This interview appeared in many newspapers including the Georgia Inquirer.
Second of a three-part series
This part of my interview with Georgia State Representative Tyrone Brooks concerns two crucial matters: education and equality. The civil rights movement has always fought for both, believing we can't really have one without the other. What in people interferes with justice? The American philosopher Eli Siegel, founder of Aesthetic Realism, explained that every moment of our lives, each of us has this choice: either to know and respect the world and people or to look on them with contempt, the “false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.” Every choice for respect is also in behalf of education, equality, and our self-respect—every choice for contempt is against them.
There are persons in American history whose passion about education and equality has been mighty. One of these persons was Septima Clark (1898-1987) of South Carolina, whose activism in the 1940s led to equal pay for black and white teachers in Charleston. Later she taught interracial adult education in Tennessee and developed a curriculum promoting voter registration. In 1957 she founded the first Citizenship School on John's Island, SC. She is shown below with Rosa Parks at the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
AB: Did you ever meet Septima Clark?
Rep. Brooks: Yes. I went over to South Carolina on numerous occasions for SCLC workshops, also in Georgia where she came from time to time. She convinced Dr. King to start Citizenship Education, and that became a department headed by Mrs. Dorothy Cotton. This dynamic program was about impacting the huge constituency, particularly the elderly who were illiterate, and sent trained high school and college students across the South who convened classes in black churches. It was a very fundamental, on-the-ground approach so that black people could get good jobs, balance a checkbook and do other things, like reading a program or the Bible. Mrs. Septima Clark said, “What does it matter to be able to walk into a restaurant and purchase a hamburger, and not be able to count your change?” She was a revolutionary in the cause of education. Yes, I had a chance to meet Mrs. Septima Clark who was, in my opinion, the Rosa Parks of South Carolina.
AB: I'm very glad to learn more about her. Earlier you mentioned your grandmother.
Rep. Brooks: Yes, Ada Myrick, my maternal grandmother. She married Ronie Cody and they had five children. When my grandfather passed away, she married Charlie Ward and they had two children. Grandmother Ada was a product of an interracial relationship (her father was white). She was a strong willed woman who would not accept segregation. She would take us to Washington , DC during the summertime, to see the Lincoln and Washington monuments. My grandmother wanted us to understand that our world was not limited to our little hometown of Warrenton.
She had a chance to vote at a time when it was very difficult for black people to vote. I discovered all this later—I didn't understand it then. She would never go to the “Colored” water fountain and wouldn't let me drink from it. When we went to Evans Pharmacy to fill a prescription, she'd say, “You sit up on the stool at the counter.” Sometimes people working there would say, “You're not supposed to sit up there. This is for whites only.” My grandmother answered, “That's my grandson and he can sit wherever he wants.” She commanded that kind of respect because her father happened to be one of the wealthiest farmers in the county. Ada Myrick was a very courageous woman. I think her fire and activism rubbed off on my mother, and was passed on down to me and my brothers and sisters.
AB: I'm mighty glad to hear about her—Ada Myrick. Let's return to the beginning of your activism. Do you remember the first time you went to jail?
Rep. Brooks: Yes, I was about fourteen years old. A lot of us children decided to have a walk-out at high school when the lunch bell rang. We were demanding that the black and white schools merge in accordance with the 1954 Brown decision. We walked out with our signs and marched to the Board of Education offices and started picketing. The Super-intendent called the police, but they didn't know what to do. The police said, “Children, you've got to come over here to the jail.” They walked us to this fenced-in area and the sheriff locked the gate. Our lawyer said, “You have been placed under arrest, even though they didn't read you your rights and you have not violated any law.” He said the sheriff didn't have any authority to arrest us. The county attorney said, “Their lawyer is right. You'd better let them go.” So he opened the gate and we went out. That was the first time.
Atlanta or New York
AB: I understand that when you were fifteen you volunteered for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Where did you go from there?
