Two little known pioneers in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s died within days of each other.
Fifty years ago today Vivian Malone and James Hood famously faced segregationist governor George Wallace on the front steps of the University of Alabama auditorium and became the first African-American students to be enrolled at the school. That moment would become one of the most iconic of the civil rights movement, but Malone and Hood were not alone in helping to integrate America’s institutions. On the 50th anniversary of their historic achievement—and just one day before the nation marks 50 years since the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers—Susan Soper takes a look at two individuals who, five decades ago, were foot soldiers in the struggle for equal rights.
Two little known pioneers in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s—just a year apart in age—died within days of each other, in different states, but both have left lasting legacies of triumph through their perseverance. Hopefully, they might have heard of each other and gained strength in the other’s fight—both of which took place in 1963.
Mildred Smith, 83, who died in Hampton, Virginia on May 1, 2013, was known as the “Tidewater’s Rosa Parks.” In 1963, she and two other African-American nurses protested against Dixie Hospital’s policy of barring Black people from the cafeteria.
In those days, African-American employees often ate standing up in a classroom-type space. When the trio of nurses dared to go through the cafeteria line and eat with the Whites, they were fired. Smith and her two co-workers filed suit in federal court against the hospital on the basis that the hospital was receiving federal funds while preserving segregation. They won, and the suit largely led to the integration of hospitals throughout the state. “We were tired of taking a back seat,” Mildred Smith said at the time.
Not long after her death, the Rev. Nimrod Q. Reynolds died in Anniston, Alabama at the age of 82. In 1963, he was beaten by Whites as he and others tried to enter the segregated city’s public library. (At that time, Black citizens were not allowed to use the library at all.) While he was bedridden from the injuries, fellow clergymen returned the next day to integrate the library.
Reynolds was already a veteran of the pulpit when he came to Anniston in 1960. Born in Chambers County, Alabama in 1931, Reynolds preached his first sermon at age 17, and went on to Clark College in Atlanta and Interdenominational Theological Seminary before arriving in the Model City. From the beginning, he had a simple message for Anniston: it was time to integrate.
Reynolds became a leader in East Alabama in the fight against discrimination, poverty and injustice. Four years after the Montgomery bus boycott Reynolds formed the Anniston Improvement Association that would later become the local branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Rev. Joseph Lowery, founder of the SCLC, called him a “chaplain of the common good.”
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit™, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has been a reporter with Newsday, writer for CNN, and Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called “Living with Grief.”