Saturday, November 24, 2012

Flo Jo Helped Change Jim Crow Beauty Standards

Flo Jo, winner of three gold medals in Olympics track and field, helped to bring down Jim Crow attitudes toward the beauty of black women.

Florence Flo Jo

Flo Jo may not have set out to use her glamorous style, natural beauty and sex appeal to combat Jim Crow, but her tactics worked.

In my research for a new book, I did not discover substantiation of an elaborate plan created and implemented by Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner to mount an all-out attack on long-held racist American beauty standards, just that she began to develop her unique way when she was still young and living at home with her mother. 

Flo Jo's style set her apart in the athletic world and the rest of the universe, as well. 

Her daring flash followed her into an athletic career and Olympic stardom in track and field, effectively bringing emphatic and immediate world attention to the allure of the black woman, which until her time, had been completely ignored the general public and mass media and, at best, given a back seat in the United States. The Olympic star used track and field events to launch her iconic image that would stage an assault on Jim Crow's regard for and treatment of African American women.

No female track and field star had ever come out of the blocks looking like Flo Jo. And do not think the world did not take notice of this  woman as stunning as any film actress in young black Hollywood or young white Hollywood for that matter. 

Flo Jo
Do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner did something comparable to what Rosa Parks did in leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott. What I am saying is that Joyner's contribution to social justice and civil rights pushed equality forward on a different front. Her bold use of glamour in track and field to change the perception of black female beauty gained a certain justice that was as real, although not as significant many may argue, as the victory Rosa Parks won. 

Remember, Flo Jo came along 30 years after Rosa Parks led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56. In the 1980s, many laws had changed the legal footing on which discrimination had stood. The new racism, tainted with traces of the old, still lurked in employment opportunities, higher education, business ownership, political elections and beauty pageants.  

Rosa Parks & Martin Luther King Montgomery Bus Boycott Mugshot
Rosa Parks & Martin Luther King
Montgomery Bus Boycott Mugshot
Rosa Parks nor Florence Joyner could hide from media coverage and both were beautiful women. However, Rosa Parks became part of a strategic plan devised by the NAACP to organize a movement against Jim Crow laws in the Deep South. Older and of a different era than Flo Jo, Rosa Parks was chosen by the NAACP for her conservative appearance and dressed by those standards to avoid discrediting the Civil Rights Movement and leaders of the movement, namely, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Fashion Model,  Beauty Consultant & Fitness Expert
Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner
Fashion Model, 
Beauty Consultant & Fitness Expert
Joyner, having been born after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, had no direct experience with the blatant legal racism and oppression that occurred during the era of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther king. However, Jim Crow racism continued to exist in different forms and had to be met with different tools like education, voting and, yes, beauty. 

One reason for the television camera's romance with track and field star, Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner, was the fact that she was articulate and educated, and looked so good no matter what! Whether she was warming up, coming out of the block, running on the track or winning at the finish line in a stream of steam, Flo Jo looked glamorous. Every woman in the world--young, old, black, white and everything in between--wanted to look so good working so hard while making the job look so easy.

Florence Flo Jo Joyner, 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea
Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner
1988 Olympics Gold
Seoul, South Korea

After Jim Crow met Flo Jo, everything about the beauty game changed.

Flo Jo splashed onto international television and changed Jim Crow traditions regarding the acknowledgement of and acceptance of black female beauty. 

After the meeting of Flo Jo and Jim Crow, beauty stereotypes began to crumble. She not only changed the way track and field females participated in their game, she changed the way American women of all colors looked at themselves in the mirror preparing to meet their world every day. 

Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner 1988 Summer Olympics Seoul, Korea
Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner
1988 Summer Olympics
Seoul, South Korea
Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner knew the principles and psychology of beauty, which she applied.

That's it--the beauty of it all! I know that's how I felt when I saw Flo Jo on a television screen or a magazine cover during her moment at the finish line. She always looked as great finishing a race as she did when the race began. The controlled image she portrayed was part of her mystic, the brand she was developing that was intended to take her into a different career after her running days were over. 

Flo Jo helped change the stereotype of America beauty.

Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner
Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner
So completely aware of herself, Flo Jo began preparing for her finish line face before she warmed up or lined up in the blocks. That brand building required self control over every aspect of her own being. She knew the cameras were on her and she was prepared to give them what they wanted at all times. The legacy of Flo Jo's beauty, equal to that of any beauty queen, goes deeper than a woman wanting to look her best, which caused many to judge her as vain. 

During Jim Crow, black women were not allowed to be considered beautiful outside their black communities, which was part of the negative racial conditioning, one more method to keep a people looking down on their own kind as no good enough to be deemed fully human. Being considered beautiful would have bestowed value upon black women. The reasoning being: if black women were considered beautiful, it placed them on equal footing with white women, which was against all Jim Crow principles of racial inequality. However, African Americans developed their own standards of beauty, albeit, multiracial women or women of lighter complexion being preferred as representing that standard of beauty, an infiltration of Jim Crow beauty standards in in the black community.

Cheryl Brown, Miss Iowa First Black Miss America Contestant
Cheryl Brown, Miss Iowa
First Black Miss America Contestant
Vanessa Williams First Black Miss America 1984
Vanessa Williams
First Black Miss America
American society, in general, reserved the title of beautiful for white women. This sentiment was expressed from the beginning of the Miss America competition in 1921 until 1970 when the first black woman, Cheryl Brown, Miss Iowa, was a contestant. It was 14 years later in 1984 that a black woman first reigned as Miss America. A sizable segment of the American population either objected or was confused and displeased by this development.

The Jim Crow American society still had a long way to go.

The same year, 1984, that Vanessa Williams won the Miss America crown and garnered media attention, Flo Jo entered the scene when she debuted in the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where she won a silver medal for the 200-meter run. There Joyner introduced glamour for the first time to track and field and captured the imagination of the world in a way that Miss America had not. Not only was Joyner beautiful enough in in her own right to be a beauty queen, she had physical gifts that would propel her to her title--fastest woman on earth--with beauty, brains and body to justify her claim. 

Flo Jo Elevated the Image of Black Women
Flo Jo Elevated the Image of Black Feminity

Flo Jo's legacy was like a knife in the heart of Jim Crow. 

Flo Jo worked as hard as any man on the docks. But she made her job look easy by maintaining her poise and extreme beauty at the same time that she was winning gold at the Olympics. Flo Jo learned to keep a flattering expression on her face because she knew newspaper, magazine and television cameras would capture her every nostril flare and eye twitch. She knew how to hold her face as indicated by her file photos.

Flo Jo’s speed at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, won her the title of the fastest female in the world and most glamorous woman in the history of track and field.

Florence Joyner on Cover of Sports Illustrated
Florence Joyner
Track & Field Olympic Star
Glamor Runner
Flo Jo's victories in the 1988 Olympics earned her the title Fastest Woman in the World and landed her on the cover of Sports Illustrated. She had set a world record at the U.S. Olympics quarterfinals trials, caused a sensation in female athletics with records still unbroken, and won three gold medals at the 1988 Seoul, Korea, Olympics, all while creating that Flo Jo image.

Florence Flo Jo Griffith-Joyner - 1988 Olympics, Seoul, South Korea--Fastest Woman in the World

Perfect makeup--glossy lips, alluring eyelashes, flowing hair and manicured fingernails put a glamorous face on track and field, rivaled only by beauty pageants and Hollywood movies. Florence Flo Jo Joyner became a star track and field athlete, television actor, fashion model, designer, makeup and fitness professional, and writer.

Mojave, California 1950s - Mojave Virtual Museum
Mojave, California 1950s - Mojave Virtual Museum
Born Delorez Florence Griffith on December 21, 1959, Flo Jo was the seventh of eleven children born to Florence and Robert Griffith in the small town of Mojave, California, in the southwestern region of the Mojave Desert, ninety miles north of Los Angeles. According to the 2010 Census, the town reported 4.238 residents, which in 1959, would have offered few opportunities for a budding national athlete or aspiring Olympian like Florence.

