Great Lives Keep Black History Strong
By EVAN HICKS
At times, black history month can seem like a half-hearted apology, a month of politically correct pablum that college students have heard a thousand times before, but at Mary Washington the Great Lives lecture series is giving students a closer, more personal look at significant figures from black history.
The University of Mary Washington has honored Black History month by making it what it should truly be, a celebration of hard-fought battles for change and of the people who fought those battles.
The University sponsored multiple events, asked Angela Davis to present the keynote lecture, and the Great Lives series hosted lectures on the Lovings and their historic Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, and Jackie Robinson.
On Feb. 14, the Great Lives series hosted a panel discussion on Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who were charged with violating a Virginia statute banning interracial marriages. The Lovings were found guilty of violating the state’s miscegenation law and were forced to leave the state of Virginia. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, they fought to have the law overturned and eventually succeeded when the Supreme Court ruled in their favor.
Associate Director of the Chappell Great Lives lecture series Charles Shields interviewed Bernard S. Cohen, one of the two lawyers who represented the Lovings, and Peggy Fortune, the couples’ only surviving child.
After the discussion, Cohen was asked how influential was the Loving v. Virginia case was in furthering the Civil Rights Movement.
“I think it put the nail in the coffin of segregation,” he responded. “My partner called it the segregation statute, I just called it the plain-old hate statute.”
He listed Atticus Finch as an early inspiration for his legal career and took the Lovings case on pro-bono after then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy referred the couple to the ACLU for help.
Fortune said that what gave her parents the strength and conviction to fight the law and to see the case to the end was determination.
“The determination of going home,” she explained. “My Mom wanted to be with her family and my father was determined to support her and get us back to Virginia, and of course, faith in God.”
On Feb. 16, two days after the Loving lecture, the Great Lives Series hosted biographer Jonathan Eig to speak on Jackie Robinson.
Rather than tracing the entire course of Robinson’s life, Eig focused on Robinson’s upbringing and his first season with the Dodgers in 1947, presenting a comprehensive history of Robinson’s life that most people are unaware of.
Robinson’s older brother Mack was an Olympian who won a silver medal in the 200 meter sprint in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, losing by .04 seconds to Jessie Owens. However, when Mack returned home, he was unable to find work because of his race and had to sweep streets, which he chose to do in his Olympic Games jacket. Eig also spoke about the incredible pressure and danger that Robinson endured in his first season, when the baseball legend faced verbal and physical attacks.
Eig tied Robinson’s story together with larger historical changes, showing just how influential one baseball player was. After Robinson’s first season in the Majors, President Harry Truman called for the integration of the military and his report mentioned the integration of Major League Baseball as indication of the need to change.
A young man interviewed Robinson for his high school paper, but when he went to see Robinson play, he was so appalled by the racist taunts of the spectators, that the next year, he started an ACLU chapter on his college’s campus and became one of the organization’s top fundraisers. Most impressively, Robinson won over his teammates and the Brooklyn fans when he helped the Dodgers clinch the National League Pennant.
These lectures serve to show that Black History Month isn’t just the story of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, but of individual men and women standing up for their rights and demonstrating that they deserve them just as much as the privileged majority.
The next Great Lives lecture will be Thursday, Feb. 23 when John A. Farrell, author of Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned, will speak on Clarence Darrow.