Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Before King, elders fought his fight

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Long before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was marching on Washington and making mountaintop speeches, African Americans were fighting for civil rights. Driven by the past, these children and grandchildren of former slaves and sharecroppers needed no Atlanta preacher to jumpstart their efforts.

By the time Roscoe Nix heard King speak at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, he had already led boycotts of segregated restaurants in Montgomery County and helped integrate public schools. For the Greenville, Ala. native, the tenets preached by King were nothing new. His father had already ignited his flame.

‘‘You would have had to know my father,” said Nix, one of the first African Americans elected to the county school board. ‘‘He just didn’t believe that black folks were ignorant to white people. He was a man who stood up for what he believed. He took some chances. The protection of his home and family were paramount to him.”

Was listening to King’s speech a sort of turning point for Nix?

‘‘Not for me,” he said. ‘‘I was past the turning point. I was there because I believed the things Dr. King said.”

County Executive Isiah Leggett’s turning point occurred early in his life, as a young man in college at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La.

As student government president, his methods were more aggressive than King’s, he admits.

‘‘During the early part of college I was part of this assertive, confrontational kind of leadership and thought that the ministers, King and others, were moving too slow,” Leggett said of his experiences. ‘‘As you get older, you come around, and I found that he was right.”

Leggett met King twice: once in high school and a second time during a summer job in Georgia.

For Leggett, reconciling his aggressive methods with King’s more civil ones got even more difficult when he joined the Army and was shipped to Baltimore to quell the uprisings when the civil rights leader was assassinated.

‘‘It was an interesting paradox. In the span of a few short months I went from leading the student government and fighting for civil rights to military service,” he said. ‘‘It was almost surreal.”