By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
Dr. Joanne Harris Lucas, a retired Virginia Beach educator, still cherishes a keepsake autograph that the Rev. Dr. Martin L. King Jr. scrawled on the back of a souvenir program and handed to her father, the Rev. Dr. Curtis Harris who pastored Union Baptist Church in Hopewell, Va. for five decades, and was arrested nearly 15 times before he became the town’s first African-American mayor.
Lucas was only 8 when King, who would have turned 91 on Jan. 15, wrote, “Best wishes to the daughter of a great Freedom Fighter.”
In a sense, the cherished souvenir program that her father brought home from a 1960’s civil-rights rally in Suffolk is a reminder of how King had a knack for seeing bright possibilities in the darkest situations. In other words, King sent the autograph to Harris’ daughter around 1961.
It had a prophetic ring because although the 1954 Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision had outlawed segregated public schools– there was a dark side. The desegregation of public schools actually began in Virginia Feb. 2, 1959, and continued through the early 1970’s when the state government’s Massive Resistance attempts ended. This means Lucas received King’s autograph amid strident public outcry–while public schools were being integrated and about four years before the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, a landmark piece of federal legislation that prohibited racial discrimination in voting.
This may explain why King included the words Freedom Fighters in his autograph The term refers to a group of multiracial student volunteers that Bob Moses organized in the 1960’s at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Freedom Riders left Ohio and tried to use “whites-only” restrooms and lunch counters at bus stations in Alabama, South Carolina and other Southern states. The point is the term Freedom Fighters, as it appears on Lucas autographed souvenir program, is clearly prophetic and is consistent with other famous messages King penned, including “I Have A Dream” because it focuses on the future, not the present.
“To have the program autographed to me was a great honor,” said Lucas, who grew up and achieved honors that would not have been impossible during the Jim Crow era. For example, she earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, her master’s at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, and her doctoral degree at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.
“In the autograph, he acknowledged my father’s contributions,” Lucas said, in a recent phone interview with The New Journal and Guide. “I am grateful. My father was a great Freedom Fighter. I appreciate everything that he wrote in the (souvenir) program when I look at it. My Mom kept the program for many years and laminated it because she knew it was important.” Lucas paused and said, laughing, “I probably would have thrown it away by now. But my Mom knew it was important.”
If you look closely at the souvenir program that Dr. King autographed, you will notice that his message aimed to describe an era that existed only in the mind’s eye of Freedom Fighters. The point is long before newly minted laws ended the brutal Jim Crow system in the 1960’s, freedom already existed in the minds of many including King and her father, who said in a 2003 interview in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “In the past, segregation was the rule of law, and we accepted it fully in housing, in education, and the church, and every other way. I never accepted it.”
This means the way Freedom Fighters left Ohio aiming to challenge a brutal system in the South that conferred freedom to some and denied freedom to others, her father spent his life doing likewise. He was arrested 13 times for civil disobedience during his years of involvement in the civil rights movement. Specifically, Harris was charged with contempt by the Boatwright Committee of the Virginia General Assembly for not revealing the names of individuals associated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and not responding to the questions asked by the committee in court proceedings. On March 29, 1962, Dr. King along with more than 100 Virginia ministers and laymen accompanied Harris to his contempt trial in Hopewell.
His bio shows her father was a Freedom Fighter all of his life. For example in 1950 her father was elected president of the Hopewell chapter of the NAACP. In 1960, her father helped to organize the Hopewell Improvement Association, an affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and was elected vice president. He was named to the board of directors of the National SCLC in 1961 while King was president. Also in 1961, her father worked with Dr. King on multiple civil rights initiatives, including the March on Washington and the 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery. Her father served as president of the Virginia State Unit of SCLC from 1963–1998, and was elected the national SCLC vice president in 2005.
While her father was working with Dr. King and other freedom fighters to change the laws of the land, Lucas and her brothers were reaping the benefits. In 1963, she and her brothers attended newly integrated public schools in Hopewell.
“My brothers and my dad also went to the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963,” she added. “Virginia in 1963 hosted the national SCLC convention held at Virginia Union in Richmond. My father was the host. He was the president of the Virginia SCLC and they hosted the seventh annual conference from Sept. 24-27, 1963.”
She said, “My father also acted as a human shield for Dr. King in Selma when they were marching. I didn’t meet him until a few years later at about age 12. I met him in Suffolk at a mass meeting for the SCLC. It was held outside in a stadium. I cannot remember where it was held in Suffolk but I was sitting on the platform and Dr. King was sitting in front of me. What I do remember is that somebody wanted to pass a note to Dr. King and they gave me the note. I tapped him on the shoulder and handed him the note. I never spoke to Dr. King but I was in awe. Dr. King was a great man.”
Lucas said, “The first time I saw my dad cry was in the fifth grade. I came home from school and saw my dad crying because Dr. King had died. My Dad was weeping when I walked into the house from school that day. We got out of school early that day because of his death. When I walked home that day two white girls were talking about him being dead. They said, ‘He was just another nigger.’ My dad’s weeping made me understand Dr. King was special and important. That was an eventful day.”
But Dr. King’s 1968 death did not end her father’s career as a Freedom Fighter. In 1987, her father led a march against discrimination in Colonial Heights, Va. In 1996, he filed a discrimination complaint against Fort Lee, Va. military unit. In 2007, Harris marched against a proposed ethanol plant being built in Hopewell with support from the national SCLC.