When she was four years old, her parents separated and her mother moved the family to the Jordan Downs Public Housing Project in the Los Angeles Watts area. However, spending time with her father, who had a job as an electrical technician in Mojave, young Florence began running when she was seven years old, chasing jackrabbits in the Mojave Desert. Her father had no idea he was beginning the training for an Olympic  star, let alone the fastest woman in the world.

Jordan Downs Public Housing Project Housing Authority City of Los Angeles
Jordan Downs Public Housing Project
Housing Authority City of Los Angeles
After summers in the Mojave Desert with her father, Flo Jo returned home to her family at Jordan Downs Public Housing Project in Watts. Determined to get an education, Flo Jo graduated from Jordan High School in Los Angeles where she continued to run on the track and field team. 

Then Florance Joyner enrolled at California State University, Northridge, and continued running, but had to drop out of school and get a job in banking to help support her family. She re-enrolled in school when she found financial aid, changing colleges, transferring to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to join her track coach, Bob Kersee. 

Flo Jo

In fact, Flo Jo was forced to drop out of school several times due to financial difficulties. In the meanwhile, she made money at a banking job and additional money on the side with jobs as hairstylist and manicurist, skills she would use later to reinvent herself as the glamorous Flo Jo. 

"[Florence Griffith Joyner] was someone who wanted to make a fashion statement, as well as do it while running so fast you could barely see the fashion," says Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune on ESPN Classic's Sports Century series. Going to school on financial aid and loans, Flo Jo continued her track training. In 1983, she won the NCAA 400 and then graduated from UCLA with her bachelor's degree in psychology. In 1987, Joyner married 1984 Olympic triple jump gold medalist, Al Joyner, brother of heptathlon Olympian, Jackie Joyner-Kersee. In 1990, their daughter, Mary Ruth, was born. 

Flo Jo did not take off her running shoes until she had won three gold medals in the Olympics and an assortment of silver medals and other running distinctions. Although her 1988 records still stand, Flo Jo was accused by other athletes of using performance-enhancement drugs in order to win gold medals. However, Flo Jo never failed a drug test.

Add caption
After her 1988 triple gold-medal Olympics, Joyner was inducted into the Track and Field Hall of Fame, named by The Associated Press 1988 Female Athlete of the Year, won the James E. Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur star athlete and served as co-chair of the President's Council on Physical Fitness. There were other black female  Olympic medalists, like Wilma Rudolph, who dismantled Jim Crow in athletics and created the path for Florence Joyner to run without overt racism and to exude the beauty and confidence that gave her so much more than gold medals in the Olympics.

President Ronald Reagan
& Florence Griffith-Joyner
After an illustrious career, Flo Jo  retired and established a foundation for underprivileged children, remembering her own childhood in Watts. She also began her own clothing line of sports athletic uniforms, using sewing skills she learned from her seamstress mother. When she was a youngster, she designed and made her own wardrobes for school and made clothes for her dolls, so the new profession came natural to her.

We watched Joyner on television gracing the track like a fashion model on a runway or an film actress on the red carpet for her latest role in the movies. And as fate would have it, Flo Jo acted in several television shows

She began having seizures in 1996. Two years later, on September 21, 1998, at age 38, Flo Jo suffered an epileptic seizure in her sleep and died. That was just ten years after she became famous as the fastest woman in the world and captured the attention of television cameras around the world for her glamour on and off the track. Flo Jo's Olympic record still stands. She is still the fastest woman in the world.

Sunny Nash is a writer, producer, photographer and leading author on race relations in America. 

    Bigmama Didn’t Shop  At Woolworth’s  Sunny Nash

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Sunny Nash author of bigmama didn't shop at woolworth's
Sunny Nash
Sunny Nash is an author, producer, photographer and leading writer on U.S. race relations. She writes books, blogs, articles and reviews, and produces media and images on U.S. history and contemporary American topics, ranging from Jim Crow laws to social media networking. Sunny Nash is the author of Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's (Texas A&M University Press), about life with her part-Comanche grandmother during the Civil Rights Movement.

