"We accomplished the removal of the wall, the curtain of fear in Mississippi for African Americans demanding their rights. We eliminated the isolation of African Americans from the political process. I believe that Mississippi now has the highest number of African American elected officials in the nation. We laid the groundwork for that. We really were the true Democratic Party."
Those were the words of pioneering civil rights activist Victoria Jackson Gray Adams, who passed away on Aug. 12. Victoria Gray, as I knew her from my early civil rights lawyer days in Mississippi, was one of the founders of the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which mounted a historic challenge to the all-White official Mississippi state delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
Earlier that year, she became the first woman from Mississippi to run for the United States Senate. As she said, her brave actions helped break down barriers of fear and tradition and change the political process in Mississippi and the rest of the nation.
Victoria Gray Adams was born in 1926 in Palmers Crossing, Miss., a Black community that is now part of Hattiesburg. As a child growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, she had plenty of personal experience with segregation. After graduating from high school in 1945, she enrolled at Wilberforce University in Ohio, but had to return home after a year when tuition money ran out. She started a family and became a successful businesswoman, selling cosmetics door-to-door.
When civil rights workers first came to Hattiesburg, many Black churches and families were afraid to welcome them, but Adams stood up and was instrumental in helping house the workers and making sure her church would allow them to hold meetings there. The workers immediately saw and appreciated her leadership in the community and urged her to become an active participant.
She became one of the first people from her area to attend the citizenship schools run by the late, great Septima Clark, which trained people to return home and engage in voter education and registration in their own communities. Gray later remembered her first experiences quietly teaching night-time "literacy classes," which also served as citizenship and voter education classes, to a small group of fellow Blacks.
"At the end of every class period, we would sing, 'We shall overcome, we shall overcome, someday,' " she recalled. "So we were doing that ritual, and I remember saying to myself, 'You've got to be kidding. You have got to be kidding. What on earth is this group going to overcome?' I never forgot that, because Hattiesburg had one of the most vibrant citizen movements of that time. And it grew, to a large extent, from that little band of people."
As a founding member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, she ignored the potential danger to her own safety when she agreed to be the party's candidate to challenge powerful segregationist John Stennis for his Senate seat in 1964. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party's next step was to challenge its state's segregated delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
The party members' attempt to be seated brought them national attention and sympathy, as thousands of Americans watched the television coverage of party Vice Chair Fannie Lou Hamer's legendary testimony explaining their cause. The party's actions changed the way states could choose their delegations for good.
Victoria Gray Adams never wavered in her struggle to transform our nation for the better. She also never stopped reminding others that the need for workers is still strong. As she said in an interview a few years ago, "People talk about marches, and the marches were important, they played a tremendous role.
"But where did those marches come from? What precipitated it? Where did people get the courage after 100 years to rise up and begin to do that, knowing full well that they were taking their lives in their hands? Even though you might have seen thousands of people out there marching, that whole thing started somewhere, with somebody."
Victoria Gray Adams took the bold step of choosing to be one of those somebodies. Her example is a strong reminder to the rest of us, in the post-Katrina era, that choosing to be a somebody for justice is as crucial as ever.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund.