All these years later she’s still making good on the vow she promised as she sat on that bus and looked out the window at the crowd of proud, expectant people from Boll Weevil Hill who’d come to see her off.
It was the segregated times of the mid-1950s in the South and Lucinda Williams was leaving that poor, dirt roads neighborhood where she grew up in Bloomingdale, Georgia outside Savannah.
Her parents were both custodians at Bloomingdale Elementary, an all-white school that Lucinda and all the other black children were not allowed to attend.
Sometimes she’d help her parents clean classrooms and would salvage stubs of pencils the white kids had thrown into waste cans. The next day she’d pass them out among her black classmates.
Although neither of her parents had been schooled beyond the fifth grade, they had given her a doctoral dissertation on the most meaningful lessons of life, including not letting current circumstance dictate future success.
And that’s what the bus trip was about.
In an almost unheard of opportunity for a teenage girl of color back then, she’d received a grant-in aid/scholarship to attend Tennessee State University in Nashville and run track for the famed Tigerbelles women’s team.
She stood out in the high school competition at the Tuskegee Relays and that’s where TSU coach Ed Temple spotted her and made the offer.
Every summer when Lucinda was growing up, her mother used to send her to West Palm Beach, Florida to live with an aunt and uncle who had no children.
Her aunt was a maid for a rich white family in Palm Beach and that day on the bus Lucinda wore a dress her aunt had sent her. It had been discarded by her employer’s daughter and she’d retrieved it, cleaned it and sent it to her niece.
“My mother tied some money in a little handkerchief and put it in my private area and she packed me a lunch – fried chicken and pound cake – for the ride,” Lucinda once told me.
Some 100 neighbors, schoolmates and relatives had shown up at the Savannah bus station to see her off. Although they were all poor, many pressed quarters, 50-cent pieces, even dollars into her hand for the journey.
As the bus pulled out, the crowd cheered and that’s when she made her vow:
“I knew everything I did from that day on would represent that community. I knew I had to be somebody those people could be proud of, somebody they could always count on.”
And that’s what she has done since:
** She got her degree from Tennessee State and ended up in the school’s athletics hall of fame.
** While a Tigerbelle, she represented the United States at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia and the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome where she won a gold medal.
** After college, she came to Dayton with her husband, Floyd Adams, who had gotten a job at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. And for 36 ½ years she was a teacher and administrator in the Dayton Public Schools. She taught at Roosevelt and at Meadowdale and then was a DPS administrator in charge of girls' health and physical education. She ended up enshrined in the Dayton Walk of Fame.
** Today – even in these ever-escalating COVID times and at age 83 – she’s living up to her vow of long ago. She lives in West Palm Beach now and is active in the Greater Antioch Missionary Baptist Church. She still speaks to school and civic groups and now, with the election just two days away, she’s doing all she can to promote those voting rights her family and all those other Boll Weevil folks who came to see her off were once denied.
She’s helping people get to the voting booths as part of her church’s Souls to the Polls campaign. She phones people to remind them to vote, passes out water to people waiting in long voting lines and tries to call attention to the growing number of people trying delegitimize the voting process and suppress people’s right to a ballot.
“I’m really concerned about the injustices were seeing and the blatant lies and attempts to suppress voting,” she said.
Her concerns aren’t unwarranted.
In North Dakota, a member of the violent right wing Proud Boys was arrested Wednesday for threatening to blow up a polling place.
Nationwide, there have been lawsuits to ban drop boxes for ballots and vigilante watchdogs have videotaped voters. In Florida two bogus guys showed up in security guard uniforms claiming to be poll watchers.
Voters in some states are being sent threatening letters telling them who to vote for. Election officials in North Carolina have received written directives telling them to ignore state voting rules.
And then there has been President Donald Trump’s continual tweets about how the election is “rigged” and he has told supporters to “go to the polls and watch carefully” for “shenanigans.”
Voter intimidation is a federal crime in every state, but Lucinda worries that rule, like so many others now, is being ignored.
“These are blatant attempts to turn us against each other,” she said. “Before we could disagree, but at least there was some respect. We could be civil with each other. But now…there are times I just fear for our country.”
‘I used it to motivate me’
She came of age during the times of voter suppression.
While the 15th Amendment – preventing voter discrimination because of “race, color or previous condition of servitude” – was ratified in 1870, it was systematically dismantled by segregation politics and the Jim Crow laws that followed.
