Story and photos by Gail Fineberg
An 87-year-old woman’s 3,000-mile pilgrimage from a small Northern California city to the nation’s Capitol on the coldest days of the new year did not end with President Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, which she witnessed from a wheelchair parked some 40 yards from the new president.
The next day, Isaac Lowe, for 65 years an advocate of civil rights for her small black community, witnessed some of her own history preserved for all time in the archives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the largest and most-used manuscript collection at the Library of Congress.
“That’s my letter,” she gasped, looking at the document placed before her by Adrienne Cannon, African American history and culture specialist for the Library’s Manuscript Division.
In her letter, dated May 5, 1975, Lowe assured the national organization she was taking all the necessary steps to retain the NAACP charter for the Redding, Calif., branch of the organization. “We never lost that charter,” said Lowe, who, with her husband, Vernon, shared in the stewardship and leadership of the Redding NAACP branch for 40 years.
Lowe discovered that the Redding NAACP branch history was even older than she had thought. Cannon produced another letter, written to the national organization in 1939 by the Rev. J. R. Scott of 1814 Grant Street, Redding, requesting a charter for the Redding branch. “I never knew about that,” Lowe said.
Accompanying the letter was a list of prospective founders—all names that Lowe and her friend Lessie Washington knew.
Redding branch records from 1976 to the present have not been processed, and those may contain documentation of what happened between 1939 and June 5, 1950, the date of the NAACP branch charter Lowe has kept all these years.
Using original documents housed in the NAACP and other Manuscript Division collections, Cannon guided Lowe, her grandson Russell and Washington through a two-hour African American history lesson.
Milestones in this history seemed to point toward this winter of 2009, with the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday on Jan. 19, the day before America’s first African American president was sworn into office on Jan. 20. The NAACP will mark its centenary year on Feb. 12, which is the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth and the date that the Library will open a major Lincoln exhibition.
In Lowe’s personal history, these dates stand out. She admired King and drew strength from his courage as she conducted her own almost-daily civil rights struggle. With the force of the NAACP behind her and the help of local attorneys who provided free legal advice, she spent some 65 years lobbying city, county and school officials for safe, affordable housing for Redding’s black families, for jobs (applications got “lost”), for fair and equal treatment of black children in predominantly white schools, for fairness and justice for African Americans caught up in the judicial system.
The larger community came to recognize Lowe’s contributions. Richard Abbe, a superior court judge at the time, mentored her and appointed her to the county grand jury in 1966. The Redding City Council named her Woman of the Year in 1993. “That’s the only time in my life I was speechless,” she said.
After King’s death in 1968, Lowe eventually won the support of city hall in her effort to raise funds for construction of the only Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center between Sacramento and Oregon. An architect she knew designed the building for no charge.
She organized an annual city observance of King’s birthday with bell-ringing and speeches. “This past Monday was the only day I have not rung that bell for years,” she said, adding that her grandson and 3-year-old great-grandson stood in for her on Jan. 19.
“Because of Dr. King, I’m here. Obama accepted the nomination for president on Sept. 15, my birthday, and he was inaugurated almost on Dr. King’s birthday,” she said.
Lowe’s dream of attending the inauguration became reality as the greater Redding community rallied to help her. After her longtime congressional representative, Rep. Wally Herger, a Republican, supplied three tickets for seats below the inaugural stand, the local press picked up the story and friends and fans helped pay for three plane fares.
She didn’t know how she could stand for hours in long lines (she can walk slowly with aid of a cane), but a local hospital, where grandson Russell works, offered use of a wheelchair for the trip. By Saturday, Jan. 17, the day before departure, she and her companions had a place to stay in the District and her bags were packed with warm clothing. Then late that afternoon she fell, and spent six hours in an emergency room. “They said they wanted to operate. I said ‘No way.'”
“My life is kind of magic,” Lowe said, shrugging and smiling. “Here I am.”
