Hidden History: Lesser-known stories brought to light at National Civil Rights Museum

MEMPHIS (WNCT) – When it comes to the fight for civil rights, many have heard of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X.

Rosa Parks is another familiar name. She famously refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white woman in 1955.

“It would later be known as the birth of the civil rights movement,” said Ryan Jones who is the lead educator at the National Civil Rights Museum.

However, most people don’t know that the household name of Rosa Parks could have been replaced with Claudette Colvin or Mary Louise Smith

“Both, like Rosa Parks, decided to not give up their seat to a white person on a bus,” said Jones.

Fifteen-year-old Colvin was arrested in March of 1955. Smith was arrested in October 1955. Parks was arrested a couple of months later in December after a coordinated effort by the NAACP to bring awareness to segregation on the city buses.

Colvin, Smith and countless others may be lost in many history books, but not at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN. Everywhere you turn is a hidden hero waiting to be found, such as Bayard Rustin.

Rustin spoke before more than 250,000 people at the March on Washington in 1963. He spoke right after Dr. King’s famous “I have a dream” speech”.

“He goes on right after arguably one of the most important speeches ever given in the United States,” said Jones.

However King’s “I have a dream” speech might have never happened had it not been for Rustin.

“Bayard Rustin, if you’re looking at the March on Washington as a motion picture, he was not only the director, he was also the producer,” said Jones.

The West Chester, Pennsylvania native had his hand in everything in planning that historic march. He was in charge of training the security, writing slogans and the lineup of the speeches.

“He had to remain behind the scenes because he was openly gay and in the 50’s and 60’s it was extremely taboo,” said Jones.

Another hidden hero was a man leading the fight in the most violent city in America. Birmingham was where a bus carrying freedom riders was bombed and dogs were sent after black children.

Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth led a number of protests and marches in the city. As a result of his work he was a target of the Ku Klux Klan and his home was even bombed.

Rev. Shuttlesworth was also a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC’s first and most notable President was Dr. King.

Shuttlesworth encouraged Dr. King, to come to Birmingham and make the city the focus of the civil rights movement.

“Had it not been for the courage and insistence of Fred Shuttlesworth to invite Dr. King to Birmingham, it’s unsure if segregation would have ended as a result of the civil rights bill signed the following summer,” said Jones.

The fight for civil rights had many faces and they all have a home at the National Civil Rights Museum where they can forever be remembered.

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