Kristal Brent Zook, an adjunct professor at Columbia University and prolific writer whose essays and articles on race, gender and politics have appeared in leading publications, implored those who want to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory to appreciate the efforts of the lesser known activists he inspired.
“Dr. King wasn’t well known when he led the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956,” Zook told a crowd of nearly 75 at her address Monday evening in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church for Lehigh’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. “Almost overnight, he became a national hero who went on to lead the emerging civil rights movement.
“But what happened wasn’t the work of one man,” she continued. “In that case, nearly 15,000 Montgomery citizens took a stand. And their actions led to other protests and movements, and those people are only footnotes of the civil rights movement.”
Taking a stand
To illustrate her point, Zook recounted the story of Sarah Claree White, now a middle-aged grandmother who led one of the largest strikes of black workers and was successful in improving the working conditions at a Mississippi Delta Pride catfish plant in the 1980s.
Faced with limited employment opportunities in a region where thousands of homes did not have adequate plumbing and where poverty rates hovered at 30 percent, the primarily female workers in the area were subjected to long hours, dangerous and inhumane working conditions, and abusive treatment by superiors.
“The job, as bad as it was, presented an opportunity,” Zook said. “And in her town, opportunities were hard to come by.”
Zook noted that, as “perverse evidence of the plantation mentality, workers had to ask permission to relieve themselves, and were often refused. As a result, grown women had taken to wearing diapers as a precaution.”
Supervisors often followed the women to the bathroom, where they would remain.
“They used egg-timers to make sure the entire procedure took less than a minute,” Zook said. “They even removed stall doors to discourage dawdling.”
The workers, she said, “felt that humiliation was part of the culture to remind them of their place, a holdover from the slave era.”
Despite threats from management and the possibility of economic disaster, the workers formed a labor union, promoted a boycott that severely hurt company profits, and ultimately prevailed. Within months, the workers had a new contract and plans for a more humane and fair working environment.
“It didn’t come easy,” Zook said. “But White was motivated. When I asked her why she risked so much, she told me that, ‘When you get a taste of what prejudice feels like, it hurts, and when you get a taste of freedom, you never forget it.’ ”
’Hopelessness is not an option’
White’s story, Zook said, is only one of countless tales of personal courage in the ongoing struggle for economic justice and political power.
“The fight continues,” she said. “An African-American female is 20 times more likely to be HIV-positive than a white female. Only 18 percent of black women graduate from college, compared to roughly 35 percent of white women. And the basic concern of many black families is just living day to day.
“I don’t have the answer to these problems,” she said. “But I do know this: Dr. King did show us the way. He knew that hopelessness was not an option, and he gave us the courage to move on.”
Zook’s talk capped a day-long series of Lehigh events that were organized and sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Africana Studies, the Humanities Center, the Women’s Center, InterVarsity and Reformed University Fellowship.
Earlier in the day, Lehigh hosted an interfaith prayer breakfast in the University Center, and held a “not-quite-brown-bag” luncheon in the U.C. to discuss the topic of “White Privilege and Christian Privilege.”
The events underscore the “university’s efforts to create a more diverse and multicultural learning environment for our students and to honor the courageous and powerful work of Dr. King,” according to Stephan Coggs, assistant dean of multicultural affairs.