Sunday, February 4, 2001

Through Spokane's eyes

Marching for justice
In a special package, we celebrate Black History Month by looking back at some pivotal moments in Spokane

By Rebecca Nappi
Interactive editor

Verda Minnix was in eighth grade at Grant Elementary School in Spokane when her brother, Sam Minnix, took her to a civil rights demonstration in front of the Spokane County Courthouse. It was Friday, March 26, 1965. Sam was a junior at Eastern Washington University. Brother and sister were not new to activism. They were African-Americans in a city that was 99 percent not.

Their mother, Hortense Minnix, had always urged them to stand up to injustice. "It only takes one to make a difference," she told her children time and again.

So that is why you see Verda and Sam Minnix in this historical photograph we reprint here today. Look at it closely. The two young people are walking toward the front of the group. Sam, a star boxer, is wearing a sweater with "Golden Gloves Champ '65" on it. Verda is wearing a furry-collared coat.

The photograph freezes forever a moment that took place 36 years ago. In Alabama the same week, 25,000 marchers had walked 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery to protest atrocities suffered by black men and women while trying to exercise their rights to vote. Two earlier attempts at marching ended in violence and the death of two civil rights workers.

The whole world was watching, thanks to a relatively young medium called television. No one knew then its power to change the country as it broadcast the brutishness of racial injustice into living rooms each evening.

As he drove toward the courthouse, his sister in the car with him, Sam Minnix worried about the Spokane demonstration.

"We weren't able to go to Selma or any of those other marches going on in the South. But we wanted to be part of this demonstration," Sam recalls. "We didn't know what to expect. But when we got there, there were no problems."

You can hear Sam Minnix speak about the day in his own voice. And you can hear the voice of his sister, now Verda Lofton, by visiting "Through Spokane's Eyes" on our Web site at www.SpokesmanReview.com/civilrights

February is Black History Month and throughout February on our Web site, we will explore pivotal moments in the civil rights movement. We are viewing them through a local lens, to nudge history to life through the voices and recollections of people who lived in Spokane back then or live here now and contributed to or witnessed the civil rights movement in some way.

One of these witnesses to history is Jerrelene Williamson, 68, who has lived in Spokane since 1932. She remembers well watching history unfold in the South. She remembers well the voting injustices that existed in the 1960s. In Selma, the county seat of Dallas County, only 333 out of the county's 15,000 voting-age blacks could cast ballots in elections. So few blacks were registered because the board of registrars was all white and "cheerfully rejected black applicants for any reason whatever, such as failing to cross a `T' on the registration form," according to the King biography "Let The Trumpet Sound."

In Spokane, Williamson says, black voters had no problems gaining access to the polls. The reason? "Where (voters) would make a difference was the South and that's why they didn't want them there. Here we weren't as many. So we had no problem with voting."

This past summer, Williamson and her husband walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge which spans the Alabama River as it winds out of Selma. "After we got across I thought about all the people who went across there in 1965 and how they were crushed and hurt and I was just overwhelmed," Williamson says.

The marches made a difference. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended the most blatant abuses and opened the polls to hundreds of thousands of black voters, especially those in the South.

Williamson, Verda Minnix Lofton and Sam Minnix agree that things would not have changed as rapidly for African-Americans if non-blacks had not joined the cause. And so on the Web site today, you can also hear the words of Mike Kobluk and Chad Mitchell, two white Spokane men, reminiscing about how it felt to join the Selma march as part of The Chad Mitchell Trio, a folk music group.

The media also played a big role. Journalism is called "history in a hurry" and as journalists here involved with the project searched newspaper archives, we were somewhat surprised to see the prominent display civil rights stories received in The Spokesman-Review and the now-defunct Spokane Daily Chronicle.

Locally written editorials, for the most part, supported the movement, even when nationally syndicated columnists urged people not to be swayed by the emotionalism of the demonstrators. We've reprinted some editorials from the past to give you the flavor of the times.

Understanding the past helps us more fully participate in the present and gives us permission to create the future. Reading about the voting atrocities places in perspective the outrage, particularly among African-American voters, concerning what happened in Florida during November's presidential race.

Though the media and government officials are still investigating, the reports of African-American votes that did not count and black voters stricken from voter registration lists recalled an earlier and uglier time in history, a time that prompted the Selma-to-Montgomery March and the Spokane sympathy demonstration on March 26, 1965, captured in this photograph.

Sam Minnix is 59 years old now. He lives in Tacoma, works for the government and remains committed to human rights causes. He enjoyed reminiscing about this photograph and laughed about the young man wearing dark glasses and hiding behind the "Freedom Now" sign. "He probably had a compelling desire to be part of what was going on. But he probably also thought, `I hope my mom and dad don't see me doing this because I'm supposed to be in school studying.' "

Verda Minnix Lofton is 49 now. She lives in Seattle. She's a social worker and a diversity trainer. The seeds of involvement were rooted that day 36 years ago, when she was just an eighth-grader participating in a local march. She hopes young people today will learn more about black history and understand that as a nation's history unfolds, so does an individual's.

The young Verda could have stayed home that chilly March day. Instead she walked and sang, "We Shall Overcome." It made a difference, then, and for the rest of her life.

"Fairness is a core belief," she says. "Everything I do is built around fairness for everybody."

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