Lucas, who said she probably would have discarded the souvenir program years ago if her Mom had not saved it, said her Mom launched the family’s interest in civil rights. This is what happened. Her Mom drove the family’s new car to a civil rights rally in Petersburg and lingered to the point that her father became concerned about her safety. “My mother came home late, very excited about the movement. She thought we should join the movement. She was the initiator,” Lucas said.
However, Lucas’ father took it a step farther. He became a civil-rights icon because he not only refused to provide information to the Boatwright Committee of the Virginia General Assembly and was jailed nearly 15 times for refusing to provide information to the John B. Boatwright Committee. The Committee was launched to help write and implement many of the Massive Resistance laws that were passed in a special section of the Virginia General Assembly called by Governor Thomas B. Stanley in August 1956. The Committee’s initial report issued Nov. 13, 1957 recommended enforcing new laws against various NAACP lawyers who had testified in litigation that challenged racial segregation within the Commonwealth, and was approved by the General Assembly on Sept. 29, 1956. Records show, the Boatman effort soon reduced NAACP membership in Virginia by half.
But history shows that the Boatwright Committee and similar push back efforts nationwide slowed, delayed; but they never halted legislated change.
This is how her father described the turbulent but promising 1960s in a 2006 interview in the Richmond Times Dispatch. “No one really knows that they’re making history,” he said. “They do what they think needs to be done.There are a lot of things left to be done.”
This means that while Lucas and her brothers were attending newly integrating schools, taking advantage of new opportunities, and making history, the Ku Klux Klan was also throwing homemade bombs at the Harris’ house. People were mailing death threats to the Harris family. And the Harris children were often harassed in newly integrated situations. Meanwhile, her father continued to march with Dr. King. He became a member of the Hopewell City Council in 1986, broke barriers and became Hopewell’s first African-American mayor in 1998.
In 2012, he retired from Hopewell City Council after serving seven terms. According to The Richmond Times-Dispatch, “Harris, 87, made the announcement, read by his daughter Dr. Joanne Harris Lucas, during a council meeting.” Her father resigned after suffering one of two massive strokes beginning in November 2010, some six months after his election to a seventh term.”
In January 2008, her father attended President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in Washington at the invitation of Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va. In a statement, her father explained his decision to retire from Hopewell City Government. “I stand tall with my head held high and I say thank you to all of the constituents of Ward 2 as well as other supporters throughout the city,” Harris wrote. “To my colleagues on council, it has been a tremendous journey and the memories are enormous. I may no longer be in the car with you, but I want you to know I am still on the road. God bless you and God bless the city of Hopewell.”
And this is where the prophetic message that Dr. King scribbled on the back of a souvenir program comes in. Harris’ daughter, Lucas was not marching on a picket line, riding a Freedom Bus, or spray-painting a protest sign the day that she and her parents hauled her luggage into a dorm room at the University of Mary Washington in Fredricksburg and noticed her white roommate’s parents were urging their daughter to move her stuff out. In other words, Lucas was now an unwitting Freedom Fighter.
“Some things were not fair,” Lucas said, reflecting on her undergraduate experience at the once all-white female college. “For example, in the dining hall, I was asked on a regular basis if I went to school there.This happened often,” she said. “The movement caused me to be a different kind of person at a white school. I was not quiet. I was not reserved. By the time I left every body knew I had been there. I am glad I had that experience. I think I became more radical although I was never violent in my college days. However, I learned to speak out.
“It carried over into what I had learned as a child. All of these things shaped me into who I am. The impact that the civil rights movement had on me is that I saw things there that were different from my upbringing and lifestyle but I also saw that my life was good and I was proud of my upbringing. I was an American history major and I became a history teacher. I understood what was happening.”
While Lucas wore an Afro, nose ring and a tasteful powder blue suit to her first teaching job interview in Hopewell, she mellowed in time. “I was one of three from about 300 applicants selected to teach social studies in Virginia Beach. Lucas taught six years in Hopewell, and in 1981 moved to Virginia Beach Public Schools where she taught 30 years and worked as and administrator for eight years. She worked for Virginia Beach Public Schools for 38 years.
She said the civil rights movement transformed her and her siblings’ life. “It gave me courage. It gave me hope. It made me think. I think my parents were God’s best. I think they were sent to Hopewell to help others. If they ever felt afraid, I did not see it growing up. People were throwing bottles of gasoline and burning crosses in our yard. My father was beaten in a demonstration and they blacked his eye. He received death notices in the mail. But I do not remember being scared when I was growing up. Neither my father nor my mother seemed afraid. They didn’t show that to me. I don’t remember seeing any fear in my parents when I was growing up. I learned a lot about strength and courage from watching my parents. These are lessons that I carried into adulthood.”
These days, Lucas looks at the keepsake program that contains Dr. King’s autograph. Memories flood through her mind, and she reflects on those who spent their lives fighting for freedom.
Her father who died in 2017 at the age of 93 may have started his professional career as a janitor at what was then Allied Chemical Corp. in Hopewell. But he also became a Freedom Fighter who moved on to become a union leader, a senior member of one of the nation’s premiere civil rights organizations. He had a full life; for he marched with Dr. King, pastored a local church for five decades, cared for his family, and his accomplished daughter addressed City Council when he retired from the City of Hopewell. Her mother, Dr. Ruth Jones Harris was a housewife, mother, and entrepreneur who owned several businesses before she passed at age 86 in 2002.
As the nation celebrates Dr. King’s 91st birthday birthday on Jan. 15, 2020, Lucas tried to pinpoint what she liked best about Dr. King. Reflecting on their first meeting at the SCLC rally in Suffolk, she said, “Dr. King had a great sense of humor. Oh yea, and he told a lot of jokes,” she said, smiling.