10 Civil Rights Martyrs: Genuine versus False Heroes

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A Brief History

On February 28th, Black History Month draws to a close and as such we want to reflect on some notable figures in black history.  History is being made everyday, and recently in 2014 landmark cases involving police shootings of African-Americans has resulted in riots and protests, events that will become history once the journalistic cycle is over.  Today History and Headlines takes a look at 10 icons of the civil rights movement, including 5 people held up as martyrs that are legitimate American heroes and 5 that are held up as martyrs, but actually may well have gotten what they deserved, or least were not such good people. (Question: Is Al Sharpton really Don King’s super hero alter ego?)

Digging Deeper

10. False “Martyr”: Eric Garner.


A 6 foot 3 inch 350 (6’4” 400?) pound mountain of a man, Garner was arrested for selling individual cigarettes (“loosies”) for 50 cents each on Staten Island in 2014. When advised of being arrested, Garner physically resisted arrest, and it took 5 officers to wrestle him down. One of the officers had Garner in a headlock, which has been erroneously described as a “choke hold.” The video of the incident clearly hears Garner saying, “I can’t breathe.” Garner became unresponsive and died at the hospital. Missed in the furor surrounding the death, is the fact that if a person is choked that person would not be able to audibly and clearly say anything. Garner was a career minor criminal with many arrests.  Moral of the story: Do NOT resist arrest. Medical examiner reports are that Garner died of compression of his neck and chest compounded by asthma, obesity and a heart attack. The investigation continues.

9. Real Martyrs: Addie Mae, Denise, Carole, and Cynthia.


These 4 innocent schoolgirls were killed in 1963 when their church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.  The church, like so many African-American churches, had been a center of civil rights activities in the area.

8. Bogus Victim: Tawana Brawley.


In 1987, Ms. Brawley accompanied by self-promoting showman Al Sharpton told a shocked nation that a white men had kidnapped and raped her, resulting In a 1988 trial that revealed the incident to be a hoax.  The 15 year old “victim” was found with “bitch” and the “n” word written on her body in feces!  The slandered man, Steven Pagones, later won a lawsuit against the liar and was awarded $190,000 in damages.  He first started collecting payments in 2013. It is unknown if Sharpton was aware of the hoax, but he has never apologized for the lie.  Sharpton and Ms. Brawley’s lawyers have paid their part of the settlement.  History and Headlines trivia: Comedian and accused rapist Bill Cosby posted a $25,000 reward for the arrest of the “perpetrators.”

7. Real Martyr: Medgar Evers.


Murdered while working in Jackson, Mississippi for desegregation as the head of state NAACP operations.  Evers was killed by a sniper while in his own home.  Evers was a veteran of World War II and served overseas. His assassin was not convicted of the 1963 murder until 1994! Other attempts on Evers’ life included attacks with a Molotov cocktail and another with a car.  Sickeningly, Evers was initially denied admission to the local hospital because of his race.

6. False “Martyr”: Trayvon Martin.


Killed by a man of Hispanic ethnicity with some African heritage, Martin was held up as an innocent victim of aggression when in fact this teen was out way past when teen should be home, in a strange neighborhood, on marijuana, and had a troubled past.  Although the man that shot Trayvon is definitely a strange bird, facts show Trayvon was the one that initiated the fight and was pummeling Zimmerman before Trayvon was shot.  Despite repeated showing of photos of Trayvon as a little kid, this teen was well over 6 feet and much larger than the shooter.  Moreover, NBC aired a version of Zimmerman’s 911 call that was edited in such a way as to make Zimmerman sound racist.  NBC ended up firing someone responsible and apologized for playing the edited version of the call.  To make a tragic situation even worse, director Spike Lee retweeted a home address he believed was Zimmerman’s but was actually the address of an unrelated elderly couple!  Ultimately, jurors found Zimmerman not guilty of murder.

5. Real Martyrs: Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.


One African-American and 2 white men, murdered by the Klan in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964.  Arrested by a local sheriff under false pretense and then turned over to Klansmen.  They went to a dangerous South to work for civil rights, sacrificing their lives.

4. Real Robber: Michael Brown.


In spite of the cute little kid photo the media keeps showing, this NFL sized teen was loaded up on marijuana and had just committed a strong arm robbery.  Despite several non-publicity seeking witnesses to the shooting of Brown backing up the police version, and the forensic evidence backing up the police version, this bully robbed a store and fought with the police, not exactly a martyr.

3. Real Martyr: Rev. James Reeb.

James Reeb (January 1, 1927 — March 11, 1965), American Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, Massachusetts

A white Unitarian minister from Boston, Reeb was in Selma, Alabama in 1965 to protest the beatings of protesters by the state Highway Patrol.  He was beaten to death by white men.

2. Career Criminal: Rodney King.


A career criminal that had recently been released from prison for armed robbery, King was under the influence of alcohol and drugs when he led police on a 100 mph chase on city streets, during which time he could have easily caused the death of his black male passenger or other innocent people.  Once stopped, he attacked the police and shrugged off a Taser like it was nothing.  After his infamous beating, he went on to have numerous other criminal incidents and died of doing drugs and drowning in his pool.  Not exactly a poster child.

1. Real Martyr: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Probably the most famous and revered icon of the African-American civil rights movement, King may not have been a perfect person but no one can claim he did not devote his life to the cause.  King was well aware of the threats against his life and the hostile surveillance of him by the FBI, but he persevered knowing full well he would probably be martyred.

Question for students (and subscribers): On our site, we have covered many milestones achieved by famous African-Americans, but which famous black Americans merit our genuine admiration and which are not the heroes some believe them to be?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more on this topic, please read:

Bond, Julian and Sara Bullard.  Free At Last: A History of the Civil Rights Movement and Those Who Died in the Struggle.  Oxford University Press, 1994.

Green, Ben.  Before His Time: The Untold Story Of Harry T. Moore, America’s First Civil Rights Martyr.  University Press of Florida, 2005.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Justinhoch / Justin Hoch for a Hudson Union Society event of Rodney King during a Hudson Union Society event at The Players club in New York City, NY, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.  This image was originally posted to Flickr by justinhoch at https://www.flickr.com/photos/20405165@N07/7114839707.  It was reviewed on 2013-08-01 08:50:21 by FlickreviewR, who found it to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0, which is compatible with the Commons.

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Abdul Alhazred

“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked. "Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad." "How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice. "You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland