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