Dr. Nicholas Harvey initiated a series at Edge Leadership entitled “Policy for Liberation.” The purpose of the event is to discuss hopes, fears, dreams, and aspirations for Black liberation in US policy. In this first session, Dr. Harvey interviews a mentor and esteemed scholar, activist, and beloved educator, Dr. Dorothy Yancy. In this excerpt, they explore stories of the Civil Rights Movement from her perspective as an actor in it. They discuss the judicial approach to civil rights and offer considerations for present-day changemakers.
Dr. Nicholas Harvey: Great, Danielle, I thank you so very much. I also want to give my thanks to Cyndi Suarez, who’s the president and editor-in-chief at Nonprofit Quarterly, and founder of this forum, Edge Leadership, which is a cross-sector network that is designed for leaders of color, creating new forms for a livable future.
I’m Nicholas Harvey, the president and CEO of Nicholas Harvey Consulting, and former visiting assistant professor in the Public Management and Policy Department of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. Our guest today is a distinguished scholar, including the Fulbright, a former president of two colleges—Johnson C. Smith and Shaw University—activist, and beloved educator, Dr. Dorothy C. Yancy. Her awards, accolades, and career accomplishments are too numerous to mention in the time we have allotted. It is safe to say, however, that she is more than qualified to speak to us today.
I invited her to be with us because of her significance in my life as my college history professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she was the first African American full professor. Dr. Yancy challenged us to not only know the answers but to ask better questions. Under her tutelage, I learned that the prevailing narratives regarding American history in general, and the African American civil rights movement in particular, were akin to the song from Porgy and Bess—“It Ain’t Necessarily So.” For example, Rosa Parks did not just get tired. Prepare yourself to question, to think, and to question some more. It is my honor to present to you Dr. Dorothy C. Yancy. Dr. Yancy, welcome.
Dr. Dorothy C. Yancy: Harvey, thanks for inviting me. And when you first called me, it was like, “What is this voice from the past? And what is it really all about?” But you know, you’ve made me think, and you’ve made me question many of the thoughts that I had. The one thing I’ve learned in this life is: you continuously learn. And if you don’t, it’s probably time for you to go on to the next world.
And when you mentioned Rosa Parks, I have something I have to tell you that I’m sure that you don’t know. I was reading this morning, and I knew that the bus boycott did not integrate the buses. But I know the activity had something to do with impacting the court. Because as soon as the bus boycott started, there was a court case that was filed. And there was a young lady named Claudette Colvin. Do you remember me mentioning her in class?
Dr. Harvey: Yes, ma’am.
Dr. Yancy: She was about 15 years old. And she sat on the bus, and they would not take her case to court because she had had a baby, remember? So she would not be the best representative of the community. But what they did do was they collected about four or five women who had had difficulties on the bus. A Mrs. McDonald, and there was four of them who ended up in the end in the case—there were really five, but one dropped out. But those women were used, their names were used to sue the Montgomery bus company. And when they won their case, that was the end of the boycott. Remember how people were rejoicing when you see the movies and all, because the case had been won? Well, that case was going along simultaneously with the bus boycott itself and being led by different people. But the case had been filed by Mr. E.D. Nixon, who was the president of the NAACP, that Miss Rosa had worked for as his secretary of the NAACP. So, you know, you learn something every time. I never realized the role that that Claudette played. But, when they unveiled Miss Parks’ statue a couple of years ago, there are several granite stones there where this unveiling took place, and Claudette’s name is there. And the other women.
Dr. Harvey: Yes. Yes. Yes. Outstanding. Again, those insights and those connections, that’s what you provided for us. One of the things that brought me to this space is I think that that’s perhaps what’s missing now, you know—understanding the connections between judicial strategy, policy strategy, what’s going on, and so we appreciate that. So, Dr. Yancy, if you could, can you share with us some of your experience? I know you were a student at Johnson C. Smith and the like, so what was your experience with the movement early on?
Dr. Yancy: Well, I was a kid straight off of a farm in Alabama. I grew up in a little community called Ballplay, Alabama. And it was just a community; it was not a city or anything. We went to school in a little town called Centre, Alabama, and they spelled it C-E-N-T-R-E, like the British, which was weird. And my farm that my father owned, half of it was owned in one county and half was in another county. So we went to school in one county, and we’d get our mail from the other county. So we were really in the country.
