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Two generations fighting for civil rights

Civil rights icon Dorie Ladner and #BlackLivesMatter movement leader Erika Totten compare battle notes

This year marks the 50th anniversary of many civil rights accomplishments in the United States. But even then, leaders of the movement knew the struggle would continue. The recent high-profile deaths of black men at the hands of police have galvanized a new generation of civil rights leaders. In the first of our two-part series, we bring two activists together, one from the old guard and one the new.

WASHINGTON – The deaths of black teenagers Emmett Till and Michael Brown are separated by 59 years, but in their different times and different ways, they inspired two young women to commit themselves to expanding civil rights in America.

Dorie Ladner's high school graduation picture
Courtesy of the University of Southern Mississippi

Dorie Ladner was a year younger than 14-year-old Till when he was mutilated, murdered and dumped in a river in August 1955 – allegedly for flirting with a white woman. While still a teenager, Ladner became a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and served on the front lines of many civil rights battles. She worked with the Freedom Riders, was arrested for attempting to integrate the Woolworth lunch counter and was a key organizer of the Freedom Summer of 1964.

Four decades her junior, Erika Totten began her activism just last year after a white policeman fatally shot Michael Brown. Totten said she spent four days glued to her computer, watching the images flood out of Ferguson, before she packed a bag and drove all night to Missouri. Since then, she's made several trips to Ferguson and become instrumental in the #BlackLivesMatter movement in Washington, D.C.

The two women met last week in Washington at the Newseum's Civil Rights at 50 exhibit where they discussed rabble rousing, the place of women in their movements and the power of song. Their conversation has been condensed for length and clarity.

A path toward justice

Erika Totten coordinates with her fellow activists as they plan to take the stage at Al Sharpton’s national march last year.
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Dorie Ladner: We were reading the newspaper every day about the trial [of Emmett Till's killers], and one day I saw a picture of his face. And I saw the men who murdered him go to trial, but they were not punished. They were not found guilty. I wanted to know if they did, why weren't they punished? I used to cover my head up at night, thinking that they would come and get me. I identified with him. I said, "If they did it to him, they would do it to me." And that was what set me out on the path for justice and equal rights.

Erika Totten: How I really got involved was during the Trayvon Martin trial.

When they had the non-indictment, I went into a deep depression. It seemed like it was back to back: Trayvon, then John Crawford, then Eric Garner. It was just, like, over and over and over and over. And I felt like at this time it was psychological warfare. I was pissed. I was pissed. Then, when I saw what happened to Michael Brown, and then seeing the response from police of a mourning community that was grieving the loss of one of their kids, and how they were met with military force.

My husband is very supportive. As soon as I said, "I'm going to Ferguson," he said, "I know." He gave me his blessing. And I'm a stay-at-home mom, so it was a lot for me to know that I'm leaving my family behind to go and stand with my people, because that's my purpose; that's what I was here to do.

Ladner: If you don't go, I'm going to go anyhow.

Totten: Exactly.                       

Ladner: I'm on my way.

Totten: That's exactly what I felt. I felt it was my duty to go and tell the truth about what's happening. Every day of my life has been this, and it's been hard, because I am a mother. But I can imagine that's how it was back then – of sacrifices that had to be made. (Starts tearing up.) This is all still new and fresh for me. So sometimes it's easier to just [act] than to sit and talk about it. 

Erika Totten is brought to tears thinking about the issues that have spurred her activism.
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Ladner: Well, both helps. We became glued together as a result of these tragedies. The first person who I knew that was close to me was Medgar Evers. I was with him the night he was murdered. Faced with the news of Medgar's death, it was the same day that George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door. We got to the NAACP office and here are these two motorcycle cops sitting in front of the Masonic temple at 1072 Lynch St. in Jackson, Mississippi. I looked at them with blood in my eyes. I said, "Where were you last night?" And I started screaming to the top of my voice. Just literally going berserk. They didn't move. I wasn't thinking that I was totally irrational with pain and anger. [Byron De La Beckwith, the white segregationist who assassinated Evers, was set free after two all-white juries deadlocked. Decades later, he was convicted by a more diverse jury and sentenced to life in prison.]

So we went over to [Jackson State University] and people were frightened to death, because I had been expelled from the school for student activity. So we didn't get anyone to come back across the street with us, but you can imagine the bedlam around there, because Medgar was loved by everyone. And when he joined up with the students – meaning SNCC – that was the kiss of death for him.

Dorie Ladner at the second Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) orientation session in Oxford, Ohio, June 1964.
McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi

Totten: Wow.                

Ladner: Even with his organization, NAACP, who were older people, more established people, they didn't want him associating with rabble rousers. And we've been called rabble-rousing militants since our inception. 

Totten: That's what we were called when we went to Selma.

Ladner: I heard [that] in Ferguson also, "outside agitators." And that's what the whites use to try and separate you. Or the people who want to separate you will call you these kinds of names, to have suspicion cast on you. So that's not a deterrent, because if you have a mission you don't stop.

There have been many more [deaths] that I have witnessed over the years … it's very hard for me to cry. I cried when Marion Barry died, but it's been so much. I don't want to say that I'm cold, but just a lot is stuffed inside.

On all sides

As part of Erika Totten's activism, she organizes disruptions actions around Washington, D.C.
Getty Images

The fight for civil rights happens on many fronts, involving a bevy of entangled issues, the activists said.

Totten: We see state violence happening against us on so many different levels.

