The relevance of Bessie Coleman

 

In these times in which women march for their freedoms, fear for their rights, and fight against a tyrannical regime, it’s good to remember those that came before. So many women have made great strides toward equality and have inspired not just women, but all who have faced oppression, to chase their goals and dreams. Once such woman was Bessie Coleman, whose 125th birthday is today.

If you don’t know who Bessie Coleman was, you are missing out. She was the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license. The daughter of impoverished sharecroppers, she was one of 13 children. She grew up during a time when lynching was commonplace, blacks were barred from voting, and segregation was a way of life.

Her first school was a one room shack that often couldn’t even afford paper or pencils. At 12 years old, Coleman attended the Missionary Baptist Church in Texas. After graduating, she spent one year at a college in Oklahoma, then eventually ended up in Chicago living with her brothers and working as a manicurist.

Wild stories of flying exploits from returning World War I pilots captivated Coleman and inspired her to become an aviator. Taunting from her brother about how French women were better than black women because they could fly spurred her on even more. She saved her money and applied for flight school. However, every school she submitted to turned her down. She had two strikes against her – her race and her gender. There were very few female pilots at the time, and those were primarily white and wealthy.

bessie colemanUnder the advice and with backing of Robert Abbott a lawyer, newspaper publisher, and one of the first African American millionaires, Coleman learned French and moved to France to attend the Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation. She had her international pilot’s license within seven months.

One of Coleman’s goals upon returning to the US was to start a flight school for African Americans. Instead, she became a daring stunt pilot, specializing in aerial tricks and parachuting. She became a popular performer to crowds of thousands, with many reporters and dignitaries in attendance. While she didn’t open a flight school, she used her celebrity status to encourage other African Americans to fly and also refused to perform at locales that denied admission to members of her race.

On April 30th, 1926, at the age of 34, Bessie Coleman took her last flight. While flying with another pilot in preparation for an airshow, a wrench became lodged in the control gears causing the plane to plummet toward the ground. Coleman was thrown from the plane and fell to her death.

Coleman’s funeral was attended by approximately 10,000 including many prominent African Americans. Suffragist, feminist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells presided over the service.

The plight of Bessie Coleman is still relevant. Female and African American pilots are still rare, not only in the United States, but worldwide. 90% of pilots are white and just above 5% are female.

An inspiration still to this day, Coleman defied gender and racial barriers, becoming a symbol of equal rights for all. Coleman is proof, that as an African American and a woman, dreams are attainable.

“Because of Bessie Coleman, we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.” ~ American engineer, soldier, civil aviator and author William J. Powell

9 little known facts about Martin Luther King Jr.

Many of us enjoyed the day off Martin Luther King Jryesterday in honor of, Martin Luther King Jr. We know about his March on
Washington and his “I Have a Dream” speech, but here are a few other things you may not know about this great civil rights leader.

  1. His birth name was Michael. When his father, who was a pastor, traveled to Germany, he was inspired by the Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther. He decided to change his own name and that of his son.
  2. King was so gifted that he skipped two grades and entered Morehouse College as a freshman at age 15.
  3. Before entering Morehouse, he had no intention of following the footsteps of his father, grandfather, and great grandfather to become a minister. Theologian Benjamin E. Mays urged him otherwise and King was ordained before he graduated college.
  4. King’s civil rights actions led to his arrest 29 times. His arrests included acts of civil disobedience, but also Martin Luther King Jr Arrestfalse charges, such as when he was jailed in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956 for driving 30 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour zone.
  5. Martin Luther King Jr. survived an earlier assassination attempt. While at a book signing in Harlem Izola Ware Curry plunged a seven inch letter opening into his chest. He had to endure hours of emergency surgery to repair the damage.
  6. Alberta Williams King, Martin’s mother, was also killed by a bullet. As she played the organ at a Sunday service, Marcus Wayne Chenault Jr. rose from the front pew, drew two pistols and fired shots. One of the bullets struck and killed King. She died steps from where her son used to preach.
  7. In 1993, then president Ronald Reagan signed the bill that created the national holiday in honor of King. George Washington is the only other American whose birthday is observed as a national holiday.
  8. In 1963, he was the first African American to be named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. IN fact, he is one of only two African Americans to receive the honor. The other is Barack Obama, who was named twice.

 

Remembering Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr.Some things in society take a very long time to change; others change at a rapid rate. For example, the legalization of marijuana and gay marriage proceeded as relatively acceptable issues.  As compared to that, the movement of people of color from possessed slaves to full rights in our society advanced at a relative snail’s pace. In fact, that is still a work in progress.  “Black Lives Matter” is a movement highlighting the undue treatment of African Americans by the police in the use of deadly force.  This illustrates that the movement capped by the Civil Rights Act of 1965 is still an evolving force in American society.

Some have questioned the allocation of a revered national holiday to a single individual such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, which we celebrate on January 18, in 2016 (his birthday is January 15, but like other federal holidays it is celebrated on the closest Monday). That quizzical attitude misses the whole point of the MLK national holiday. There were many other respectable citizens who played important roles during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. However, Dr. King was a leader, as well as an advocate of peace. He is one of the greatest leaders of nonviolence in world history. He fought for equality for all people with his “I Have a Dream” speech. Had it not been for his leadership, who knows what this country would be like, not only for African American people, but for all people. He died fighting for change – he deserves a day of remembrance. He is the figurehead and symbol of the whole pacifist civil rights movement and he was a martyr for the cause.

So, on the holiday, we remember Dr. King and his contributions toward racial equality, but we also remember the many others who fought for the cause with Dr. King as their inspiration and leader. The battle is not over, but with adherence to the principles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. maybe racial discrimination and inequality will forever end.