The Unidentified “White” ManPosted 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.