James Orange, Civil Rights Legend
On February 16, 2008 we lost the Reverend James Orange. He was 65. And what a remarkable sixty-five years they were! His funeral was on February 23 at the International King Chapel on the Morehouse College campus. It is one the few chapels in Atlanta that could accommodate the hundreds of people who would want to pay their respects to the great man. But then a funeral for James at a Chapel named for Martin Luther King, Jr. was most appropriate.
James is survived by Cleophas, known as Cleo, his wife of 39 years, daughters Jamida, Deirdre and Tamara, and son Cleon. Another daughter, Pamela, died last year. It’s thought that the loss of his daughter last year took its toll on him.
In addition to James Orange, in the past few years we have lost other giants in the country’s civil rights movement including Rosa Parks (2005), James Forman (2005), Coretta Scott King (2006), and Anne Braden (2006). On February 22, the day prior to James’ funeral, the legendary Johnny Carr died in Montgomery at age 97. She was a friend of Rosa Parks and in 1967 had taken over from Martin Luther King the leadership of the Montgomery Improvement Association. James, of course, knew them all and if he were still with us he would help to honor Johnny Carr.
James was black and raised in the mid-1900’s in the heart of the Jim Crow South in Birmingham (sometimes called Bombingham or the Johannesburg of the United States) which was also home of the infamous arch segregationist Police Chief Eugene "Bull" Connor. Connor was known, among other infamous acts, for the hosing down of and using attack dogs on numerous young black protestors in the 1960’s. James Orange was one of them.
As an adult, James was a big man physically. He was 6’3", weighed 300 pounds and referred to by some as the "gentle giant." It’s true he was gentle. He also had a wonderful laugh and singing voice that projected everywhere and that he used frequently at his church or for protest chants. But James was also a passionate, relentless and ferocious advocate for justice. In no way did his gentleness and kindness belie his for passion for justice, against injustice and work toward establishing the "beloved community" as described by Martin Luther King.
There are some who attribute the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to James Orange. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is otherwise known as one of the most significant laws to launch of the second reconstruction in the United States and the most significant challenge to the end of Jim Crow in the South. By extension, because of his work in the 1960’s, it is said James Orange, is central to the election to political office of blacks, Latinos, and women throughout the country. But James was even about more that that!
His was a legacy of perhaps being one of the best organizers that evolved out of the 1960’s civil rights movement. Never one to take center stage, he would be chagrined at me making such a statement. Nevertheless, the funeral and memorial service the evening before was filled with the most notable national, local and regional civil rights leaders, labor leaders and international notables on the stage in the services such as Andrew Young, Reverend Joseph Lowery, Mrs. Evelyn Lowery, John Lewis, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Walter Fauntroy, Dorothy Cotton, Reverend Timothy McDonald, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, the King children Martin Luther King III and Bernice King, labor leaders Richard Trumka and Stewart Acuff; a South African delegation of ten that included S’bu Ndebele, the Premier of KwaZulu-Natal; and many other national, local and regional activists too many to name here.
All of them relied on James one way or the other, whether it be to organize a protest march to challenge the erosion of civil liberties; organize a poor peoples march; commemorate the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march; work on a political campaign; register voters; organize union protests in support of workers; camp out in Newt Gingrich’s office in Marietta, Georgia in protest of his "Contract on America" as we called it; assist workers in union drives or protests; organize assistance in voter registration, voter education and improved infrastructure in a new South Africa; organize the King Week celebrations in Atlanta, in particular the march to commemorate King’s work and current struggles for justice; or simply and profoundly to be friend or mentor. And that list is but scratching the surface.
I recall in the 1980’s when Jesse Jackson was running for the White House. James had been organizing for him. When Jackson came to Atlanta for a rally we were all seated in a huge church that was filled to capacity and waiting for the program to begin. Jackson announced that it would be delayed, as there was no way it could begin without James in the house. Shortly after, when James appeared with his group of young folks and sat unobtrusively in the back of the church, the program began.