Ladner: Yes, yes.

Totten: Even though the Voting Rights Act is being repealed now.

Ladner: Right now.

Totten: Poor housing.

Ladner: Unemployment.

Totten: Yes, unemployment.

Ladner: Disparity in health care.

Totten: Education.   

Ladner: Education.

Dorie Ladner at Freedom Summer training in Oxford, Ohio in 1964.
McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi

Totten: All these different things, it's just they're coming at us on all sides. So that's one of the things that we're doing is educating people on the different avenues of oppression that they're experiencing to get them to put a name to what it is that you feel. I think sometimes that's what keeps people apathetic, is because they don't know…

Ladner: … what's coming.

Totten: … what's coming. They don't know where it's coming from. They just know that they feel oppressed and downtrodden. We have to educate people on the ways in which they are oppressed so we can all come together and do something about it.

Ladner: Organizing's very, very hard work. Very hard work. Knocking on doors. No matter what the issue may be. Are you satisfied with your housing? Are you satisfied with the school system in your community? Are you satisfied with the police violence? We used to get arrested for distributing leaflets without a permit.

Totten: Wow.

I don't want to say that I'm cold, but just a lot is stuffed inside.

Dorie Ladner

Ladner: When we started out as a student organization, we started from what we call the bottom up, meaning that we were down with the people, and the people are the leaders in any community. So all we did was listen to the people and help them to act on the things that were bothering them in their communities. And they became a leader.

Everybody will not be a spokesperson. There will be people who will be able to pull out their fliers and do cooking or little things to make sure that you are running smooth. Everybody didn't knock on doors, but we had to live in the community. We ate from the community.

Totten: Everything it is that you said is what we're doing, even in D.C. Going into these communities and finding who the people are in the community who have already been doing work and how we can come along and support. We don't do it from a model of we know what's best.

Battling sexism

Dorie Ladner and Erika Totten at the Newseum's Civil Rights at 50 exhibit.

Totten: One of the things I wanted to ask too is how did you all handle sexism within the movement?

Ladner: I had a mission that God had given to me. And I was the only female with the guys, so as far as being treated, the bullies didn't have any names on 'em. We were all treated the same way. We were fighting the man.

Totten: That's one of the things that I know we're having to battle within our own movement is sexism, misogyny. Men wanting to silence women's voices, sexual harassment, homophobia, transphobia – so many different things.

Ladner: Yeah, those issues have come to fore now. Back then, in our communities, women were always in the background, in the church, the home and so forth. But they were supportive and they were also very influential in these capacities. The line was drawn in the sand and I stepped over the line and kept going.

Totten: That's me. That's a lot of us now, and that's why we're getting a lot of pushback.

Ladner: Well, when you get pushback, you just push back. Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around.

Ladner: I miss those songs because whatever we wanted to say we could just sing it. Then, you would get that momentum, even if you were apprehensive about going out.  Once you got your adrenaline up and everybody's singing, you didn't care. You didn't care. (singing) If you don't go, I'm gonna go anyhow. I'm on my way. Great God, I'm on my way.             

Totten: Yeah. We need to sing more of those songs. 

Ladner: (singing) Ain't gonna let nobody turn me round, turn me round, turn me round. Ain't gonna let nobody turn me round, we're going to keep –

Both: Walking, keep on talkin', walkin' up to freedom land.

Demonizing and dehumanizing

Erika Totten holds her signs at a moment of silence for police brutality in Malcolm X Park in D.C. in August 2014.
Getty Images

Totten: (shows photograph) So this was the day that national moment of silence in Malcolm X Park in D.C., and so I had made signs in there. I had something on the front and the back. And this is "Black Lives Matter" and then "Stop The Purge Of Black Lives" because it felt like it was a free for all on anybody who was black. That you could kill us with impunity because just saying that you feared for your life and the fear that people feel when you have black skin, that it's justified in court because you'll have people on a jury that'll say, "Well, I would have been scared too."

Ladner: And what the police officer said who killed Mike Brown. He was the Incredible Hulk.

Totten: Looked like a demon and all, so it really demonizing, as in dehumanizing, us. And on the back of [the sign] were just names [of African-Americans killed by police] listed. Just, if I can't say anything, at least you can read the sign.

Ladner: This is a very sorrowful photograph. (singing) "I am a man of constant sorrow / I've been sorrow all my days."  Yeah. I can't sing like I used to, but that captures a lot.

Totten: Yeah, this is when they were reading all the names. And they were using my sign to read all the names. And it just felt like it wouldn't stop. Like the names just wouldn't stop. And then to know that more names have already been added.  

The power of a flag

Dorie Ladner at the funeral for the four girls murdered in the Birmingham church bombing in September, 1963.
Danny Lyon

Ladner: I went to a funeral in Birmingham, Alabama, the three little girls who were murdered right after the March on Washington. And I had this American flag in my hand. And a lot of people have seen this. It's sort of like an iconic photograph.

And now young people are asking me, "Why you carry an American flag?" But at this time, the National Guard were wearing Dixie flags – the Confederate flags – on their uniforms. And that was the only symbol of protest that I had.

Totten: I've been protesting the American flag since I was 16. (laughs) Not standing up for the Pledge of Allegiance. I still can't bring myself – people give me some different shirts and things like that – I cannot bring myself with good conscience to wear the American flag.

Ladner: I understand that. I took this flag and held it up as a symbol of, I guess, America. Or something just to irritate. It was an irritant for all the people.

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