In the South, attempts at registering black voters were met by violence and after that
they endured poll taxes, literacy tests and, as the late civil rights leader John Lewis recounted, outlandish demands like one by election officials that voters first must be able to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar.
And as fast as they were on the track, Lucinda and her Tigerbelle teammates could not outrun the Jim Crow denials that dogged their everyday life.
When they travelled across the South, she said they often had to go to the bathroom in the bushes along the road because they were not permitted in public restrooms. Denied hotels, they often slept in the car.
She remembered once going into a restaurant in Baltimore, only to be chased out by the owner who yelled “I don’t serve n------ in here!”
“I didn’t let it get me down, I used it to motivate me,” she said.
As a TSU freshman, she made the U.S, Olympic team and headed to Melbourne. It was her first plane ride, her first international competition and she struggled in the 200 meters.
She vowed not to be overwhelmed again and she was not.
Soon she and her Tigerbelle teammates – who made up much of the American track team – were representing the U.S. around the world.
In 1958, she captained the U.S. team that competed against the USSR in Moscow and won two gold medals. At the Pan American Games in Chicago a year later, she won three golds: in the 100 and 200 meters and on a relay team.
Her greatest Olympic moment came in Rome when her 4 x 100 relay team – Martha Hudson, Barbara Jones, Wilma Rudolph and herself – set the world record one night and won gold the next.
It was at those Rome Games that she said she got to know boxer Cassius Clay, who eventually became Muhammad Ali:
“I’d tease him and say, ‘Fool! Go someplace and sit down!’ He was always talking about being ‘the greatest.’ Well, bless his heart, six weeks later he was beating everybody up. He showed he really was The Greatest.”
Those days launched social justice protests by both well-known athletes like Clay, as well as everyday college students back in Nashville.
“That’s where the sit-ins at the lunch counters began,” Lucinda said of the students who defied bans on blacks at Nashville lunch counters and took seats as part of a nonviolent, direct action campaign.
They did so for three months and often were cursed, spat on and punched by white onlookers and then arrested by law enforcement.
The protests were successful and on May 10, 1960, six Nashville lunch counters began to serve blacks.
“One of the things I regret is that I did not participate in those sit ins,” she said. “But we were advised by our coach not to get involved and that if we did and were put in jail, we’d lose our scholarship.”
In her own way though she did a lot for young people of color. Along with her decades of teaching in Dayton, she toured the nation speaking about not letting others define you.
She talked about her pride representing the nation and her belief in the American Dream.
When her husband died and she retired from DPS, she moved to West Palm Beach. She had inherited the house from her late aunt and uncle and lived there awhile before selling it and moving to a retirement neighborhood.
She still has a home in Dayton and her daughter is a lawyer in Canton. She usually visits here each summer or at Christmas, but this year the pandemic has altered all that.
An avid traveler, it also forced her to cancel an October trip to Israel.
One thing the virus has not thwarted though is her concern for her fellow man.
‘The real gold is inside you’
“I’ve done a lot more reading,” she said. “I just finished John Lewis’ ‘Good Trouble.’”
As this election approaches, she has embraced the book and especially the Lewis pronouncement:
“The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in our democratic society.”
He stood up for that principle from the time he was a young man and was part of the first Selma to Montgomery march for voters' rights in 1965.
It became known as “Bloody Sunday” when he and others were severely beaten by the troops of Alabama Sheriff Jim Clark, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which, by the way, is named for a former grand dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.
Lewis ended up standing alongside President Lyndon B. Johnson when he signed the Voting Rights Act later that year.
Eventually, Lewis became a Georgia congressman and made voting rights his life mission until he died this July, at age 80, from cancer.
His story resonated with Lucinda and though the virus has grounded much of her activity now, she plans to continue speaking out as soon as it’s safe to gather in public again.
“A lot of times when I speak, I take my medal with me,” she has told me. "When I’m with children especially, I take it out of the case and let them put their hands on it.
"But I try to stress that while I’m proud of it and treasure it, I don’t worship it. I tell them it’s just a material thing and the thing that means the most is a person being the best at whatever they do.
“I tell them the real gold is inside you.”
She’s shown that her entire life and now, as the election approaches and she does what she can to promote and protect peoples right to vote – a right her family once was denied – she is more golden than ever.
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