radical change in this country, it's necessary for me to continue to fight for it, because not to fight is to accept it," he said.
Greenville, South Carolina
Retired Greenville County, South Carolina, educator Pearlie Harris taught for 30 years and recalls being harassed because of the color of her skin by students and parents at an all-white school.
"The superintendent approached me and said, 'We're going to send you to a new school next year and it will be all-white,' and he said, 'How do you think you'll do?' and I said, 'I'll do fine, children are children,'" she said. "And it was neither hard nor easy, but the children literally called me a (N-word). And the parents did too. Big PTA meetings, they'd say, 'We never wanted a (N-word) to teach our children because they don't know what the white teachers know and they don't have the education.'”
From Baltimore to the White House, Larry Gibson overcame poverty and segregation to become a lawyer, who, in the wake of the civil rights movement, helped to free a group of falsely accused protesters.
"Things are changing, and I think they are probably changing positively. There were many demonstrations where the overwhelming majority of the people were not African Americans. There were demonstrations around the world, inequities, and more and more Americans are understanding that it is not enough to just individually not discriminate, but that the necessity that they get involved in dealing and addressing the issues of the systemic racial issues. Improvements are occurring. Things are getting better, but we still have a ways to go," Gibson said.
Des Moines, Iowa
Simon Estes is an internationally acclaimed opera singer. The 82-year-old was born and raised in Centerville, Iowa. Estes can still recall the early racism he experienced in Southern Iowa. He said he felt it throughout most of his life. He grew to fame during the civil rights movement. But even after, he said it was hard to perform in U.S. opera houses due to his race. As someone who lived through the civil rights movement, Estes said seeing the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others made 2020 a tough year.
“I said to my wife, 'I’m tired,'” Estes said. “I’m just tired. They say we don’t have any discrimination in America. It does still exist. The only way I think that we’re going to reduce discrimination in the United States is parents need to start teaching their children at a very young age.”
Sacramento State University political science professor Robert Stanley Oden moved to the Sacramento area in the summer of 1967. There were only 40 African Americans at the University of California, Davis.
Oden's advice to younger generations: "Get involved. Get involved in your community. One of the things I've done as a professor is, I've gotten students involved in service-learning, going and working in organizations and agencies who are paid to learn from what's going on. But also to engage in the community, community issues and community problems so they can really understand the lived experiences that people have."
From the end of slavery to the civil rights movement and the inauguration of the first Black president, Black people like former Savannah, Georgia, Mayor Otis Johnson have had a front-row seat to history. With all these firsts, it can give the illusion of outright equality, which Johnson says isn’t necessarily correct.
“So, yes, we have these one-offs all the time. I've been a lot of one-offs. But I don't take any great pleasure in being the 'first' or the 'only' because I look around and I see my people. And the condition of the collective is not what it ought to be," Johnson said. "And until the condition of the collective is what it ought to be that I will never be satisfied with just being the one-off.”
Kansas City, Missouri
Alvin Brooks has been a leader in Kansas City, Missouri, since becoming one of the city's first Black police officers in the 1950s. After his time in the police department, Brooks would become one of the city’s few Black elected officials and later a civil rights activist for decades.
"We can pass laws, have slogans, have marches, and all those things are important because they do make a difference, but the question becomes, 'How do they impact America's structural racist system?" Brooks said.
West Palm Beach, Florida
Dan Calloway, of Rivieria, Florida, played baseball for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1957 and then spent 20 years as a deputy with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. He also marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in New York City on multiple occasions
"He was so much of a nonviolent and most of us wanted to fight back, we had to restrain ourselves not to fight back and that was probably the hardest thing I had to do because growing up in Riviera Beach ... when the Ku Klux Klan came into this town, and my mother had to put us under the bed and jump on top of us to try to protect us, my three brothers — we wanted to fight back. But with MLK, you couldn't do that," Calloway said.
Greensboro, North Carolina
Charles Bess was working as a busboy at a Woolworth's white-only lunch counter when, 61 years ago, four North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University first-year held a sit-in and asked to be served. The students refused to leave even after they were denied service — and stayed until the store closed.
"When a waitress would tell them, 'We don't serve colored people here,' they ignored it and kept on sitting and asking for coffee," Bess recalled. "I never heard them asking for nothing else but coffee."
Betty Daniels Rosemond, 87, grew up with Jim Crow laws and segregation being the norm in New Orleans, Louisiana. She saw firsthand how racism held her family back when her mother tried to vote or buy a home and was ultimately denied.
Rosemond, who now lives in Cincinnati, joined the Freedom Riders when she was 21. Her job was to see if facilities were following the law and report to headquarters.
"When I got to the phone booth, a truck of men in a pickup truck, white men, pulled up at the little bus station. They literally dragged Frank and three girls out, put them in the back of a truck and drove off. Now, I knew if they found me, it would have been another lynching that night," Rosemond said.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Army veteran Norman C. Francis was the first Black law student at Loyola University in New Orleans. He later served as president of Xavier University of Louisiana — the nation’s only historically Black Catholic university — for 47 years. Though his parents didn’t graduate from high school, Francis credits them for teaching him how to live, respect people, always remember who you are and how to make a living.
