I am a hero junkie. I look to meet heroes to learn about what they have done and what makes them tick. I am very blessed when they accept my invitation to become activist partners and soul-friends. This morning, I had coffee with my new friend Mamie Currie Hughes, an 83-year-old mother of five. Ms. Hughes shared with me that not so long ago she was not allowed to come into a coffee shop like this one unless she was brought in by a white man. The humility and modesty I saw in Mamie belie the unbending determination she has exhibited for decades as a bold community and civil rights activist.
Mamie has long been prominent for her political service. She represented the 4th district in the Jackson County Legislature for 6 years in the 1970s, and eventually chaired its Health and Welfare Committee. During this time, Ms. Hughes was chosen by her peers for the honored position of Vice-Chair of the Legislature, and a few years later she was appointed by President Carter to be Regional Director for ACTION, a Federal Volunteer Service Agency, where she oversaw more than 20,000 volunteers in four states. She was also an Ombudsman for Bruce R. Watkins Roadway and a Founding Member of the Central Exchange. Mamie Hughes is one of the only women in Kansas City who has a bridge named after her. During the 71 Highway road construction, her assistance with negotiations on behalf of the residents of the area inspired the city to come together to make the project successful. She calls it a “people bridge” and notes that it’s for all of us, signifying people tearing down walls.
Mamie has served on the administrative boards of an impressive list of organizations. Today she serves on boards of the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City, Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center, and the Historic Jazz Foundation. She serves on the advisory boards of Friendship House/Catherine's Place, and is an active member of the Panel of American Women and the Women’s Public Service Network. The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education honored Mamie as the center’s 2006 “Community Champion.” Ms. Hughes was the first African-American in Kansas City to receive the “Woman of the Year” award by the Central Exchange.
Even taking into account the heroic efforts and accomplishments already cited, it is as a teacher that she has truly shown her heroism. At one point, she had 72 students in one classroom at her segregated school, in a room built for only 32 students. Throughout her life, Mamie has been an active teacher on how discrimination, racism, and bigotry have affected lives and notes that “there’s work that still needs to be done.” She has been recognized as a woman who has “changed the heart of [Kansas City].”
Many Americans mistakenly believe that racial segregation was prevalent in the deep South but not in Missouri, the geographical center of the United States. However, Missouri started out as a slave territory: The Missouri Compromise of 1820-1821 brought Missouri into the Union as a slave state. In addition, the Dred Scott case of 1857 revolved around a black man who had lived in free territory, and had then been taken to the slave state of Missouri. The Supreme Court’s decision declared that no black person could become an American citizen, and made slavery virtually legal in every state, adding to the sectional tension that would precipitate the Civil War. Interestingly, Missouri did not join the eleven states that seceded to form the Confederacy, and joined Delaware, Maryland, and Kentucky as border slave states to stay within the Union. Even after the Civil War, racial segregation continued to be the norm throughout the region. Indeed, the modern civil rights movement is widely believed to have taken off after the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954; the first racially segregated school system cited was Topeka, in the neighboring state of Kansas.
During the often dangerous history of the civil rights struggle, Ms. Hughes was an activist on voter registration issues and was a part of protests and boycotts for equality. She told me that they were unable to try on any clothes in department stores and there were no restaurants they could eat at (except for one small hot dog stand). She served as a Community Planner for the Black Economic Union of Greater Kansas City, and later as its President and Chief Executive Officer. She has been a lifetime member of the NAACP, and was very involved with the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and the SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee).
While legal, institutional racial segregation is no longer an issue, there are tremendous challenges ahead for black Americans, particularly during this recession. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in January 2013 the seasonally adjusted rate of unemployment among black people was 13.8%, and among black teenagers (age 16-19) it was 37.8%, both nearly double the rate for white Americans. Even more challenging, Census Bureau statistics revealed that by 2010, the median net worth of white households was $110,729, over twenty times as much as the median black household net worth of $4,955. This gap has widened considerably since 2005. In addition, many social services are under attack, and the layoffs of hundreds of thousands of government workers has further diminished the ability of the government to help. Clearly, there is an economic divide today as pernicious as segregation.
In spite of all the reasons that Mamie has to resent white Americans, she has resisted stereotyping all people. We would do well to consider the wise advice that Mamie’s grandmother taught her: “All white people are not your enemies and all black people are not your friends.” We await the next Mamie Currie Hughes, whose contribution and approach is singular in our own time, to help set things right for a new generation, in coalition with all who seek to promote social justice.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"