History Lived, Lessons Learned

Charlayne Hunter-Gault on her place among the sister freedom fighters.

Myrlie Evers, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Dorothy Height (seated) Sonia Sanchez and Kathleen Cleaver.

Most of us are dead.

But five of us are not. We are among the 20 African American women chosen by a group of educators and black history experts to be featured in a traveling exhibition called "Freedom's Sisters."

And on a Friday night in mid-March at the Cincinnati Museum Center, the five of us whose lives intersected with historic moments in the struggle for freedom and dignity for African Americans got together to celebrate a long over-due tribute. It was a tribute not merely to us as individuals, but to us as symbols of the countless women who were the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement.

My flight from Johannesburg was a flight from hell. I had a lingering sinus infection, and I missed my connection in Paris, which then resulted in me missing the connection that would have put me in Cincinnati in time for the small, intimate dinner that kicked off the weekend. I arrived in Cincinnati seven and a half hours late, and I was still exhausted the next morning when I arrived for a preview of the exhibition.

My fatigue and frustration fell away, however, when I met up with the four other living "Freedom's Sisters": Dorothy Height (1912-) now 95 years-old and in a wheel chair, but with a mind as sharp as her broad-brimmed, velvet crimson hat was chic; Myrlie Evers(1933-), who built her own legacy of fighting for justice following the 1963 murder of her husband Medgar in their driveway in Mississippi; Kathleen Cleaver (1945-), the radical revolutionary turned prominent legal scholar and educator; and Sonia Sanchez (1934-) , the renowned poet and scholar, who, realizing as soon as we spoke that morning that I was suffering from a sore throat, promptly handed me a ginger candy from her bag and made me a cup of green tea.

That gesture said it all about the "Freedom Sisters," the women who had inspired me during my own brush with history, when I walked onto the campus of the University of Georgia, under court order and through hostile white mobs, to enroll as the first black woman student in the school's 175 year-old history. Freedom's Sisters earned their stripes, not by not doing what they had to do, but doing anything necessary to do to be of service. Or as Dorothy Height said that morning: "This exhibit reminds us that African American women have seldom done just want they want to do."

I reiterated that sentiment later, during the tear-jerking ceremonies before a rainbow-colored crowd of Cincinnatians, saying: "…She faced the raw acts of hatred, even as her head was lashed with blows from a policeman's stick, took a back seat to the brothers, but… pushed from her position of interior strength, … went to jail without bail for freedom … did it all in the face of what may have seemed like impossible odds."

Later, Dorothy gave us some insights into one woman's way of getting her due. She told us that she actually was the one female included, along with the male leaders, in many of the important civil rights meetings with presidents and others. But she said it took awhile to realize that when picture-taking time came, she was always on the end, making it easy for her image to be always cropped out of the publicity photos in newspapers and magazines. Finally, she said, she decided to take matters into her own hands: "I just started moving to the middle." And to be sure, Dorothy Height was almost always the lone woman in the middle of the action. But however alone she was, did she ever REPRESENT.

As I walked ever so slowly through the 20 interactive kiosks that make up the exhibition, I was struck anew by the courage of my sisters -- those on whose shoulders I stood, and those with whom I shared our moment.

There was one display for Rosa Parks (1918-2005). The space featured several seats against a wall looking like the inside of a bus. I was prompted by the guide to push a button and look forward. As I did, the first image I saw was of myself in a mirror. The second was Rosa Parks looking back at me from what looked like a seat on the bus in front of me on the other side. It took me to Birmingham and that now historic day in 1955 when Parks refused to give up her seat after being ordered to get up to make room for a white man. On that day she was arrested, and she became the Mother of the modern Civil Rights Movement, opening a door that I and other college students would walk through six years later, when we spilled from our classrooms into the streets shouting "Freedom Now."