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For Civil Rights Pioneer, a Life of Quiet Struggle

After 1954's landmark desegregation ruling, Josephine Boyd found herself on the front lines. Now, she's left with a legacy of doubt.

May 09, 2004|Kevin Sack | Times Staff Writer

GREENSBORO, N.C. — There are plenty of days when Josephine Boyd Bradley questions whether what she went through 47 years ago ended up meaning very much at all. That may be the hardest part.

On Sept. 4, 1957, wearing a prim brown dress with a stiff white collar, 17-year-old Josephine Ophelia Boyd took what seemed an endless walk toward the arched entryway of Greensboro Senior High School.

Her mother, Cora Lee Boyd, six months' pregnant, accompanied her as far as the door, squeezed her hand, and then left her, alone.

Neither of them was fully prepared for the hatred. "Nigger go home!" screamed the students and rabble-rousers lining the sidewalk. "We don't want you here! Go back to where you came from!" A white woman held a German shepherd on a tight leash.

Such was the welcome to her senior year.

Over the next nine months, the daily jeers were backed up by a fusillade of snowballs and eggs, hurled at a target who stood 4 feet 11 and weighed 102 pounds. In the cafeteria, boys spat in her food and squirted ketchup in her lap. Tacks were placed on her seat, and ink spilled on her books.

In phone calls to her house, Klansmen cursed her for scorning the will of God. The tires on the family car were punctured; two pet dogs were killed in the night. Her mother lost her job as a housekeeper. Her father's sandwich shop mysteriously burned to the ground. It was the only time she ever saw him cry.

Fifty years ago, on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that separate schools were inherently unequal. The decision signaled the death of legalized segregation and forced open the schoolhouse doors.

It was left to students like Josephine to cross the threshold.

"Most of us had no idea what we were getting into," said Bradley, now 64 and a college professor in Atlanta. "And none of us would ever be the same."

In her case, the effects -- for good and ill -- have lasted a lifetime.

Entering Greensboro High as the only black person among 1,950 students, Josephine became the first to enroll at an all-white high school in the country's most defiantly segregated swath of states, from Louisiana to Virginia. Yet, her senior year is little noted in Greensboro, and certainly not elsewhere.

Despite the centrality of education to the civil rights movement, the thousands of young foot soldiers who desegregated their schools have received glancing mention in the history books.

They were children, after all, not the preachers and lawyers and organizers who imbued the movement with such outsized personality. Many were pawns of parents and community leaders who put children at risk for the cause. Much of their suffering was hidden behind school walls. Only in cases of violence or constitutional crisis did they lose their anonymity.

Greensboro was not Little Rock, Ark., where in the same week that Josephine started classes National Guardsmen blocked the enrollment of nine black students at Central High. The Little Rock Nine became national icons when they started school three weeks later under the protection of federal troops.

That same month, in Nashville, dynamite wrecked an elementary school the day after it desegregated. In Birmingham, Ala., a white mob chain-whipped a prominent civil rights leader, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and stabbed his wife as they tried to enroll their children.

The image-conscious leaders of this textile town, with 120,000 residents at the time, devised a strategy to avoid such trouble.

In secret meetings, school board officials from Greensboro, Charlotte and Winston-Salem plotted to desegregate simultaneously in 1957 to diffuse the focus of resistance. But the cities agreed to desegregate in only the most token way, just enough to construct a defense against any post-Brown litigation.

That first year, a total of 11 black students attended previously white schools in North Carolina. After Josephine's graduation -- with honors -- in June 1958, the flow of black students to white schools in Greensboro was little more than a trickle. Not until 1964 did another black student enroll at Greensboro High. And the city did not truly desegregate until 1971, when a federal court order led to cross-town busing that forced half of the 32,000 students to change schools.

Bradley wrote a dissertation about her experience to earn her doctorate in liberal arts from Emory University in 1995. In her self-analysis, her year at Greensboro High left her an altered woman: less assertive, more cautious, and slower to anger, even when anger was justified. She picks battles carefully, and only after weighing the personal cost against the principle at stake.

Like others who did what she did, Bradley developed a tendency to see the world through race-colored glasses. But she and her family members said the experience left no racial chip on her shoulder. She raised her children to judge people by their character and not to use race as a crutch.

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