James began his civil rights career as a young man just one year out of high school in 1962 in Birmingham, Alabama. In an interview of Reverend Orange in 2000 by Fred Gaboury (late dean of labor journalism for the People’s Weekly World), James describes his initiation into the civil rights movement
"I was a year out of high school," said Orange, who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. "I had met a beautiful young woman who sang in the choir at the Monday night mass meetings in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. We were to meet afterwards and go have a soda and talk."
The church was jam-packed with a standing-room-only crowd except for two benches in the front. Never one to hesitate, Orange walked up and sat down on one of them.
"I listened to Ralph Abernathy’s sermon," Orange remembered, "and the longer I listened the more intently I listened as I became absorbed in his message. It was 1962 and the movement was determined to break segregation in Birmingham, the city of Sheriff ‘Bull’ Connor and his police dogs."
After the services, Rev. Edward Gardner, a leader of the Alabama Improvement Association that was leading the campaign, asked people to come forward. As they moved to the front of the church, the audience stood and started to applaud.
It was then that Orange realized that he was in the wrong pew. But there was no turning back. "I was already up front and, a few minutes later, found myself, together with those who had come forward, in the church basement." He said, "Although I didn’t know it yet, the trip down those stairs changed my life forever."
After people took seats and quieted down, the Rev. James Bevel, director of direct action for the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), began telling the group, many of who were high school or college students, how they were to behave if they were confronted by the police or arrested.
Never a shrinking violet, Orange asked who was going to get arrested. "We are," Bevel replied. "You are."
"That’s when I learned that those empty benches had been reserved for people who had volunteered to go to jail, if necessary, in the fight against Jim Crow," Orange said, a broad smile crossing his face.
"But there was no tuning back." And, as far as Orange is concerned, not then and not since.
It’s said James was arrested more than 100 times. One of the more recent ones was in the 1990’s protest of Newt Gingrich as James and others occupied Gingrich’s office in protest.
Perhaps the most critical arrest of James’ life and what set the tone for his subsequent work was in 1965 in Marion, Alabama. At that time James was organizing on voting issues in Marion and was arrested for doing this work. Rumors began to spread that James was about to be lynched and peaceful protests began outside the jail. One of those protesting was 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson. As state troopers were beating Jackson’s grandfather and mother, Jackson tried to protect them. In the struggle he was shot in the stomach by trooper James B. Fowler and died two days later. (In 2007 Fowler was finally indicted for this incident.)
Some in the movement wanted to take Jackson’s body to the doorstep of Alabama Governor George Wallace in protest. Instead James and others decided to hold a march from Selma-to-Montgomery and the rest is history. That march effort included the aborted attempt now known as "Bloody Sunday" on March 7, 1965 in which marchers were accosted by the Alabama State Patrol when they crossed the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma. The bloody scene was flashed across television screens and in newspapers throughout the country and the world. It was culminated on March 21, 1965 when Dr. King and others completed the march from Selma-to-Montgomery. On August 6, 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act legislation into law.
James was at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis when Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. He was devastated by the loss. Gaboury writes that there were two experiences that James described as most sorrowful for him and they were "The dynamite charge, set by (neo-fascist J.B.) Stoner, that partially destroyed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (in Birmingham) and killed four young girls on Sept. 15, 1963. The other was the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968."
By 1970 James was living in Atlanta. He continued to work with SCLC until 1977 when he began his career up to the present day with the AFL-CIO in Atlanta. He started this work in a campaign for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union that was ultimately successful in providing benefits for workers of the J.P. Stevens plant.
I’ve been asked when I first met James. I honestly can’t recall except that it was sometime in the early 1980’s when we in Atlanta were protesting Ronald Reagan’s policies through our Jobs with Peace initiatives. I would see James at virtually all the gatherings and protests across the South on that issue and others.
When I worked for Coretta Scott King at Atlanta’s King Center for Non-Violent Social Change in the 1980’s James was, of course, always available to advance the work of Dr. King in whatever way possible. He was also the living embodiment of history to talk with the youth we brought in who came to the Center from throughout the country to learn about non-violent social change. When James wasn’t traveling, I could usually reach him in one of three places; either at the King Center which is on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, the original SCLC office up the street on Auburn, or at the AFL-CIO office elsewhere in the city. He was always working on some project. He simply never stopped.