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Sunny Nash’s book is recognized by the Association of American University Presses as essential for understanding U.S. race relations. Nash's book is also listed in the Bibliographic Guide for black studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida. Nash uses her book to write articles and blogs on race relations in America through topics relating to her life--from music, film, early radio and television, entertainment, social media, Internet technology, publishing, journalism, sports, education, employment, the military, fashion, performing arts, literature, women's issues, adolescence and childhood, equal rights, social and political movements--past and present—to today's post-racism. homepage
© 2014 Sunny Nash. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. 
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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Wilma Rudolph Ran for Freedom

At the 1960 Rome Olympics, Wilma Rudolph became the first U.S. female in Olympic history to win three gold medals. 

Wilma Rudolph, first U.S. female to win three gold medals in track and field
Wilma Rudolph,
1960 Olympic Summer Games, Rome

Amazing Olympic Athlete 
Wilma Rudolph (Amazing Americans)
Wilma Rudolph

In 1960, Wilma Rudolph of Tennessee State University made national headlines on radio, television, black media (article) and mainstream newspapers when she became the first U.S. female to win three gold medals in track and field at the 1960 Rome Olympics. 

Wilma Rudolph had overcome childhood polio and fought her way to good health by the time she reached her teens. Her athletic abilities made her a high school basketball star, garnered for her attention from college coaches, gained her a college education and eventually placed her in the history books alongside Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and other civil rights activists.

Wilma Rudolph was a tra ck and field athlete and an activist for civil rights. During the time of her victories, the United States was in the midst of a bloody civil conflict on the streets of southern cities. Politicians were grappling with the notion of granting African Americans civil rights, voting rights and civil justice. In the light of this national turmoil, all African American achievements were being sought by the Civil Rights Movement to further the cause of social change.

Just as television was beginning to become the main bearer of news and celebrity, Rudolph's track victories helped her to pick up the civil rights struggle against Jim Crow when she got the chance to run track in college. She became an important vehicle for the Civil Rights Movement while she getting college education, which she would use later to influence a new generation of track stars and school students. The most important vehicle out of poverty and low-paying jobs was education, one of the primary goals of 1950s civil rights efforts by Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.

Civil rights and women's rights pioneer, Wilma Rudolph did her part to break down racial and gender barriers, inspiring women and African Americans when she protested that her hometown victory parade in Clarksville, Tennessee, after the 1960 Olympics, be an integrated event and not segregated, as Jim Crow laws had previously dictated.

Wilma Rudolph's 1960 Rome Olympics track victory came after Alice Coachmen's track and field victory in the 1948 London Olympics was announced on radio: Coachman became the first African American woman to win a gold medal in the history of the Olympics.

Wilma Rudolph: 
Track & Field 
(Legendary Athletes)
 [Library Binding]

Wilma Rudolph, first U.S. female to win three gold medals in track and field
Wilma Rudolph 

Wilma Rudolph was a four-and-a-half-pound premature baby born  in 1940 in Clarksville, Tennessee. She did not go to traditional school for one year, but was home schooled due to infantile paralysis, caused by the polio virus, which she contracted at age four. Still a sickly child at age seven, she was enrolled into a segregated and underfunded Tennessee school by her parents who did not have the best jobs or health insurance. By age 12, Rudolph's treatments at the Fisk University Medical College Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, had straightened her twisted leg and given her the normal physical health she had never enjoyed before. 

Four of the "Tigerbelles" from legendary coach Ed Temple's Tennessee State University track and field program pose for a photo during the U.S. team's preparation for the Olympic Games. Wilma Rudolph, Lucinda Williams, Barbara Jones and Martha Hudson
Olympics Track & Field Team
In tenth grade, Wilma Rudolph became a record-setting Burt High School basketball star. Tennessee State University (TSU) track coach, Ed Temple, invited her to put on her running shoes and come to a summer track camp at TSU, where she received a full college scholarship after graduating from high school. At TSU, Rudolph earned a place on Temple's track and field team, the Tigerbells.

When Wilma Rudolph competed in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, her first Olympic competition, she won a bronze medalDuring the Melbourne Olympics in November 1956, 16-year-old Rudolph's attention was also on civil rights at home, where Jim Crow laws prevailed in education, housing and jobs. In June 1956, the Montgomery Bus Boycott ignited by Rosa Parks (article) ended in victory and hurled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (article) and his movement of peaceful protest into the national spotlight. The Civil Rights Movement was in causing a nationwide tide of protest.