And so I get to college, I’m 16, it was my first real bus trip. And so I go to Rome, Georgia, catch the bus. We change buses in Atlanta, because your Trailway-Greyhound stations were right there together, and I go on to North Carolina. And in 1964, when I—and ’60—when I went to Johnson C. Smith, the integration was supposed to have taken place with interstate commerce, but it really hadn’t, because we were still going into the black section of the bus station. So, when I get to campus that August, the movement had started in February in North Carolina, it started up at A&T [State University]. One day it started [at] A&T, and the next day or so, it started in Charlotte at Johnson C. Smith. And Charlie Jones became my friend. He was the student leader at Johnson C. Smith. And his mother was my English teacher, and his father was a Presbyterian minister. And Charlie was in the seminary—he was the student from Johnson C. Smith who was represented at the organizing of the SNCC up at Shaw. He represented Johnson C. Smith. And so when he came back, his job was to keep the movement going when we got to school, and indeed he did.
And it’s during this period when the bus boycott starts, and people begin to ride the buses south and then go on eventually into Birmingham and Mississippi and over to Albany, Georgia, and all that. And Charlie left school and went to the movement. And his mother was a brave, brave woman. She used to teach the Iliad and the Odyssey and the Civil Rights Movement all together. Charlie would write us a letter every week. And she would read what he had written, where he was and what he was doing, because it was not in the newspaper, you know? So we were able to keep up with the movement through Charlie, as well as whatever was in the newspaper. And of course, we did our own protesting and marching, and, you know, you had to go to the auditoriums, and they could tell you what you couldn’t do. You couldn’t fight back, you couldn’t talk back and all that. I didn’t do too well with that. But I tried. The last time when I wanted to kill this man and chased him through a building, I knew I did not need to go out and protest anymore. My temper was too short.
Dr. Harvey: So, part of that experience, was it true that prior to going to the Johnson C. Smith, that the NAACP was illegal?
Dr. Yancy: Oh, in Alabama, it was outlawed, it was against the law. As a matter of fact, it was illegal for you to belong to the NAACP in the state of Alabama. And so my mother had a white friend, and her name was Allie. And she always considered herself our “white mother,” because she was a schoolteacher. And so she heard about the movement up in Charlotte, and she told those people where I grew up, “But Bonnie’s not in that, she knows better. She’s not participating in any movement, nothing like that is happening.” Nobody ever believed where I grew up that I was out in the street protesting. Just couldn’t believe it, because people didn’t do that. But it was against the law to belong to NAACP. And when I was going through my sister’s things after she passed—my sister was 10 years older than me—I found her receipts from paying her poll tax so she could vote. She was a schoolteacher, she was 10 years older than me, and as a matter of fact she taught me. And she had saved many of her poll tax receipts. Of course, that’s outlawed by the Voting Rights Act of ’65. But there she was. She was voting before the Act was passed, but she was paying a poll tax to vote.
Dr. Harvey: Right. Right. And what about the—I guess, since we’re sort of talking, moving to somewhat about the Voting Rights Act—what about the Constitutional exams? Were they still doing that?
Dr. Yancy: Oh, yeah, they were still doing it. As a matter of fact, Mister—uh, I’m gonna tell you his name in a minute; it just slipped my brain. There’s a classic case out of Tuskegee, where the man went to register to vote, and they wanted him to read the Constitution in English, and told him to read it in French, and all that kind of stuff. And of course, it was just a ruse to prevent him from voting. But I worked with him at Albany State, my first job. And it’s interesting how you’re around all these people who were in the movement, but they were just people to you. They were just people that you worked with. Yes, in certain parts of the South, Alabama and all of them, they were still giving that test for you to be able to vote. You know, how many beans, jellybeans in the jar, and all that kind of crazy craziness. And that’s just the way it was.
Dr. Harvey: Yeah. I think one of the pieces that did come out when we sat down in your Constitutional class is that you asked us some of the more weighty questions—
Dr. Yancy: Yeah, I gave you all the test, and you couldn’t pass it.
Dr. Harvey: I confess, I could not pass the test.
