Black History Month: When “Now Us” Saved the Day in Roanoke, Virginia

In 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. The municipal trash collectors were on strike for better wages, and King had come to support their protest. Before his address, King was on the balcony of the Lorraine motel when he was shot to death by James Earl Ray. With the death of the “Moses of the Civil Rights Movement,” 110 American cities, including Washington D.C., Baltimore, Kansas City, Detroit, Pittsburg, Cincinnati, Trenton, Wilmington, and Louisville, erupted in violence. The toll from the riots was devastating. More than 1,000 dead, buildings in the thousands burned, whole neighborhoods destroyed, at least $100 million worth of damages, and incredible loss of local businesses and jobs.

We have been reminded of those days in the more recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland, which have been devastated by riots in response to the deaths of two black men at the hands of law enforcement.

The conditions that support riots, though there will be disagreement, can be catalogued: A trigger event that arouses the passions of many citizens in whom the anger and hurt of neglect, disenfranchisement, poverty, and discrimination that has long been smoldering with little attention or recognition; The lack of jobs and economic opportunities; An insensitive police department that believes it can keep order through brute force; The presence of thugs who will take advantage of the situation to burn and loot the very neighborhood that they are in name supporting. Riots in one city can easily become the copycat incentive for riots in another.

However, less examined is why riots do not occur in places where there are similar conditions. Little attention is given to what prevents them from happening. We do know that it was Mayor Lindsey personally addressing blacks in Harlem, Robert Kennedy’s speech on the assassination of King in Indianapolis, and James Brown’s concert and leadership in Boston, which played a role in averting mayhem in those cities. More recently it was the peaceful, forgiving reaction of the congregation of the Emanuel African American Episcopal Church to the brutal killing of eight parishioners and a senior pastor by 21-year-old white supremacist, Dylan Roof, that averted violence in a southern city that proudly displayed the flag of the confederacy, the symbol of support for a slave economy. The murder was absolutely brutal, and clearly racially motivated by hate groups who had radicalized this young man to think that he was carrying out God’s will by murdering defenseless parishioners in cold blood. In this case there is little question that the leadership of that congregation, committed to forgiveness and peace, carried the day and prevented violence.

In April 1968 in the City of Roanoke, Virginia, there was no riot. The members of Now Us, a very active group of young black men, under the leadership of Jackie Brown, decided not to shed blood by burning, killing and looting. Instead, they led a march to the blood bank to give blood to help others in need. For their leadership, Now Us members and family members along with TAP CEO Bristow Hardin, Jr., was awarded a Peace Award by Mills Godwin, Jr., the governor of Virginia, in the presence of Sergeant Shriver, who was President Johnson’s director of the Office of Economic Opportunity.

The person most responsible for the organization of Now Us was Jackie Brown. Jackie was an 18-year-old who was widely respected throughout the African American sections of Southwest and Northwest Roanoke. Jackie had been a track and field sensation and captain of the team for all black Lucy Addison High School. He owned a barbershop, worked at the General Electric plant in neighboring Salem, and attended Virginia Western Community College. He also owned his own home on Sherman Drive where he resided with his wife, Angela, and was well known by African American civic, church and community leaders.

Now Us was largely composed of young people from the communities of Northwest, Southwest, Rugby, and the public housing projects. The membership included Harold and Donald Reynolds, George Jones, Boo Perry, Gene William, Pie Sameles, Wayne Gravity, Charles Panel, Bird Woody, David Thompson, Kenny Linier, Joseph Warner, Kenny Linier, Joseph Warner, Robert Stevenson, Chuck Patrick, Allen Walker, Elem Coles, Deimar Erving, Ivory Morton, Dennis Staples, Ronnie Staples, Curtis Robinson, Beverly Warren and many, many more.

Total Action Against Poverty (now known as “Total Action for Progress", or, TAP), under the leadership of Bristow Hardin, Jr., had invested heavily in the community group from the beginning. Through the late sixties, the TAP organizers had been working with low income rural and urban communities to help them organize around issues important to them and work together to solve them. Senior citizens worked together to create a transportation program by collecting so many “green stamps” that they were able to buy three station wagons to transport seniors to the grocery store and doctor appointments. Rural families, with TAP’s assistance, worked to develop water systems that ended up bringing potable water and waste disposal to more than 1,000 families. In the African American sections of Roanoke, young blacks were organized to address issues important to them as well.

The seeds of discontent were present in Roanoke upon the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., in spite of the fact that an interracial group of business men had desegregated local businesses before sit-ins were resorted to. There was a great sense of disenfranchisement, particularly on the part of the young. All of the swimming pools in the area were private and closed to people of color. The Roanoke Times and World News refused to print the pictures of black brides on the society page. Jobs were scarce. Racial stereotypes were palpable. All of us who were working with TAP’s community organization component were out on the street most of the night after King’s assassination looking for the first sign of trouble and talking with neighborhood people with whom we had built relationships.

This included Jackie Brown. Under the leadership of Jackie, Now Us had already been active in addressing concerns and problems of black youth and working with the community to connect young people with jobs. Now Us had been involved in civic projects like trash collection and helping TAP to build integrated neighborhood swimming pools for the young. They had conducted outdoor dances and managed tensions so that there was never any need to call the police. They also held the first black dinner at the Hotel Roanoke where blacks had previously only been admitted as maids and dining room servers. Because of Jackie Brown‘s leadership, supported by Bristow Hardin, lines of communication had been forged. So in Roanoke, Virginia in April of 1968 blood was spilled. Not in the streets but at the blood bank!

Today Mr. Brown lives in Kansas City, Missouri. He is an engineer with a bachelor’s degree in quality management and a master’s degree in metallurgy. He has worked for Northup Aircraft working on the F18, F16, and F22 fighter jets. In addition, he has worked on the space shuttles Challenger and Discovery for NASA as a senior project quality engineer. He was senior quality engineer on the Lockheed F35 fighter jet in Huntsville, Al, and worked directly under Sally Ride, the astronaut, on the ERB Satellite in Boulder, Co. More recently, Mr. Brown was senior quality engineer on the Arioun Unmanned Space Drone for Aurora Flight Sciences in Columbus, MS. Presently he lives in Kansas City and works as senior quality engineer on the Airbus 797 in Kansas City, MO. Jackie has just accepted the position of aerospace quality manager for Jetaire Flight Systems, located in Fayetteville, Georgia, which is owned by an African American.

Looking back at his experience working with TAP and the members of Now Us, Jackie says what sticks in his mind most is that being involved in Now Us made a difference in the future of blacks of the Roanoke Valley. “Being a young black man, I experienced a vote of pride with a direction for the future. Most of all, we all received a sense of hope.”

TAP will hold its annual Black History Month celebration on February 23, 2016, at 10 a.m. at St. John's Episcopal Church in Roanoke, Virginia. This event will be a celebration of African American culture featuring entertainment, guest speakers, and an awards ceremony, followed by a soul food luncheon. This event is free and open to the public. If you plan to attend, they ask that you register for the event by clicking here.

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