Greensboro Girls Protest at Woolworth's Sit-ins
Female Students Woolworth's Sit-ins
Seven months before Rudolph 1960 Olympics victory, North Carolina black female college students protested with male students against segregated lunch counters in Woolworth's sit-ins (article), solidifying women's participation in racial protests nationwide and joining Rosa Parks in the female civil rights legacy. 

Wilma Rudolph was invited to the White House by President John F. Kennedy after her victory at the 1960 Rome Olympics. 

Wilma Rudolph and President John F. Kennedy
President John F. Kennedy & Wilma Rudolph
Oval Office, The White House, 1960
All eyes--young and old, black and white--were on Wilma Rudolph, considered to be the fastest woman on earth at the time. Rudolph returned from Rome in 1960 a television and media celebrity.

Nicknamed, "The Tornado," Wilma Rudoloh was the first woman to win the James E. Sullivan Award for Good Sportsmanship (1961), Rudolph was the first U.S. female athlete to win the European Sportswriters' Award, Sportsman of the Year. She won the Christopher Columbus Award for Most Outstanding International Sports Personality (1960), The Penn Relays (1961), the New York Athletic Club Track Meet and The Millrose Games. In 1962, she retired from track at age 22 and graduated from college in 1963 with a degree in elementary education.

Wilma Rudolph was a school teacher and inspiration to the generation of track stars who followed her to the Olympics and beyond.

Florence “Flo Jo” Joyner  & Wilma Rudolph
Florence “Flo Jo” Joyner  & Wilma Rudolph

In 1963 Wilma Rudolph was selected to represent the U.S. State Department as a Goodwill Ambassador at the Games of Friendship in Dakar, Senegal. Later that year, she was invited by Dr. Billy Graham to join the Baptist Christian Athletes in Japan. Rudolph taught school, became a sports media commentator on national television and inspired a new generation of American girls and female runners like Florence Joyner. 

Wilma Rudolph died of brain cancer in 1994 at age 54. The Clarksville, Tennessee, portion U.S. Route 79 was renamed in her honor and, in 1997, Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist set aside June 23 as "Wilma Rudolph Day."

© 2012 Sunny Nash. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
~Thank You~

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Sunny Nash is a writer, producer, photographer and leading author on race relations in America. 

Sunny Nash produces blogs, media, books, articles and images on history and contemporary topics, from slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow and civil rights to post racism, social media, entertainment and technology using her book, Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s, as a basis for commentary and research.

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by Sunny Nash
Sunny Nash's book was selected by the Association of American University Press as a resource for understanding U.S. race relations and recommended for Native American Collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System.

"My book, 'Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's,' began in the 1990s. I was writing for Hearst and Knight-Ridder newspapers. The stories are about my childhood with my part-Comanche grandmother, Bigmama, my parents, relatives, friends, and others; and my interpretation of the events surrounding the Jim Crow South before and during the Civil Rights Movement.

Robin Fruble of Southern California said, "Every white person in America should read this book! Sunny Nash writes the story of her childhood without preaching or ranting but she made me realize for the first time just how much skin color changes how one experiences the world. But if your skin color is brown, it matters a great deal to a great number of people. I needed to learn that. Sunny Nash is a great teacher," Fruble said.

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Thursday, November 1, 2012

Martin Luther King & Jim Crow Laws

When I learned about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, civil rights and Jim Crow laws, American schools, movies, television and politics were also black and white in racial terms.

Jim Crow Laws in America
Jim Crow Laws in America

Martin Luther King changed television pictures of black America by helping place racism in the 1950s and '60s in every living room in the United States 

Black children my age being abused by southern white law officials like Bull Conner did not stop me from watching fifteen-minute national news broadcasts on television. That's what television was for me back then, a medium that led to change in the Jim Crow laws in America. 

Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks taught nonviolence in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a tactic used later on television.