Shaking their heads in amazement while Russell snapped pictures, Lowe and her friend Lessie Washington gazed at an autograph manuscript of “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass,” published in 1881. Written and edited in his own hand, this was Douglass’ third and final revision of his autobiography in which he gives an account of his early years in slavery in Maryland, his escape by posing as a freed black man, his abolitionist activities as a newspaper publisher and speaker, his association with Lincoln and anticipation of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Showing Lowe the NAACP’s original founding documents, Cannon recounted the organization’s origin. William English Walling, a labor activist and descendant of a wealthy Kentucky slaveholding family, and his wife, Anna Strunsky, a revolutionary Russian Jew, traveled to Abraham Lincoln’s hometown, Springfield, Ill., to investigate a bloody race riot that had erupted on Aug. 14, 1908. In response to a rumor of a black man’s rape of a white woman, a white mob lynched two black men, a barber and an 84-year-old widower. The governor called 4,200 state militia troops to suppress the riot, which lasted two days, killing eight and injuring more than 70. Walling wrote an expose of the violence and the Independent published it on Sept., 3 1908. Social worker Mary White Ovington read Walling’s article and suggested the formation of an interracial group to advocate the rights of all citizens.
They issued a call for a conference to plan a national civil rights organization. “The Call,” which Cannon displayed in its protective cover, was issued on Abraham Lincoln’s centenary, Feb.12, 1909, and the National Negro Conference was held in New York, May 31 to June 1, 1909. From this effort the National Negro Committee, or Committee of Forty, was formed to plan a permanent organization. At the second annual meeting, May 12, 1910, the Committee adopted the formal name of the organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Cannon explained why the committee named the new organization the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. W.E.B. Du Bois and other founders involved in the anti-imperialist movement “expressed an interest in the rights not only of African Americans but also of people of color under colonial rule around the world, ” Cannon said.
She also displayed the “Platform Adopted by the National Negro Committee, 1909,” the NAACP’s manifesto, which among other proclamations called for the immediate enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment, voting rights for all citizens, and an end to disparate educations of black and white students.
The next gem Cannon produced was a memo written on Nov. 17, 1941, by Thurgood Marshall, then a young NAACP lawyer who was traveling through the South in search of voting-rights cases that would stand a chance of winning in the U.S. Supreme Court. He found one in Texas, where the state legislature had passed a law that in effect barred African Americans from voting in the Democratic Party’s primary elections. The Supreme Court struck down that state law on April 3, 1944.
Lowe has told her own story of discrimination in Texas in the 1940s. A young mother, she was on her way home to husband Vernon and California from a family reunion in her native Texas. For four hours she stood at a bus stop in Texas, holding their heavy 3-year-old boy. Two westward-bound buses stopped and boarded white passengers, but the drivers told her there were no more seats when it came her turn to get on. A black soldier in uniform understood what was happening and said, “‘Come on. I’ll say you’re my wife and this is my son. They’ll have to board you.'”
Lowe and her baby were allowed on, but she had to stand for the entire10-hour trip while the soldier in uniform could have a seat. “It made me mad,” Lowe said. “That’s when I decided to fight back.”
Young Marshall won case after case for the NAACP, capping his career as a lawyer by arguing the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Cannon showed her history students three notes handwritten by Supreme Court Justices William O. Douglas, Harold Burton and Felix Frankfurter to Chief Justice Earl Warren (a former governor of California). Each congratulated the chief upon convincing the full court to support his opinion in the famous case that outlawed segregated schools in the United States.
“This is a day of joy,” wrote Frankfurter.
Thoughts turned to the previous day of joy, when Isaac Lowe, Lessie Washington and Russell Lowe had wept and laughed and cheered while watching the first African American take the presidential oath of office.
Even though Lowe has devoted her long life to the civil-rights struggle, she said the work isn’t finished.
“Education is still a problem,” she said. “Animosity exists between black and white kids … and the teachers don’t do anything about it.”
Nonetheless, she is optimistic. “It’s a new day,” she said.
A scholarship fund to help deserving minority students earn a bachelor’s degree is being established in her name by Shasta County Citizens Against Racism, adding to the milestones that mark her life of public service.
Gail Fineberg is editor of the Library of Congress staff newsletter, The Gazette, where this article originally appeared. (She is also a former Redding resident and Record Searchlight reporter.)