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Civil Rights Activist Sybil Morial Talks Black Womanhood and the Era of Jim Crow

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Integrated classroom at Anacostia High School, Washington, D.C.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Civil Rights activist, Sybil Morial had 3 'aha' moments that served as an awakening for her. As a young woman, she attended Boston University where her peer group included the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Morial has an unrelenting spirit of activism and a wealth of knowledge about the Black human condition that she voices with great authority and command, but manages to still be approachable and warm. We asked her about Black Girl Magic, her experience growing up in Jim Crow and "making it" in America. "I think it's comfortable to do those things that are truly Black," she states. "If you want to be mainstream then you have to fit in, but you do not give up your Blackness," she continues offering a soft reminder to always remember your roots. Our assistant editor, Viginia Lowman spoke with the activist and author of her new memoir, Witness to Change: From Jim Crow to Political Empowermentand not only did she give us the best definition of Black Girl Magic yet, but she also offered us life lessons and personal insight into a world many of us have only learned about in history class.

ESSENCE: What is one moment that stands out to you as the epitome of Black Girl Magic?

Sybil Morial: There are three 'aha' moments that stand out. The first moment was when I was a student at Boston University. Martin Luther King was a student there and we were friendly. He always preached at churches in the Boston area— he was a good friend, but also an incredibly gifted speaker. One sermon that he preached was about women. "'Woman' is a great institution," he spoke about our intelligence, our resourcefulness—all of the assets that he attributed to women. And, that sparked my feminine spirit. A few months later, I was at a Great Voices meeting and the book we were covering was W.E.B Dubois' The Souls of Black Folk and there was a quote in there, "I most sincerely doubt if any other race of women could have brought its fineness up through so devilish a fire." That was a spark on not only but feminine spirit, but also my Blackness. Then, in the 60's, "Black is beautiful" became a mantra. I'd always accepted being Black and what it was to be Black. We were different from White people and we loved it, but I never thought of it as being beautiful. That mantra lifted my spirit. Yes, we are beautiful. We are what we are and our features. our hair and our skin color are all beautiful. Those three instances are my Black Girl Magic. Those three instances have brought me to where I am— a proud Black woman.

ESSENCE: My grandmother grew up in the Jim Crow generation. I listen to her recount her life sometimes and I feel as though I take my freedom for granted. Do you find that to be common amongst young people?

MORIAL: I think that's why my memoir is important. Those of us in that Jim Crow generation have not written about it. It's passed down from grandmothers, but when it's written, it gets to more people who won't hear those stories.

ESSENCE: What was the turning point for you in terms of change regarding race relations?

MORIAL: The turning point for me was the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in public schools. That opened up the whole world to me. There was hope. Even though we didn't know what it meant, it symbolized the law being on our side, at least in public schools. So when I stepped up to apply to these two white colleges for two courses in the summer time. I didn't really think of it as a test, but it was a test. I went as a message 'I'm here because you need to see me and you need to realize what's coming.' That was the attitude. I knew that there were going to put me out because it was against the law in Louisiana for Blacks and Whites to go to school together, but I was there for four days. Students saw me; teachers saw me; and, it put the message in their minds that these Black students are going to be coming to our schools.

ESSENCE: What was it like to mentally prepare to step into an all White space and defy the stereotypes set against Blacks?

MORIAL: I went to Boston University for grad school, where the student body was predominantly White, so that aspect did not intimidate me. There were stereotypes against Black people, but I set out to test [the racial climate] and let them see what was coming.

ESSENCE: What were your emotions dealing with the integration of schools? I suppose it is more a matter of needing to want it more than you are afraid of it. I do believe that people in your generation are much more daring than my generation when it comes to being willing to sacrifice for the greater good.

MORIAL: I simply thought of it like this: This is what we have to do to get where we need to be. Your contribution is small, but it gets to be a critical mass when you have a lot of people stepping forward and challenging the laws; and it worked. The laws were changed; though I did have moments where I felt it was terribly unfortunate that we have to go through this. I just had the resolve that this is just what we have to do.

ESSENCE: In your book, Witness to Change: From Jim Crow to Empowerment you mention a moment of fear between you and your husband after the president of the NAACP received death threats, and you began to fear for your children.

MORIAL: It was scary. I never thought of pulling back because my husband was stepping out too. He was very proactive and I was moving along side him in my own way. Later on when he was mayor it got to be really bad, but when it came to my children's safety, I just prayed a lot. My children were strong because I think they saw the importance of what we were doing. We managed to pass our values onto them; it's still evident today in their adult lives.

ESSENCE: In those moments of fear, is there a balance activism and protecting your family? 

MORIAL: I prayed a lot. In my heart I knew it had to be done. The only scary parts were when my children were exposed. When you make a decision to do these things its almost a gut reaction. The Lord was just holding me by the hand through all of these bad experiences. I do think you have to have faith. You have to believe that you're doing the right thing and that somebody is looking out for you. My generation is infused with that religious faith.

ESSENCE: It's not uncommon now for celebrities of color to suppress their Blackness and choose to identify as 'American,' what are your thoughts on that?

MORIAL: I think they make their own choices. In today's society, we are still oppressed; not to the degree that we were though the years in the past, but we're still not totally accepted. We still are not equal.

ESSENCE: As a Black Millenial, I've grown up in integrated schools; it wasn't until recently that I'd experienced or seen blatant displays of racism in news. Having grown up in the era of Jim Crowe, how are you not angry?

MORIAL: You have to remember that you cannot generalize people. Some are bad—not all. When I think about "Black is beautiful", I think of white people and some of my white friends have been so moved by my book and my story because it made them uncomfortable that their friends Sybil had to go through this. But, it was also an admission that the whole pattern of behavioral history of several centuries of oppression from slavery to segregation was a moral error of anormous proportions and I think some White people think about that and say, "My God! We had these people working like animals for no pay; we fed them because we know that they had to be healthy enough to pick the cotton." [Whites] created what we came to be.  We talk about the violence—some of [Black] people have not come out of the rut, have not had the benefit of a good education so that they can be productive citizens. They fell through the cracks and they haven't been able to stand up on their own.

You can purchase Mrs. Morial's book, Witness to Change: From Jim Crow to Empowerment on Amazon.