Civil rights leader to speak at MLK celebration

'Bloody Sunday' survivor to talk about what it takes to make change happen

By Angela Decker
For the Tidings

Posted Jan. 13, 2015 at 8:20 PM
Updated Jan 14, 2015 at 10:32 AM

In 1960s Alabama, teenager Geneva Craig was jailed, beaten, tear-gassed and threatened, yet she was determined to fight for social justice. “I was angry at all the unfairness I saw, and when the movement came to Selma, I was the first in line,” said Craig, who is now a registered nurse and clinical program coordinator for Asante in Medford, and Oregon chairwoman of AARP’s Diversity Advisory Council.
Craig will be the keynote speaker at Ashland’s 26th annual Martin Luther King Celebration at noon Monday, Jan. 19 . She will talk about her experiences during the civil rights movement and her encounters with Dr. Martin Luther King. She credits Dr. King with giving her advice that has helped her throughout her life. “He told me I needed to learn patience,” she said. “His words stuck, and learning patience has been a great gift for me.”
Dr. King spoke at Selma’s Brown Chapel, and convinced Craig to keep her protest activities peaceful. Early in the movement, she and other teens tried to enforce boycotts of stores that didn’t support the cause by snatching and tossing the purchases from the blacks who continued to shop at those places. King asked for the leader of these activities, and when all eyes turned to Craig, he asked her if she could help put a stop to the practice. “I said, ‘Dr. King, I will talk to the people involved,'” Craig said.
The fight for equal rights was just as hard on the young people as it was the adults, says Craig. “I lost count of how many times I went to jail. It didn’t matter if you were a kid, you slept on the floor and got knocked around just like everyone else,” she said. She learned to dress in layers, knowing that the jail floor was cold, and that thick clothing decreased the pain when the police hit her with billy clubs or cattle prods.
Even though the U.S. Constitution’s 15th Amendment guaranteed male citizens the right to vote, Southern states in particular found ways, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, to prevent blacks from voting. “We couldn’t vote, we couldn’t get an education; they told us what we could learn and who we could be. We had to hold our heads down in the presence of whites, be polite to people who didn’t see us as people,” said Craig. “I’d rather be dead than live like that.”
In 1965, Craig and her younger brother were part of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in what became known as Bloody Sunday. About 600 civil rights activists intending to march from Selma to the state capitol met a blockade of state troopers, local police and an angry white mob. The troopers attacked the crowd with clubs and tear gas. Police on horseback chased the retreating marchers and beat them.
“It was chaos and brutality, there was blood everywhere. I’d never seen such hatred in people’s eyes,” said Craig. “All I could think of was that I had to get my brother out of there. We were choking on tear gas and couldn’t see anything, but we crawled along the steep bank of the river and clung there till it was safe.”
Televised images of the violence roused support for Selma’s voting rights movement, which led to passage of the Federal Voting Rights Act later that year. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Federal Voting Rights Act.
Craig’s faith in the civil rights movement and her anger at the injustices blacks endured kept her motivated in spite of the dangers.
“In all things, you have to have patience, persistence and a belief in what you do. We knew we would keep fighting no matter what,” she said. Craig says the music of the time, songs such as “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,” helped sustain her and the other activists. “Singing gave us strength, eased our fear. We’d sing in jail, we’d sing when they zapped us with a cattle prod. We’d sing when we were cold or frightened. We’d sing when they smacked us and called us n—ers. We’d sing from the bottom of our souls.”
As she recalls the civil rights movement of the 1960s, she also acknowledges the movement is ongoing today, and she says everyone should stand up and be heard, particularly young people. “Never wait for an institution to provide what you need. Speak up for yourself,” said Craig.
Reach Ashland freelance writer Angela Decker at [email protected].

Morning Brief Newsletter
Sign up today for our daily newsletter, a quick overview of top local stories and Oregon breaking news delivered directly to your inbox
You can unsubscribe at any time
Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.