Copyright ©2020 - Carlyle Fielding Stewart, III, All Rights Reserved.
Jun 2013 12

The Unidentified “White” Man

Posted in Articles, Democracy, Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement

You may have seen the famous photo of him marching along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Forman, Ralph Abernathy and John Lewis. He looks to be white, but he is not. He was a member of the SCLC board for many years. He helped organize citizens for marches, including the 47 mile long Selma-to-Montgomery march. He provided soaring, melodic musical renditions as fitting introits to many of Dr. King’s soul stirring sermons and speeches. His name is the Rev. Dr. Jesse L. Douglas Sr., and he played an important role in the American Civil Rights Movement.

Some people claim to have marched and served with Dr. King, but when the truth is told many who tell these tales were not there. Others wish they could have been there but will then acknowledge that such musings are just part of a larger nostalgic longing to give their present lives more meaning. They acknowledge their fervent desire to have been part of world shaking historical events, that helped positively change our nation, during a more glorious era. This is especially true when current movements for civil and human rights appear to have lost their momentum due to emerging political KulturKamps – or culture wars –  which operate to diminish the true value of passionate social engagement.

Now 83 years of age, his memory is still precise and vivid. Dr. Douglas wistfully and readily recalls being sent into meetings with white people as a decoy to get valuable “intel” to help Civil Rights leaders plan and implement their grand strategies for freedom.  He often did this at great risk to his own life. Dr. Douglas’ legal actions helped to pave the way for the desegregation of white restaurants in the State of Georgia Capital Building in the 1960s, through Douglas vs. Vandemer.  He did so while also meeting the demands of pastoring full-time a Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. In our assessments of the Civil Rights Movement, we seldom grasp the herculean tasks of organizing so many people, crafting monumentally viable Movement strategies and tactics, all while sustaining a collective focus on achieving the Movement’s goals – in face of violent opposition.

Well, Rev. Douglas was indeed there. His son, Jesse Jr. says that he was known as the “unidentified white man” then, and even now. As people view Rev. Douglas’ photographs with him locking arms and marching with Dr. King, many wonder who the “white man” is. They see him as they do the many actual white people who really were there, giving their time, and in some cases making the ultimate sacrifice with their very own lives as they served in the Movement.

In a recent conversation with former Ambassador Andrew Young while attending a scholarship banquet of Real Life 101 sponsored by founder Sid Taylor, the former mayor and protege of Dr. King fondly recalled Dr. Douglas valuable artistic and political contribution to the Movement. Now that’s street cred worth imitating. Real Life 101 is an outstanding organization serving young African American males at risk by providing college scholarships, laptops and meaningful mentoring support. Their motto is “We are investing in Education and not Incarceration.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the march for civil rights that was held here in Detroit – just months before the March on Washington where Dr. King would deliver the “I Have a Dream” speech that he tested here first, we should take time to recall and honor Movement heroes and heroines like the Rev. Douglas. He was there, both on the forefront and behind the scenes, shaping one of the most important crusades for nonviolent social change in American history. He committed himself to the life-changing work by which so many Americans have been mightily blessed and for which so many others have taken vicariously unmerited credit. Let us forever applaud the Rev. Dr. Jesse L. Douglas Sr.

6 Comments

  1. Winston F. Douglas says:

    Thank you Dr. Stewart for sharing this article spotlighting my father. He along with all those that labored and gave of themselves for the benefit of generations following need to be honored and thanked and their stories chronicled in history. Again, thank you!

    • cfstewart says:

      You are welcome my brother. Thank you for reaching out. The great soldiers of the struggle are those who have ultimately loved God, loved their country and loved the people. They are not self seekers of their own light, but those who have been willing to share the light of peace and justice and compassion and love to make the world through God a better place for all to live. God bless you!

  2. Vance P. Ross says:

    Dr! What a gift to assist our knowledge here! Thank you!

  3. Pamela Dickson Harris says:

    I have only recently discovered this article via the miracle of the internet. I was born in 1954 in Montgomery. Reverend Douglas was our pastor at First CME Church. He was very loved by the entire congregation. He would come by the kindergarten and talk to the children, sometimes picking us up.

    He knew my parents very well; our congregation was distraught when he was transferred. We managed to stay in touch with him for a few years afterwards- even visiting with him in Birmingham in later years.

    Thank you so much for this profile as I have thought of him and his wife (they had no children at the time). I know this picture very well. Thank you so much for writing and sharing it so that all of us can remember sacrifices that were made by so many during that crucial period in American history.

    • Carlyle Fielding Stewart III says:

      Pamela:

      You are welcome and thanks for your letter. We are sorry to report that Mrs.Douglas recently passed away.

  4. Ken Baldwin says:

    I’m a white male based in the UK.
    Thanks to the power of the internet I have seen your page, and enjoyed reading it.
    Now this is what I call brave, to stand up for injustice.

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Copyright ©2020 - Carlyle Fielding Stewart, III, All Rights Reserved.