What I realized over the years is that black and white people were set in their ways of thinking. And their behavior was based on their ways of thinking. Whites were accustomed to being considered by society as superior; blacks in society were forced to pretend they were inferior. It takes a lot of energy and creativity on both sides of an issue to break old habits. But it can be done.

Martin Luther King is responsible for the change. His articulateness, education, polish, and do not forget confidence, made black and white America take notice. A new day was on the horizon. I looked at myself honestly when I first took notice of this man and asked myself, "Can I continue to be forced into a certain behavior?" Others, black and white, probably asked themselves the same question?

Television and movies were a big part of shaming people into changing their behavior and changing the way the America looked at itself. Even the staunchest haters and believers in inequality cringed at the sight of themselves and those who represented their views on screen. 

As a little girl watching the television images with a family trying to reassure me, I cringed, too. There were days when I was afraid to leave the house. I feared that I would be attacked by a mob. I had never seen a mob except on television. But mobs were real. My Jim Crow school district provided black students no school buses, so we walked to school in groups for security. Going to school and getting whatever education available to African American was never questioned. Education was the way in and the way out--the way into  a better life and the way out of a bad life. Even better than primary education was a college education. 

College was the goal during Jim Crow laws and still the lesson today.

After school, when one of us turned off alone to go home, as I did with no sisters or brothers, we ran as fast as our legs would carry us until we reached the front door. Yes, those old days frightened me deeply. I'm not sure when I grew out of that fear. In fact, I don't know that I ever did. I simply turned the fear into something I could use--courage not to be chased through my entire life by the ghost of Jim Crow dying before my very eyes on television when we were still Jim Crow's children.

Television meant that other Americans were seeing what I saw when Martin Luther King spoke on television or little children were attacked by police dogs and high-powered water hoses. Television meant change. Things had to change--change the way we went to school, change the lessons in the school books, change the politics of education and entertainment, change the way we were treated when we went outside our neighborhood. One reason my mother took me to the movies was to illustrate a different lifestyle, not the lifestyle of people I knew, but the lifestyle of people who did not have to worry about being spat upon or police dog attacks initiated by law enforcement officials.

Segregated Movie Theater

Segregated Movie Theater

Before the movie theater lights dimmed, as we were settling into hard, splintering veneer seats, I looked down below and saw red velvet draperies held in place by gold ropes, shiny like the long shimmering hair resting on the backs of soft upholstered chairs.

Taking me to the movies, traveling with me to other parts of the nation and reading about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and civil rights were my mother's insurance against my being satisfied with Jim Crow.

My mother took me to see all kinds of movies--"white movies" as well as "race movies" that featured black casts. She believed in knowing "what the world was up to out there." A lot had to do with fashion we saw in the movies, although some of her interest in movies was related to her interest in books, literature and media. For the same reasons, my mother had also arranged to buy a television on credit, but early television was still mostly Jim Crow like film and radio with African Americans being portrayed as servants and nannies or ridiculously inferior characters with speech difficulties. Before we had a television, we regularly listened to music and other programs on the radio.

In 1939, Ethel Waters, star of movies, radio and stage, became the first African American to appear on television, in her own special, "The Ethel Waters Show."

Ethel Waters First Black Woman on Television

Ethel Waters (Article)

In the early days of television, when the medium was still an experiment, radio was still the primary vehicle for popular dramatic programs and music distribution by jazz vocalists like Ethel Waters. That was before investors thought of television as a profitable new industry to rival radio. There were exceptions. Star of film and radio, Ethel Waters, became the Rosa Parks of television, opening doors for the generation of black actors and filmmakers.

But soon after Waters' television debut, Jim Crow invaded television as it had radio. Many black actors like Ethel Waters either left television and radio in protest or settled for demeaning roles as kitchen help, who sweated over household chores by hand and were the butt of jokes.

My mother subscribed to national news, homemaking and fashion magazines, and newspapers from around the country. That's how my mother was--curious. But more than that, she wanted me to know as much about the world in which I lived as possible, using movies, media and travel to other parts of the country to accomplish her goal. However, when we first started going to the movies, there were white movies in which black actors played subservient roles to white actors; and there were nationally distributed Black Hollywood movies, known as race movies with black casts produced by black filmmakers. 

