Inspiring Histories of Two Black & White Civil Rights Heroes in Alabama
The Federation/LAF's John Zippert Shares These Meaningful Accounts
EPES, ALABAMA.... In the month of December 2006, the state of Alabama lost two heroes in its social change and community development. During that month we lost Ezra Cunningham of Beatrice and Jerry Roden Jr. of Pisgah, who lived much of his life in Auburn. Both men lived into their 80's and spent their lives working for social justice until a few days before they died. They lived long enough to see some of the results of the movement for civil and human rights they joined when it was dangerous to do so. They were still on the battlefield when they died, trying to make some of the difficult changes that still need to be made.
Cunningham was Black from a small town in Monroe County who started registering Blacks to vote in the 1940's. He was a school teacher until they fired him for activism, taught returning WWII veterans agricultural skills, and helped to organize the Southwest Alabama Farmers Cooperative Association (SWAFCA) to aid Black farmers get better prices for their crops and retain their landholdings. In 1967, as SWAFCA's representative, he was a charter member of the Federation of Southern
I first met Ezra when we worked together to organize the Federation. Later he joined the Federation staff as Coordinator of the Alabama State Association of Cooperatives and served for 30 years in a paid capacity - he worked an additional 10 years in retirement as a volunteer. Ezra also participated in establishing other groups, including the Alabama New South Coalition, Beat 10 Action Group, Alabama Council on Human Relations and many others.
Jerry Roden Jr., who was white, was a veteran of WWII, an English professor at Auburn University, editor of the Cleburne News and the Auburn Alumni News. He joined the Alabama Council on Human Relations (ACHR) in the 1950's, when it was one of the few organizations working for civil rights and equality in the state. Jerry spent most of the rest of his life working with the ACHR and served as the Executive Director for the past three decades. He worked as an English teacher for Laotian and other refugees from Southeast Asia who settled in east Alabama. He also served on the board of SEASHA, a cooperative
development and affordable housing organization in east Alabama.
I first met Jerry, when Lewis Black (twin brother of former state Rep. Lucius Black), who was the Director of the Federation's Rural Training and Research Center at Epes, asked Jerry to come to Sumter County to assist us in buying 160 acres of land at a public sale on the courthouse steps in Livingston. Mr. Black did not want to call attention to the Federation buying the land for fear either it would drive up the price or result in the sale being withdrawn. Jerry came in a weather-beaten jacket looking like any other white person trying to buy some land at a public sale; until at the end of the bidding, when he had the winning bid, and announced that he had bought the land for the Federation! The lawyers and courthouse regulars who ran the sale looked about ready to die or kill him when he made his announcement.This incident showed the kind of courage and integrity he had.
I joined the board of the Alabama Council on Human Relations a few years after this and began working with Jerry on a regular basis. Jerry started every Council board meeting with a prayer and a poem, usually a poem by a Black poet, to help stimulate discussion. He was a great supporter of our work at the Greene County Democrat and occasionally submitted articles and commentaries which we printed.
Jerry and Ezra worked together on the Alabama Council on Human Relations Board of Directors for many years. At the time of their untimely deaths, they were working on a campaign to get the Alabama State Board of Education and local school boards around the state to incorporate more Black History and African-American literature and culture into their standard curriculum and school libraries. They wanted all schools in the state, not just schools in the Black Belt, to be cognizant, aware and active in
studying, understanding and appreciating the role and involvement of Black people in the history and culture of the state, the nation and the world.
We must lift up and continue this important work started by Ezra Cunningham and Jerry Roden Jr. They were role models, mentors and heroes for progressive social change in Alabama. Their lives stood for something meaningful and we must follow their example and push the boundaries of their success to higher levels.
(John Zippert is Program Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives//Land Assistance Fund and is Co-publiusher and Editor of the "Greene County Democrat.")