Rep. Brooks: After I completed my education, moving full time into the Civil Rights arena was an awesome experience─traveling with Hosea Williams, Willie Bolden and Carl Farris to Birmingham, Selma, St. Augustine, up to Chicago, Washington, DC and New York. Some relatives had migrated to New York and began to develop business opportunities. Two of them said, “We have a job for you. Why don't you come on up to New York and get into radio broadcasting or real estate? You can make an awful lot of money.” My mind was on getting out of the South. Then Hosea Williams said to me, “I know that the movement's in your blood. I also know that you want to go to New York.” He felt that because I had met Dr. King, Dorothy Cotton, and so many others, that no matter where I went, I was going to participate in the movement. In 1967 he said, “I have this job for you. I'm going to hold it until you make up your mind. Try it out and see.” I said, “I will take this assignment for a year and probably after that I'll move on to New York.”
My job was as a field organizer, to travel the South for SCLC, connect with communities and organize campaigns with local chapters around desegregation in public accommodations and voter registration. I did that for a year. Hosea asked, “What do you think?” I said, “It was very exciting, so I'll do it for another year.” Two more years go by and finally—it was twenty years of activism in SCLC before I knew it!
After the assassination of Dr. King, Dr. Abernathy moved me from the field staff into his executive cabinet. I was his Special Assistant, then Communication Director, then Field Director. After Dr. Abernathy left the organization full time in 1977 to pastor his church, I became National Field Director until almost 1980. Then he and Rev. Joe Boone said it was time for me to go to the House of Representatives. I said, “Do you mean run some errand there?” He said, “No, we want you to serve in the House of Representatives.” I said, “I don't think anybody would vote for me, I'm a civil rights worker.” He said, “Hosea is already there. He was elected six years ago.”
Well, Rev. Boone, Dr. Abernathy, Rev. Jasper Williams, Rev. Cameron Alexander, Rev. Frank Norwood, the staff and faculty of Clark, AU, civil rights leadership, and the black press all kind of pushed me into the race—and we won! In the wildest of imaginations I never dreamed to be serving in elected office. It's been a twenty-five year assignment!
AB: One of the big things you've done is to remove the symbol of slavery and brutality─the Confederate flag─from Georgia's state flag.
Rep. Brooks: In 1980 when the people elected me, they said, “We want you to be a catalyst for saving the Voting Rights Act and fighting to change the flag; also to get more black judges on the bench; fight police brutality; protect the environment; bring home resources from the state budget to save our children from prisons, illiteracy, homelessness and the malnutrition in our midst.”
In 1983 the NAACP Atlanta branch brought me a proposal to address terrorism by neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. So we passed a law against domestic terrorism which caught on around the nation. In 1981, the NAACP Southeast regional director, Earl Shinhost, said “Tyrone, we've got to develop a movement in Georgia as in Alabama, to change the Georgia flag.” For almost twenty years I carried the legislation on behalf of GABEO, Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, and the civil rights coalition. We finally won in 2003!”
The Confederate Flag: A Symbol of Contempt
I congratulated Rep. Brooks on this important victory. In an article I wrote about efforts in 2000 to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse building in Columbia, South Carolina, I quoted from a commentary by Ellen Reiss in the international periodical The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known. I am proud to quote from it here because her exactitude, passion, and clarity on this subject are beautiful and necessary. Ms. Reiss states:
“Have You Been to Jail for Justice?”
A song by Anne Feeney, which I heard her sing at the Botto House Labor Museum in New Jersey, has much to do with civil rights and the work of Tyrone Brooks. Here is one stanza:
Have you been to jail for justice? I want to shake your hand
You law abiding citizens, come listen to this song
[From: Have You Been to Jail For Justice? © 1998 Anne Feeney (BMI)]
Rep. Brooks: It was actually 66 because two years ago Dr. Joseph Lowery and I were jailed in Crawfordsville. I tell students “I've never been to jail for stealing or fighting or dope or drugs or DUI. I have been to jail for civil rights and I am proud of that! If you ever go to jail, children, go for something meaningful. Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. King, civil rights leaders over the years have gone to jail, fought for us. We should be willing to do the same for the next generation.”
To learn more about Rep. Tyrone Brooks, visit www.gabeo.org and to learn about Aesthetic Realism visit the website of the not-for-profit educational foundation www.AestheticRealism.org. Alice Bernstein is a journalist and co-author of Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism (Orange Angle Press).