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Dr. Yancy: And they didn’t intend for anybody to pass it. People who had college degrees couldn’t pass it. As a matter of fact, the people who were giving the test couldn’t read. The registrar was probably one of the dumbest people in town. They were not educated. I’ll give you an example. I go to Johnson C. Smith, right? And so I’m writing a paper on juvenile delinquents and juvenile justice. And so I decided that I would write about my little town, where I’d gone to high school. So I go home for one or a couple of days. And I go to interview the judge, right? The judge of the court that judge children, the juveniles, when they came before the judge. This man had just finished high school, and he was telling me he was some judge. I said, “Lord have mercy.” I mean, that just gave me more reason to protest when I got back to school, because it was clear then. And the only reason he had the job was because of his last name. He was from the Jordan—they call themselves “Jordan.” They said “Jerden,” they didn’t say “Jordan,” that’s what it was—that he was from that family. And so therefore, he was able to be a judge. I couldn’t understand that.
Dr. Harvey: Mmhmm. So, Dr. Yancy, if you would, as we sort of try to, I guess, share sort of a line of continuity in terms of sort of civil rights strategy, can you begin talking about the judicial strategy and the Supreme Court, and how the appeal to the Supreme Court was instrumental?
Dr. Yancy: Alright, the judicial strategy comes out of Howard University. It comes out of Thurgood Marshall and many of the other lawyers who came out of the law school, and the dean of the law school at Howard. They looked at how you could fight for the 14th Amendment in terms of integration and not have discrimination. And so the first group they looked at was higher education. They looked at graduate schools, because, you know, there was a whole thing about black children being sitting next to each other—you know, next thing, you know, they’ll be courting, and they’ll be marrying, and all that. So they went to that other level. And there was a case in—let me get it right—in Oklahoma, then there was McLaurin v. Oklahoma, there was Sweatt v. Painter down in Texas and all. And these cases are all decided around 1950, but they started in the courts way before that. And the courts ruled that these schools, these graduate schools, have to integrate. But the way they did it was in such a hideous way. For example, the guy in Oklahoma had to sit outside the classroom. He had a special table in the library. He had a special seat in the dining hall when he could eat when other people were in there, and other times he couldn’t. So, when they appealed that and went back to court again, they ruled that they had to have integration. And the same thing happened to McLaurin over in Oklahoma. So, these cases are settled in 1950, before Brown v. the Board of Education. Meanwhile, Board of Education-Brown is creeping through the courts. They start off, you know, you had a case, you had one in Virginia, you had one over in South Carolina, and various places, and they merged together and became known as Brown. Brown is really five separate cases.
And the one I was most familiar with was the one out of South Carolina, Briggs. Because the children in Briggs, some of them went to Johnson C. Smith with me in college. But then, by the time I got to college, they were in college. They were just a little bit ahead of me. And as a matter of fact, when I became president, one of them lived across the street from me. So, you live with the civil rights leaders who are never talked about, but these are people that made things possible. And the Briggs case was about a bus, just like sitting on the bus in Montgomery. They didn’t have buses to get to school, and some of those kids walked nine miles to school. And the head of this system told Mister—um, trying to remember his name now, I’ll tell you in just a second—but they told him that they didn’t have any money to buy buses for those, quote, “[n—]s.” That’s what he called them. But Mister—his name is DeLaine. Mr. Joseph DeLaine. Joseph DeLaine had graduated from Allen University in the 30s, like around 1931. And he had a church over there near Manning in South Carolina. And they came to him, he organized the first NAACP chapter in Clinton, or wherever the little town, little community was. And people saw him as a leader because he became principal of the school. And as principal of the school, when he started organizing people who came to him, “We got to get a bus,” they couldn’t get enough money together. So they went to the school board and asked for them to buy them a bus. And of course, they refused. And then they fired Mr. DeLaine. And Mr. DeLaine, meanwhile, he also had a church, because he was an AME minister. They burned his house. He had to flee South Carolina and ended up in Charlotte and eventually up in Buffalo. And then his children, he came back to Charlotte, and his children went to Johnson C. Smith, and I recognized them when I was president. But not too many years ago, they recognized Mr. DeLaine in Columbia, South Carolina. The very man who was the son of the superintendent raised the money to put a statue of Mr. DeLaine in Columbia. Would you believe that?
Dr. Harvey: Wow.
Dr. Yancy: Yeah. And see, integration of Charlotte, when I got to Johnson C. Smith, one of the persons in my class, her name was Dorothy Counts. We sat beside each other in a lot of classes, because I was Dorothy Cowser. She had graduated from Allen, a high school up in Asheville, which was a private high school for girls. But she had integrated the schools in Charlotte, and they had treated her so bad she left Charlotte and went to Philadelphia, and then went to Allen. So there were children of the movement who had tried to integrate various communities in my class at Johnson C. Smith. When we were out protesting, we had people who had first-hand experience of what had happened with integration, and what had not happened. But it was assumed that when the Court—now, this is important—Black people assumed that when the Supreme Court rules, and they ruled Brown v. Board of Education, “all deliberate speed”—that was in 1954, the speed is still coming—they believed that the public policy would set the stage and it would be enforced. What they didn’t know was that the court had no power to enforce anything. And the same people that were discriminating were still in power.
