BLACK KNIGHTS, WHITE KNIGHTS Why did they do it?

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(NNPA)—Why did Norman Redlich, Clara Luper, and Paul E. Sullivan act as if the words of the Declaration of Independence about “self-evident truths” and “inalienable rights” were not just rhetoric but had an actual meaning for American society? Why didn’t they leave well enough alone?

Because they knew “well enough” wasn’t good enough.

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LEGENDARY ACTIVIST—In this Aug. 9, 1983 photo, Oklahoma Civil Rights Leader Clara Luper poses with one of the many photographs from her scrap books at a North East Oklahoma city Community center in Oklahoma City, Okla. (AP Photo/File)

Sullivan, Redlich, and Luper were troublemakers. They insisted on disturbing a profoundly unjust peace. They not only believed that the suffocating racism that blanketed America during the Jim Crow era was wrong, they were determined to help eliminate it.

Luper, 88, Sullivan, 87, and Redlich, 85 all died recently–Sullivan in March, Luper and Redlich just last week.

They lived in different parts of the country, and there’s no evidence they ever met. But the contributions they separately made to the Black freedom struggle of the 20th century illuminate a great truth about the Civil Rights Movement.

That is that its ultimate success was only partly due to the work of the large civil rights organizations and the famed names-we-all-know. In fact, they share equal billing with hundreds, even thousands of ordinary folk whose acts of courage and commitment— which often drew little or no attention—were equally essential to transforming America from an apartheid state to a democracy, to making the America of their time into the America we know now.

Clara Luper was, as the New York Times obituary described her, “a seminal figure” of the sit-ins phase of the Movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The sit-ins were a crucial development not only because they expanded the direct involvement of ordinary Black Americans in civil rights activities—and committed them to nonviolent action. They also presented to White Americans and a world increasingly able to view America through the magic of television a stark tableau of decency and civility, on the one hand, versus, on the other, callousness and physical violence.

Luper was a high school history teacher in Oklahoma City, Okla., in 1957 when she agreed to become the adviser to the youth council of the local NAACP. Her involvement in direct action attacks against segregation spiraled from that point: she led three other adult chaperones and a group of students on their first sit-in in the city in August 1958–four years after the Brown decision; one year after the Little Rock school desegregation crisis erupted in neighboring Arkansas.

In that regard, it is instructive that at nearly the same time the late scholar and activist, Ron Walters, as president of the NAACP youth council “next door” in Wichita, Kan., led what is widely believed to be the first lunch counter sit-ins to protest racial discrimination in public accommodations.

The same sense of knowing what was right and that now was the time to do it motivated Paul E. Sullivan, in 1965, to undertake a battle that many of his neighbors and Whites elsewhere undoubtedly said was not his fight. Sullivan, an Irish-Catholic from Boston, a Navy veteran and a Georgetown University graduate, was a federal employee living comfortably with his wife and seven children in a suburban Washington enclave in Virginia. It was the stereotypical version of the American Dream: residence in the enclave carried with it membership in the subdivision’s swimming pool club.

That is, until the enclave’s first Black family moved into the neighborhood. Club officials barred them. Sullivan, who had no history of involvement with civil rights issues, protested and sought to convince other residents to join him in challenging the decision. While some agreed with him, none would say so publicly. In retaliation, club officials barred the Sullivan family from the club as well. As the Washington Post put it, “And Paul Sullivan found a lawyer.”

Sullivan’s lawyer was a renowned civil rights attorney, Allison Brown, who brought the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund into the case as his co-counsel. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that the swimming club had engaged in illegal discrimination, a decision which had an enormous impact in those years when Blacks were moving in significant numbers into formerly all-White neighborhoods through­out Washington D.C.’s Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

The contributions of Norman Redlich, former Dean of the New York University School of Law, to expanding the scope of justice and civil liberties are, of course, well known.

In 1948, while a student at Yale Law School and a member of the Yale Law Journal, Redlich wrote an unsigned article for the publication examining the mission and methods of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Committee on Law and Social Action of the American Jewish Congress, and LDF. In doing so, he corresponded directly with Thurgood Marshall and other members of the LDF staff.

In that article, Redlich made the prescient point that the CLSA and LDF had recognized the need “to carve out new and more extensive rights rather than merely to defend an individual against violations of clearly recognized rights. … The need for personnel trained in sociology and public relations will increase as (LDF’s) efforts become directed at the less obvious forms of (anti-) Negro discrimination.”

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