When the King holiday was initiated in 1986 Mrs. King knew that she could rely on James to help organize the events for that first official King week which he did, of course. Since then, James has always played a central role in organizing the King March in Atlanta during King Week events. When the King Center chose not to be responsible for the King March during the holiday, James took on the responsibility and created the organization now known as the March Committee.
Years ago I complained to James about the military plane "fly-overs" during the King March. "James," I said, "King would not appreciate that." He concurred, of course, and his response was classic James Orange. "That’s exactly why we are taking over the organizing of the March," he said. "All of us need to make sure that the March is relevant to the militarism, poverty, racism and anti-war issues that concerned Dr. King. We’re not going to let exploitive corporations and the military take over King’s message–no way!"
Many of us across the South also served with James on the board of the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice (SOC) headed by the renowned white activist Anne Braden. SOC was a diverse group of black, brown, Native American and white activists. This was, of course, a natural for James as it encompassed his broad interests.
In recent years James attempted to overcome his dislike of airplanes and traveled frequently to South Africa to play a central role in South African voter registration and education efforts prior to and after the 1994 first democratic elections. He continued to support development efforts in South Africa by characteristically making connections with those he knew in the United States who could help in, for example, agriculture or transportation needs. One of the key people who assisted James with the South African contacts was the now deceased Atlanta chair of the African National Congress, Sifiso Makhatini.
James always had a bevy of folks around him. I called them his groupies. They were usually young people he was mentoring but older folks surrounded him as well. I don’t think I can recall seeing James Orange without at least 4 or 5 people around him.
One of the last conversations I had with James was while he was in the hospital in Atlanta in January this year just before the King Week events. As one would expect, James was organizing from his hospital bed. "Leader," he said, "I need you to help with the promotion of the King March and to interview, on WRFG, Premier S’bu Ndebele, from South Africa, who is heading the march this year." I did all of that, of course.
It almost goes without saying that when James Orange asked you to do something you would do it because it was important and because you could trust him. Invariably he was asking you to do something to advance justice in some way. Primarily what James did in his organizing work, then, transcended himself. His was always about the broader mission.
On the Thursday prior to the funeral I was calling friends attempting to find out who was coming from around the country and South Africa for the service. Suddenly I realized that normally for information on events it would be James I would call. He would be on top of it all. It seemed he knew everyone and he was one of the best in networking those who needed to be connected on any number of projects. He rarely lost a moment. To make those connections, conference calls with James were a must that invariably took place on the spur of the moment.
There are some who call James Orange an "unsung" hero. For those of us who live in the South nothing could be further from the truth. James was central to virtually every critical movement for justice in the South and the country since the 1960’s and we all knew it.
The King Chapel for James’ funeral was filled with hundreds of people he had touched and worked with. "Leader" he called those of us who worked with him. Though I had heard James call others "leader," the first time he called me "leader" I was taken aback. "What had I done," I thought "to be so acknowledged by James Orange?" In fact, when, at James’ funeral, it was asked whom he had called "leader" about three quarters of the audience stood.
Charlie Orrock, a civil rights and labor activist in the South and also former board member of SOC, described how he barged in on James’ motel room when they were in Kentucky for Anne Braden’s funeral in 2006. James was only partly dressed and shouted, "Leader, shut the damned door!"
There are countless James Orange stories out there. He seemed to have a capacity to draw people out and make them feel good about themselves and about the work they were doing. This is likely the hallmark of "real" leadership.
When asked why James would call people "leader," however, there were various responses. Invariably, the theme was largely that James recognized we are all responsible for doing what we can to make the world more just. By calling all of us "leader" he was anointing thousands around the country and the world with that very mission. We are blessed he came our way.
HEATHER GRAY produces "Just Peace" on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. If you have James Orange stories please send them to HEATHER GRAY at email@example.com and she will send them to the King Papers Project at Stanford University that is collecting James Orange remembrances or please contact the King Papers Project directly.