Dr. Harvey: Yes, yes. Yeah. And I think that’s important for folks to understand, in terms of the idea of, so, the implications for policy, in that, you know, yes, the court has spoken. But if folks decide that that’s something that is not what they wish to do, and the way they describe deliberate speed might be molasses.
Dr. Yancy: Yeah. The thing about it is, you almost see repeat performances. I’m gonna tell you a story that’s gonna make a lot of sense to you, because this, you’re going to be a little bit disturbed by it. You see, the whole business of the Civil Rights Act being discussed now in Congress, and how we’re going to get the Civil Rights Act passed, so we can get the Voting Rights Act back together again. You know, this whole thing about John Lewis, everybody just loves John Lewis now, but when they were beating him over the head, they weren’t so in love with him. This whole thing of when I see the congressman from West Virginia rising up now and basically controlling the Democratic Party, because he’s got that one vote that makes 50, which puts him in a position to prevent things from being passed because of the even split, back in the day when we were trying to get the Civil Rights Act passed, the person who did all that was none other than Senator Byrd from West Virginia. He was the one who filibustered. He talked for 14 hours and 13 minutes. No kid during that period would ever forget it. Fourteen hours and 13 minutes trying to prevent the act from being passed. It’s still West Virginia, I said now, and they’re both Democrats. It doesn’t make any difference. As a matter of fact, the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act that John Kennedy had introduced, but it was LBJ who got it passed, it was led by Democrats in the Senate and one Republican. So now, you got it reversed, but you got to remember that during the ’60s under, I guess you’d call him Mr. Nixon, the Republican Party developed the Southern Strategy. And so, as a result of the Southern Strategy, they became what old Democrats used to be. Those Republicans, they’re the same as the old Democrats.
Dr. Harvey: Sure. And to make sure I get my term right, they called them “Dixiecrats” at the time?
Dr. Yancy: Well, Dixiecrats were in the ’40s. ’48, ’49. They were the ones who walked out. As a matter of fact, the governor of Alabama was a Dixiecrat. He walked out of the Democratic Convention in ’48 with everybody else. Nobody would believe that. And then he went on and became a prominent segregationist. And they called themselves “Dixiecrats.”
Dr. Harvey: Right. So, in your thinking now, as you’re reflecting, or sort of beginning to connect, you know, the history to where we’re facing in our present day, what lessons do you think history gives us for our current civil rights efforts?
Dr. Yancy: Well, the one thing that I noticed that is a consistent trend, that you have to push for change, and fight for change, in order to influence the courts, or the legislative bodies, or the community. You have to organize, organize, organize. And it’s almost like Du Bois used to say, you have to agitate in season and out of season. And then you have to organize and agitate within groups. You have to have groups joining each other so you can have enough people to make a difference. And I’ll give you an example. When we had this past election, that was a major movement to organize by the Divine Nine. Now, you know, “the Divine Nine” are the black fraternities and sororities. And I’m a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the same one that our Vice President is a member of. And we organized all over this country in small groups, etc. And, we used technology to organize. We wrote letters, we sent postal cards to registered voters. Oh, you went out and you marched, you protested, you did everything. Everybody did what they could do. We sent emails, we sent all kinds of things to get people organized, to get them to the polls. “What is your plan for voting?” I got so many calls, and then we knocked on doors. In other words, that is what made that difference for Biden to win Georgia, for example. That made the difference when people organized all over this country. And that’s what you’ve got to do to get a new change. If you go back and look, you’ll see that even when you look at the Civil Rights Act of 1885, people were organized into groups. You have to organize to push for change. You can’t get tired. That’s the only way it’s gonna happen. If you sit back and you do nothing and you say nothing, that means you’re complacent and happy. And there will be no change, because nobody is demanding or asking or pushing for any change, because everything is just hunky dory. Everything is fine.
Dr. Harvey: And tell me, Dr. Yancy, I think that’s something that perhaps folks do not realize and recognize, that folks have been fighting for this a long time, and folks are tired.