One of the movies my mother and I went to see in 1962 was To Kill a Mockingbird

I'd already read the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, the year before when I received a copy for my birthday. I loved the way Harper Lee wrote the story of a white father, who was a lawyer, defending a black man who had been accused of raping a white woman. I must confess, though, I hated the theme of the story. Even as a child, I knew of cases where black men were accused of some insult to a white woman. 

One year after the 1954 Brown v the Board of Education ordered southern schools to cease its Jim Crow education, some white southern residents became angry, so angry, in fact, the life of the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Earl Warren, was threatened. All of this anger against changing race relations in America poured out on innocent black people and caused the massacre of a Chicago boy, Emmett Till, not much older than me at the time of his death. I was horrified to hear of this murder in 1955. My mother did not show me the pictures in the magazine, but I sneaked a peak while she was at work and saw them anyway, looking at her stash of books, which she kept under her bed. If this could happen to Emmett Till, what insurance did I have against that kind of violence happening to me? The signs were all around me, colored and white only. In the music I heard on the radio, blues singers moaned about how unfair and unhappy life was. 

Lynching and other forms of violence exemplified the lives of many African Americans in the United States during the era of Jim Crow laws, as late as the 1960s, nearly one hundred years after the Civil War was fought to end slavery. Emmett Till was just one of those cases that received national attention from the black media and ignited feelings of horror that led to an inquiry of his murder in the black community when photographs of the Till's brutalized body were published in the black magazine Jet. The NAACP was outraged. Look Magazine brought further attention to the case. 
Emmett Till had been beaten and tortured. When he was found, he had a heavy cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire before being tossed into the Tallahatchie River
Emmett Till, Jet Magazine, September 15, 1955

Two days later, fishermen on the river found the body of Emmett Till. 

I remember seeing the pictures of his battered and mutilated face in a national black magazine. Till's face in no way resembled the handsome 14-year-old he once was. 

His mother was brokenhearted having lost her only child to such hate. Black America was enraged. I was enraged, too! Protests began. Stories, articles and photographs appeared in black magazines and newspapers nationwide. However, the black community had no power to pursue a case against a powerfully unjust legal system. In fact, Susan Klopfer, author of Emmett Till, revealed that she had never even heard of Emmett Till before her research. 

No real investigation of the Emmett Till case ensued and the case was soon forgotten by law enforcement in the region. And its consequences were used as a lesson to other African Americans to follow if they stepped out of line racially. In the book, Inherently Unequalusing court records and accounts of the period, Lawrence Goldstone chronicles how, "by the dawn of the 20th century the U.S. had become the nation of Jim Crow laws, quasi-slavery, and precisely the same two-tiered system of justice that had existed in the slave era."

Emmett Till's life certainly came to a tragic ending, unhappy in every way possible for his mother, show teenage son, Emmett, arrived in Money, Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, on August 21, 1955, to visit relatives for the summer. On August 24, 1955, he and a cousin went to the store, where Emmett was accused of whistling at the white store owner's wife.

For many years, the Till case would be referenced in civil rights speeches again lynching and violence of African Americans in the South. 

Martin Luther King jailed
Martin Luther King

Four months after the Emmett Till case, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955 and started the Montgomery Bus Boycottunder the supervision of Martin Luther King The Montgomery Bus Boycott, too, was under the heavy scrutiny of television, magazine and film. This protest and others to follow were spurred into action by the Till case.

In his speech on May 12, 1963, Martin Luther King preached about, ‘‘the crying voice of a little Emmett Till, screaming from the rushing waters." The Emmett Till case was reopened by the Justice Department in 2004.

My family tried to protect me from the harshest of it all but there was no insurance against it. As a result, there were places we didn't go. And that, I learned later, was to avoid the shame of it all. My mother only took me to segregated places that were absolutely necessary to my life--the doctor, bus station, movies, school and other public facilities where I needed to go. We didn't eat out very often. Restaurants required us to enter through a rear door, sit in an inferior location or walk up to an outdoor window to order and receive food with no place on premises to eat. My cousin, Joyce, reminded me the other day that at the bus station in her hometown required African Americans to eat their orders in the baggage room sitting at discarded desks retrieved from a local school.

