As millions of Americans went to the polls to exercise their right to vote this week, several local elected officials and community leaders from across the Greater Houston area gathered on the eve of Election Day to honor eight African Americans who fought for civil rights in Houston with the unveiling of a mural in the heart of Houston’s historic Third Ward community.
This past Monday, November 5th, Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Congressman Al Green and a host of other community leaders were on hand for the unveiling of the “Sacred Struggles/Vibrant Justice” mural. The mural pays tribute to these eight Black civil rights heroes, who advocated strongly for the right to vote as they fought against hatred, bigotry, and racism and worked to advance justice and equality for all people.
The mural, created with jewel-toned paint in a stained-glass design featuring images of the civil rights leaders in tile mosaics, honors Rev. John D. Moore, the Honorable Hattie Mae White, Heman Sweatt, Christia Adair, the Rev. William Lawson, Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, Congressman Mickey Leland and former Houston City Councilwoman Ada Edwards.
The combined achievements of these eight Civil Rights icons include taking part in two major Supreme Court cases, breaking down racial barriers at the polls, desegregating Houston and so many more meaningful accomplishments regarding Civil Rights in America.
The dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony, which included honorees’ family members, was held at the place where the mural is located in Third Ward – the historic Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ.
The mural is located outdoors and is visible from the Columbia Tap trail in Third Ward, near Texas Southern University (TSU).
Precinct One and Commissioner Ellis decided to install the mural at Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ, because it is where Rev. Moore served as pastor from 1936 to 1973.
“There are a lot of heroes and she-roes throughout our community of all colors, all races, all religions, who don’t get the attention that we should give,” said Commissioner Ellis. “How we remember and learn from history is up to us. The people on the “Sacred Struggles/Vibrant Justice Mural” all made important contributions to the civil rights movement and broader struggle for justice and equality that need to be recognized and remembered – especially in today’s climate, where we are seeing a resurgence of hate and efforts to roll back hard-won rights.”
During his time as pastor, Rev. Moore led his congregation in advocating for civil rights. Under his leadership, the church assisted Black teachers in fighting for equal salaries, helped establish the Colored YMCA and YWCA, assisted the Postal Service in hiring the first Black postal clerks, established the first Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts programs for Blacks in Houston, and so much more.
Former Houston Independent School District (HISD) board trustee, Hattie Mae White, who was also a member of Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ, was the first African American elected to public office in Houston in modern history. She served on the board of HISD for nine years and was a strong advocate for establishing an effective plan for desegregation, ensuring the district accepted federal funds for education and making sure district schools received a fair and equitable quality of education. Because of her impact, HISD named their current district headquarters in her honor.
Heman Marion Sweatt was a significant figure during the Civil Rights era. His decision to join in with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to bring legal action against the University of Texas Law School after being denied admission based on his race, established a major precedent when it came to helping future African Americans gain admission to colleges and universities across the country that were segregated. A graduate from Jack Yates High School in Houston’s Third Ward, Sweatt was also extremely active with voter-registration in the African American community and was instrumental in challenging employment discrimination at the post office where he worked, as Blacks were denied the opportunity to be promoted to supervisory positions.
As a member of the NAACP Houston Branch, African American suffragist Christia Adair worked tirelessly to get Black women the right to vote in Texas primary elections. As executive secretary for the NAACP Houston Branch, Adair was responsible for spearheading the efforts to file a lawsuit – Smith v. Allwright – which was argued and won before the U.S. Supreme Court by Thurgood Marshall. Because of her efforts, she was one of the very first Black women to vote in a Democratic primary after the Supreme Court struck down the White primary law in Texas in 1944. In her role as executive secretary of the NAACP Houston Branch, of which she served for 12 years, she helped to desegregate several major public entities such as the Houston Public Library, city buses, veterans’ hospital, department store dressing rooms and the Houston Airport System. Adair worked to get Blacks to serve on various juries and to also get hired for county jobs. In 1966, she was one of the first two Blacks elected to the state Democratic committee, but the party refused to seat her delegation. In 1977, the city of Houston named a city park after her.
Rev. William Alexander Lawson founded Wheeler Avenue Baptist. He was heavily involved with the Civil Rights Movement, whether it was supporting 14 students from TSU who held a sit-in protesting segregation at a lunch counter to being one of the only ministers to invite Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Houston to speak at his church in 1963.
Former U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan was one of the first African Americans elected from the Deep South since 1898. Prior to becoming a Congresswoman, Jordan ran for the Texas Senate in 1966 and won, becoming the first African American state senator in the U.S. since 1883, as well as the first Black woman to ever be elected to the Texas Senate. Jordan worked with her congressional colleagues to extend the federal protection of Civil Rights to more Americans, and in 1976 she became the first African American and the first woman to serve as a keynote speaker at a Democratic National Convention.
Prior to George Thomas “Mickey” Leland serving six terms in the U.S. Congress, six years as a Texas state legislator and becoming a Democratic National Committee official, he was extremely active as it relates to Civil Rights. While attending Texas Southern University (TSU) in the late 1960’s, he was an extremely vocal leader as it relates to the local Civil Rights movement and was known for bringing national leaders that were a part of the Civil Rights movement to Houston.
Former Houston City Councilwoman Ada Edwards has deep roots in the city of Houston that are well known by many before she was elected to the Houston City Council in 2002. From her early work as a 1960s’ Civil Rights activist to the founding of the Ida Delaney/Byron Gillum Justice Committee, Edwards has been on the frontlines of Civil Rights for decades.
Congresswoman Jackson Lee spoke about six of the honorees who sacrificed their lives to make a way forward for future generations.
“Each day of our lives, we are beginning to make a difference,” said Congresswoman Jackson Lee. “And that difference, of course, is to make sure that government, policy, and schools all relate to helping us be better people.”
Congressman Green – who spoke about the NAACP, which many of the honorees were active members – said the civil rights organization was founded because something horrific was happening in this country – lynching.
“It was the NAACP that made it possible for us to eat where we eat, live where we live and sleep where we sleep,” said Congressman Green. “Thank God for the NAACP.”
The mural is part of a Precinct One’s broader public art initiative, which is to beautify trails and neighborhoods with public art that is culturally and historically relevant to the local community.
It was designed and painted by local artist Reginald Adams, with input and assistance from stakeholders, on behalf of Precinct One.
“We hope this is one of many public art projects that will come not only to Third Ward, but for the city of Houston,” said Adams. “It doesn’t just beautify space, it honors our leaders and gives inspiration for young folks to know that greatness is ahead of them.”