“We're not going back, but we got to know how to handle that, and what we've seen lately, we held our own, like Martin Luther King would have would have done — hold your ground, wait till your time comes," Francis said.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Joyce Jackson is a journalism and civil rights pioneer. She was a part of the Katz Drugstore sit-in in Oklahoma in 1958 — the beginning of a movement that changed the country forever. She also became the first Black woman on television in Oklahoma.
“We think that we’re so different that we’re trying to overpower each other. We can’t go back," she said. We will not go back to a time where we were subservient and placed in situations where we did not have a voice. Today, everyone has a voice. And we need to use it.”
While civil rights leaders marched in the 1960s for equality and against racism, activism showed up in Herlda Senhouse through her jazz dance shows. The 110-year-old founded what was Boston's Clique Club, a social club of dancers and musicians to help educate Black students.
When asked whether it was more difficult being Black or a woman, Senhouse said: “It was a double-whammy. It was so hard."
A civil rights activist from Mississippi became the youngest Freedom Rider nearly 60 years ago and almost lost his life in the pursuit of equality. Hezekiah Watkins, 73, now spends his days working at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. He’s not just an employee, he’s a part of history.
“I remember watching the evening news. I would see dogs biting individuals. I saw individuals being spat on. I saw individuals being beaten and I could not understand why,” Watkins said of growing up during the civil rights movement. “But I keep hearing these words, ‘Freedom Riders.’”
Virginia Smith Denton, 82, said she was at home with her mom when she learned about the Supreme Court's milestone Brown v. Board of Education decision. The court ruled in 1954 that separating children in public schools on the basis of race was unconstitutional. In the fall of 1954, the then 16-year-old and six other teens became the first Black students to attend Fayetteville High School.
"We weren't scared. We were a little nervous," Smith Denton said.
Des Moines, Iowa
From the inner city of Washington, D.C., to the middle of America’s heartland, Wayne Ford came to the Midwest to play football. He stayed and became an agent of change, dedicating years of service as a state lawmaker and community leader in Iowa.
“Des Moines is a much better city than it was when I got here but it has many challenges to go. The school systems — Blacks are still not getting the education. The economic situation — we have some of the poorest Blacks in America. We got Blacks that don’t even have bank accounts."
Veraneice Wheeler was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. The 91-year-old lived through the civil rights movement and worked as a nurse for 15 years during segregation when Black nurses were limited on their duties. Her late husband was involved in the local NAACP chapter and he made it a family mission to help register Black people to vote amid constant threats of violence.
"They hung nooses for him because he was a real fighter for civil rights. One time the children were small, I don't think they even remember, we had threats on our home because of segregation. One time they had to watch our house because we had bomb threats."
Phyllis Bennett, of suburban Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is known to many as a speaker, radio host, consultant and award-winning advocate. Bennett applauds the efforts of the new generation for taking a stand against racial inequalities but said it won’t be enough to eliminate the issues.
"As long as we have systemic racism and different aspects of our society – racism in education, medicine, police – unless and until we get some reforms in economic, social and judicial justice, it's going to continue to be a problem."
John Nash, who grew up in the segregated south before he moved to Seaside, California, where he's lived for more than six decades, said he's hopeful for change.
"We can't sit back and wait (for) somebody do it for us. ...We got to get out and push. ...We get a little ways and we get comfortable," Nash said.
Patricia Brown remembers the night she cooked dinner for Martin Luther King Jr. Decades later, she reflects on the civil rights era and its impact today.
“When Dr. King walked across the bridge and they had the hose on them, trying to keep them from coming down the bridge and John Lewis was hit in the head, you could see that. But the thing is, I’m thinking with George Floyd they’re starting to say enough is enough. Enough is enough,” Brown said.
As she watched coverage of the January insurrection from her West Louisville, Kentucky, home, Mattie Jones was reminded of "Bloody Sunday" in 1965.
“I was there when they beat John Lewis to a bloody pulp and when I saw them climbing the walls and taking over the Capitol, my thoughts then said, 'Look what we have created here by allowing the institutionalized — or slick racism — to keep on existing,'" Jones said.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Joseph Powdrell grew up in Crosbyton, Texas, at a time when its schools were still segregated.
"I always wanted to experience things like microscopes and stuff like that," Powdrell said. "We had none of that. We simply had a classroom, paper and none of that. And that's when I started to feel like we're missing something here. There was a white high school right down the street from us. They had everything. Biology labs — they did everything, and then I'm starting to wonder, 'Why do they have that? ... Why are we deprived of certain things?' And the word 'racism' wasn't mentioned."
Jim Crable took a moment to reflect on a painful history he had with racism, starting with his time in Brownsville, where he was born and went to grade school.
"I knew that I was different. I knew I was a different color," Crable said. "And in a lot of cases, when some folks got mad at me, they'd let me know I was a different color when they'd pick up a pet name to call me."
George Starke Jr. was the first African American to ever attend the University of Florida Law School.
"On Sept. 15, 1958, when I went to University of Florida, I didn't know what to expect," he said. "I got to meet some of my classmates. Some of who really weren't my classmates, I didn't know it at the time. Two of them were Florida Highway Patrol. They had been assigned to ensure my safety. They didn't know what to expect either."
Decades of service to her community have driven former Savannah, Georgia, Mayor Edna Jackson from a young age. Jackson would spend years participating in sit-ins, marches and other protests across the South.
“We would sit in. They wouldn’t serve us," she said. "People would yell, throw coffee and just intimidate them."