(NNPA)—This is the first major civil rights organization of our culture that has given me an honorary opportunity with this particular gift.
The speaker was Rev. Al Sampson, a longtime civil rights activist and pastor of Fenwood United Methodist Church in Chicago. The gift he was referring to was Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network’s decision to honor Rev. Sampson along with former Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Charles Steele Jr.; Barbara Shaw, board chair of the National Council of Negro Women, and me with a Rev. Dr. William A. Jones Justice Award. The awards were presented by the Social Justice Initiative of NAN.
Reverend Sampson, who was ordained by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. two years prior to the civil rights leader’s assassination, was a movement stalwart. If you pick up any authoritative book on the modern civil rights movement, there will be at least one reference to Sampson, usually more.
Throughout his acceptance speech at the NAN convention that ended over the weekend, Sampson joked about all of the civil rights organizations that have never recognized his contributions. Beneath the laughter, however, there was deep pain. Not pain out of any need for public accolades, but pain that grew out of being ignored while others with lesser roles in the movement were allowed to take bows in public.
“Jesse Jackson and I came out of North Carolina,” Sampson noted. “He was a transfer student [from the University of Illinois to North Carolina A&T University]. We were part of the Black State Legislature for a week. We passed a public accommodations bill. But PUSH never gave me an award.
In her book, “My Life with Martin Luther King Jr.,” Coretta Scott King recalled an incident in Chicago when a teenage gang member who had come to visit Dr. King complained about SCLC allowing Whites to participate in the movement. She wrote, ‘Al told them that there were a lot of White people who were helping our Cause and that some had even died for us.’”
“Bearing the Cross,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by David A. Garrow, recounted how outspoken Sampson was as a young civil rights organizer with SCLC. Writing about tension between local residents of Natchez, Miss. and SCLC organizers, Garrow wrote: “The breach had become more irreparable when SCLC’s Al Sampson ‘had denounced the local leadership in general and the NAACP by name, as unreliable, untrustworthy, and incapable’ at an Oct. 18 mass meeting.”
Before joining SCLC, Sampson had been executive secretary of the Atlanta branch of the NAACP. “The NAACP, I’m the only person, along with Albert Dunn and Charles Wells, that got arrested in Atlanta, Ga.,” Sampson said. “Constance Baker Motley [who wrote the original complaint in Brown v. Board of Education and later became the first Black woman judge appointed to the federal bench] was my attorney. Burke Marshall was the special counsel for the Justice Department and I’m the first person in America to testify for the United States Civil Rights Bill on the [segregationist restaurant owner and later Georgia governor] Lester Maddox Pickrick Restaurant case…But the NAACP ain’t never gave me no award.” Sampson did more than take on Maddox, who closed his restaurant after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to avoid serving African-American customers.
Taylor Branch, author of a civil rights trilogy that won a Pulitzer Prize, wrote about the imprisonment of Sampson in Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Prison Farm, 200 miles north of the Mississippi Delta. In one of his books, “At Canaan’s Edge,” Branch wrote, “Prisoners smuggled out word that guards were beating the known leaders including SCLC’s Rev. Al Sampson and that the 409 Natchez inmates were stripped, force-fed laxatives, and chilled by night fans.” Later in the book, Branch described how Sampson, Rev. Archie Hargraves and Bill Clark formed “a human shield around three terrified Puerto Rican men” in Chicago who had been cornered by a street gang.
“In Coretta’s book—she got a book, “My Life with Martin Luther King”—she mentions James Orange, James Bevel and myself living with Dr. King on the West Side of Chicago, on 16th and Hamlin,” Sampson said. “I’m all up in the book. But they built a development for him last week and flew Marty King in—that’s alright. But I was on the property, in the building, documented by the mama but they didn’t invite me.”
SNCC was formed at a meeting on the campus of Shaw University while Sampson was enrolled there. I gave SNCC the keys to Tucker Hall at Shaw University because they didn’t have no meeting place,” Sampson said. “I would have been a member of SNCC but I was already president of the NAACP on campus. They had a reunion last summer. They didn’t invite me and they didn’t give me no award.”
Once NAN made the decision to honor Sampson, he took extra precaution.
“I didn’t sleep much last night,” he told the audience in New York. “I’ve been behaving myself the last two days because I didn’t want Brother Richardson [Board Chairman W. Franklyn Richardson] or Al Sharpton to take my award from me.”
Although Sampson kept everyone at the ceremony laughing, ignoring his role in the movement was no joke.
(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his website, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.)