Colored Sign, Movie Theater Austin Texas 1930
Movie Theater 
Austin, Texas
One sacrifice my mother would not make was the movie theater. On Saturday mornings we got dressed in our best clothes and walked the couple of miles downtown. Now, we didn't dress like movie stars, but my mother liked nice clothes. In fact, my mother bought nice furnishings and other elements of home decor, and was the cleanest and most organized person I ever met. "Just because someone is poor doesn't mean they have to live in squalor," she always said. 

In summer, we had several floral sundresses each. In winter we snuggled into coats or rain gear and boots my father bought. My father worked on Saturday mornings and my mother had no drivers license at that time. Movies did not interest my father. He was an outdoors person and said, "I wouldn't sit that long in a dark room, even if I could sit downstairs with the white folks.". By the time my mother and I walked downtown our feet hurt. I felt like Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott protesters. the difference was, we didn't have a public transit system in our town. 

My mother and I climbed up the back stairs and went into the little blue door. We welcomed bad seats biting into our butts, stale seedy popcorn and no restroom a human being should be forced to use, so we could be transported into fantasies film created for a couple of hours.

Book: Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's by Sunny Nash
Bigmama Didn't Shop
At Woolworth's by Sunny Nash

Excerpt below from “Movies—Not Just Black-and-White,” an essay in my book, Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s (Texas A&M University Press).

I write about the first time my mother took me to lunch and the movies. It was about to rain that Saturday but my young mother agreed to take her little daughter to the movies anyway:

Without reply, my mother dug into her tiny cloth coin purse and paid. Time passed as slowly as it could before her change and our food arrived. “Y’all can’t eat in here,” the cook said. Without a word, my mother grabbed my hand and dragged  me to the back door. As we stood outside and ate in silence, I thought I saw a tear sparkle on my mother’s cheek as the day’s last sunlight stroked her face. With a few drops of rain falling on us, we took the short walk to the Palace Theater and stood at the ticket window outside the main lobby. The aroma of buttered popcorn floated through the little round hole in the glass where the ticket woman worked. To avoid getting wet in the shower, the moviegoers dashed through a glass front door into a dry, comfortable lobby filled with tiny white lights, velvet draperies, and red carpet. By the time my mother and I got our tickets, big drops of rain were splashing down on our heads. With her hair heavy with water, sliding into her face, my mother dug into her tiny cloth coin purse and paid. The little blue door on the outside of the theater slammed us inside the darkest place I’d ever been—like a coffin, I thought, holding my mother’s hand. 

Littie Nash

Littie Nash

My mother, Littie Nash, wrestled with Jim Crow laws during the 1950s and 1960s, while giving me the life of a little princess with imagination and without the luxury of having a lot of money for stylish fashions...Littie, the ultimate stage mother,  did not waste compliments on me or anyone else. She reserved accolades to celebrate real accomplishments, not just because I dragged myself out of bed before noon on Saturday or because I made an 'A' on my report card. "Some things you have to do," she said. "And those things pass, not without notice, but without an all-day hullabaloo."

To support my efforts, my mother sponsored piano, ballet, tennis and swimming lessons, dance performances, recitals, literary and classical music club memberships, summer camps, school trips and science fair exhibits, still managing to squeeze out of our tight budget money for the dentist to install braces on my teeth and pay for my health insurance. It took a great deal of courage to live with dignity and raise me to have aspirations. About my upbringing, Littie got it right, although I took detours of my own along the way. Read more atGreat Mothering in Jim Crow's World 

Sunny Nash

Sunny Nash

Sunny Nash—leading author on U.S. race relations--writes on U.S. history and contemporary American topics from Rosa Parks and Jim Crow laws to social media networking, using her book, Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's, chosen by the Association of American University Presses for understanding of U.S. race relations; listed in the Bibliographic Guide to Black Studies by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida.

© 2012 Sunny Nash
All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

Sunny Nash – Race Relations in America My Zimbio