Dr. Yancy: Well, the point is, every generation has to make its contribution. And there’s no time to be tired, to be very honest with you. I’ll give you an example. Just yesterday, one of my former employees sent me a video of the legislature in Colorado, and you are not going to believe this. This man is in the well, making a speech. A major one of the legislators. And referred to the black woman who is the head of the Black Caucus and everything as “Buckwheat.” They were trying to tell him his time was up. He said, “I’mma finish, Buckwheat!” Just “I’m finishing up, Buckwheat!” And he said, that’s a term of endearment. Can you believe that! This is, this is 2000-whatever-it-is. ’21. And this man was referring to this black woman—she took him on, she came down there, she moved from where she was and made him get out of the well. She made him get up there and apologize. She did all of that I said and more. But called her “Buckwheat”! And see, this business of language is doing the same kind of damage. And so our children are getting language at school that we don’t quite understand. And it’s done in ways that children sometimes don’t realize what they’re doing. One time when my daughter came home from first grade—she went to Lovett school here in Atlanta—and of course, you know, back in those days, there were hardly any black kids there. There were like two black kids in the first grade. So, she got in the car that day, and she asked me, she said, “Mommy, are we on welfare?” I said, what are you talking about? She said, well, one of my classmates…asked me if we were on welfare, because otherwise, how could I be at school? Who was paying for me to come to school? Because black people were all on welfare. This is how kids get this business of differences and things in their head, and segregation in many ways, and how they are better-than and all of this than other people. And they learn it at home. You know, this teaching that you get that’s not in the book. Informal education is probably the most vicious of all, and the things that people have learned from the past president who is no longer president, things that people learn from him, and the fact that they felt that they could say different things. You know, this man knew better than to say “Buckwheat.” You’ve got a congressman from Colorado, Neguse, who is excellent! Who has been all over television. And here’s this man calling the black lady “Buckwheat”!
Dr. Harvey: So, tell me, Dr. Yancy, for—you know, we’re recording this, we’re gonna have this for posterity—and again, you know, my prayer is that the next generation won’t have to listen to this, but just in case. So, what kind of advice would you give to the present-day liberators and activists?
Dr. Yancy: The first thing I would tell them is, read. Know your history. That is the first problem that you encounter; our kids don’t know their history. Sometimes you have to have school after school. I’m always reminded of—I taught in high school for two years. And one day, I got a strange request. I taught Black history. The janitors and the security guards came to me and asked me if I would teach them Black history after school. They were Black. And I told them yes. And I went to the superintendent and told him what I was gonna do. I just need to use the classroom after school to teach. And you know, there’s no money exchanged, nothing like that. I was just doing it. And so they, they took me to the Y and taught me bridge. They said, one day, you’re going to be a rising and up-and-coming young lady, and you’re gonna need to know how to play bridge. So that was our exchange: They taught me bridge, I taught them Black history. Now that’s saying something. You don’t find too many folk trying to learn Black history, but then you do. A lot of people still read, but there’s not enough reading taking place. And then you’ve got people teaching in the public schools who don’t bother to teach the history, because they don’t know it. They weren’t taught a history of other people in this country. They just know that, as a kid told me once at Hampton Institute, when I was teaching Hampton University—there was a white kid in my class. This is years ago, back in the ’60s. And so by the time I got to ’65—I mean, to 1865—he said “Dr. Yancy, I finally can participate in class today.” I said, “Why?” He said, “I know all about the Merrimack and the Monitor.” He said, “They had the fight right over there.” He pointed into the bay where the battle had taken place. He said, “That’s the only thing they taught us in high school was the Battle of the Merrimack and the Monitor.” He said, “They didn’t teach us anything about slavery.” Here we are, in Virginia. Right? So what is taught sometimes is just sort of glossed over. And until people understand what history is, and how you have to know your history to move forward, then I think we will continue to have a problem. I used to teach my daughter at home. I intentionally taught her, because I didn’t want her to grow up not knowing who she was. But everybody is not like that. And somehow, we’ve got to get the history taught. And then people have to understand there’s nothing wrong with speaking up when you see something wrong. You should speak up. There’s nothing special about being loved and liked when you see wrong. When you see wrong, you have to deal with it.
Edge Leadership began in 2020 with a series of in-person and online convenings. This article and multimedia story series features the thinking of Edge Leaders. Follow these talented, sector-crossing, forward thinking social change agents at @EdgeLeadership2020 on Instagram, via NPQ’s channels, and by joining our online platform experiment.