In just the past few weeks, there have been dozens of stories in the news centered around African American history.
The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. The role the Freedom Singers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee played in the movement. And Georgia Rep. John Lewis’ debut as a comic book writer recounting the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
This week, Congress gave medals to surviving family members from the 1963 Birmingham church bombing.
What’s often missing from those stories, however, are people like Wilda Person Crawford, Annette Jones White and scores of other foot soldiers from the civil rights movement who remain, well, invisible.
Crawford and White, both 74, were among the thousands of college students from across the country who took a stand against the vestiges of Jim Crow: segregated schools, segregated transportation systems, segregated lunch counters.
They would pay a terrible price.
And although the historically black Albany State University, formerly Albany State College, honored them recently for their roles, 50 years ago, they kicked them out.
“These were students who sacrificed their education, their safety for the cause,” said Nyota Tucker, chief of staff at Albany State. “They saw the need to stand up and fight for a cause that was bigger than themselves. Because of that, they helped fuel a movement that changed the way this nation treated people of color and that was heroic.”
In separate interviews last week, Crawford and White said they didn’t see themselves as heroes. They were simply born into the movement, they said.
Albany, their birthplace, was much like other southern towns where African-American were considered second-class citizens and treated as such.
“It was terrible,” Crawford said in the third floor apartment she shares with her husband near downtown Atlanta. “It was a very prejudiced town. We were limited to things we could do. We couldn’t drink from the same water fountains as whites. We could only ride in the back of the bus. Any time we went into a store, we were watched. We were treated like animals.”
Even the public library, the playground at the zoo and restaurants were off limits for African Americans, White said.
“You were the last to be waited on even if you were first in line,” she said. “Police officers could walk into your house without knocking and drag you out without a warrant. There was an unwritten law that black people had to move off the downtown sidewalk and let whites pass.”
And so, by the time Crawford and White arrived on the campus of Albany State, they’d had enough. When the Albany movement got underway in 1961, they were both seniors nearing graduation.
At first, Crawford said, she hesitated joining the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee protests. Her father counseled her against participating. Her mother’s response was, why not?
“The more I heard about them, the more certain I became,” she said. “I knew I had to get involved.”
Both women participated in sit-ins at lunch counters and sit-ins at the Albany Carnegie public library. Both marched against segregated seating in the city transportation system. Both were arrested and later expelled from Albany State for their participation in the protests.
White, who’d just been crowned Miss Albany State, lost her title and the scholarships that came with it. Neither of them was able to graduate that year.
Crawford returned a year later and earned a bachelor’s degree in education. In 1964, White earned a bachelor of arts in English from Spelman College, from which she retired in 1998 as director of the college’s child development center and lecturer in the Education Department.
Both were awarded honorary degrees at Albany State, along with some 30 others, about half posthumously. White’s Miss Albany State crown was restored.
Tucker said the recognition was 50 years late, but it amounted to a public acknowledgement that what the students did was the right thing to do and that administrators were wrong in expelling them. She added that, even after 50 years, “who better to serve as role models for our current students than former students who decades earlier helped to change this nation for the better.”
“They saw the greater good but were punished for it,” Tucker said. “We thought we should at least recognize the heroic and historic acts they took at a time when they risked everything, including their lives.”
In many ways, Tucker said, the school is making atonement because it wasn’t just the system that had done them wrong, the university made decisions that didn’t support them as the thinkers and visionaries that they were.
The university’s decision to expel her never sat well with White. To finally have the university recognize that the student protests were appropriate and did not merit dismissal, she said, gave closure to the pain they’d felt for half a century.
“I didn’t care about the public recognition,” White said. “It was a personal, hurting thing to have my school treat me in such a manner.”
However late, she and Crawford said acknowledgment from the university that they were right felt good.
“I didn’t know what to do with myself I felt so honored,” Crawford said. “They treated us like royalty.”