Civil Rights Act Anniversary: ‘I am grateful’

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I was born in 1935 in Laurel, Miss. As I reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many memories and feelings come to mind. The first and most personal is the move my family made in the middle of the night in 1940. I did not understand what was happening. My elders explained in later years that it was due to a death threat on my older brother (actually, my first cousin). Unfortunately, he responded to a heckler in a group of white men by pushing one of them into the glass window of a store.

Due to the prejudice and racism that existed in Mississippi at that time, my brother’s opponents immediately planned to kill him. A white family who cared about us found out about the plan. They urged us to get out of town as soon as possible. That news necessitated our midnight train ride to Chi-Town to save his life. There was certainly plenty of evidence that black teen boys who dared to respond to white men’s threats, heckles or promises would be hung, shot or killed in various ways. Our family gathered our personal belongings and disappeared before sunrise. 

Seven decades later, I reflect on that brother of mine. At age 24, in Chicago, after graduating from Du Sable High School, he enlisted in the armed forces. He served his country many years, as a lieutenant and captain. After retirement, he worked several years for the Texas House of Representatives. His younger brother also served our country in the armed services.

Since 1940, Chicago has been my hometown. This city has had its own issues with race relations, prejudice and segregation, but I have been happy here. I have worked hard to break down barriers and fight for justice and equality. I worked for more than 49 years at Marcy-Newberry Association, reaching out to help the least, the last and the lost. I believe I have made a difference. WGN TV-News recently interviewed me as one of “Chicago’s Very Own.” 

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Interpreter Magazine invited six who were involved in the struggle for U.S. civil rights to share their reflections. 

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As I look at what my son and my daughter have accomplished, I am grateful for the signing of the Civil Rights Act. This anniversary also means that my grandchildren certainly have clear rights and great opportunities as they enter college to reach their professional goals. I pray that they will have faith and pursue their dreams as they dream B-I-G, work hard, pray without ceasing, accomplish their goals and always, forever be thankful to God. 

When I think about the meaning of the Civil Rights Act to the United States, it certainly paved the way, opening the door to the election of our nation’s first African-American leader, President Barack Obama. Who is my neighbor? His Chicago family home is a few blocks west of my residence. As a nation, we have come a long way in 50 years!

The signing of the Civil Rights Act motivated The United Methodist Church to move forward. It influenced the church to realize where we needed to do some self-examination and make changes and additions to our Book of Discipline. The churches have struggled with racism and segregation at all levels.

I recently returned from the 175th session of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference. Our great theme was “Who is my neighbor?” Our mission focuses included collecting more than 11,000 layettes for needy children around the world. Special offerings included Imagine No Malaria, Africa University, Black colleges and supporting special mission projects of local churches. Health and welfare ministries continue to receive great support. A major focus is to protect children and youth through Safe Sanctuaries resources. 

I was a part of five General/jurisdictional conference delegations (1984, 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000).

I have personally witnessed The United Methodist Church in action beyond the United States, having traveled extensively. I attended including three World Methodist Council conferences in Singapore (1991), Rio de Janeiro (1996) and England (2001).

I relate the meaning of this 50th anniversary to a key word in the United Methodist vocabulary: diversity … addressing the needs and concerns of an inclusive church, respecting the efforts and objectives of racial ethnic groups, eliminating the atrocities of racism and bigotry and creating awareness of the history, heritage and contributions of all ethnic groups. God intends diversity to produce unity, diverse gifts and service in all creation.

I am thankful for the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it afforded me many opportunities to serve and give to others.

The Rev. Margaret Ann Williams is a retired deacon in the Northern Illinois Conference

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