I am thankful for people who give chunks of their lives out of love and concern for others. In creating this list, I aimed to skip over the sentimental, day-to-day thanks and head straight for the gray matter. Forgive my lack of attention to formal titles- none of these people would be any less significant without added titles and degrees. Their contributions surpass any professional accomplishments to which they may lay claim.
These twenty-five exquisite human beings inspired me, educated me, and gave me the courage to do more than aim for the perfect lawn or household appliances.
In no particular order, here’s the first of my twenty-five extraordinary people of Alabama…. The remainder will follow in the coming weeks as I look over the past year and make plans for the year that lies ahead.
1. FAYA ORA ROSE TOURE
Faya Ora Rose Touré is a Harvard-educated Civil Rights activist and litigation attorney who has worked on some of the highest-profile civil rights cases to come before the courts. Touré—who spent most of her career as Rose Sanders until she decided to step away from her “slave name” in 2003—was the first African-American female judge in Alabama and was part of the winning legal team in Pigford vs. Veneman, the largest civil rights case in history. This case led to the payment of a billion dollars in damages to black farmers by the U. S. Department of Agriculture. In addition, Touré is founder of the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama, and a founding partner in the law firm of Chestnut, Sanders, Sanders, Pettaway & Campbell, LLC. She uses her many talents to further her message and is a prolific songwriter and playwright, as well as the host of a weekly radio show, Faya’s Fire.
Touré was born Rose M. Gaines on May 20, 1945, in Salisbury, North Carolina. Her parents, the Rev. D. A. Gaines and Ora Lee Gaines, taught their six children to conserve so they would have something in life to give back to their community. Training the children by word and deed, Rev. Gaines didn’t always adhere to protocol, but he got the job done. “He was a trained minister who didn’t always fit the image of what society expected,” Touré said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). She notes similar traits in her own personality. Touré has the courage to follow her own drumbeat. She speaks frankly on controversial matters of race, injustice, and education, but said in her CBB interview, “I’m not fearless. I just won’t let others define me.”
Here mother Ora Lee’s ways have rubbed off on Touré as well. For 30 years Ora Lee’s strength and support helped Touré run the McRae Learning Center, a private community school Touré founded in 1976 to raise children’s reading levels. “My mother made the greatest contribution to that school as she traveled back and forth from Birmingham for over 30 years,” Touré told CBB. “People always approach me to say how much my mother’s work helped their kids. We had them reading at 3 and 4 years old. Many were starting in the 27th percentile. We raised the level to the 74th percentile. We know the kids’ greatness. I’d like to see other schools around the country do the same. That’s the challenge.”
Touré’s community work began at an early age when she organized kids in the neighborhood. Through her teens, however, she remained unsure about what she wanted to do with her life. After graduation from George Clem High School in 1962 she entered Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina, graduating Summa Cum Laude in 1966. Still unsure where her career path would take her, she completed a law degree at Harvard in 1969 and was awarded the Herbert Smith Fellowship. That led to an assignment the following year at the National Welfare Rights Organization and the Columbia Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law. In 1971 she worked briefly for the Legal Services Corporation, and opened the law firm of Chestnut, Sanders, Sanders, Pettaway & Campbell, LLC the following year along with her husband, Alabama State Senator Henry Sanders. In 1973 Touré became the first African-American female judge in Alabama, serving as municipal judge until 1977. In 1982 Touré was hired by the Emergency Land Fund for the Department of the Agriculture to conduct a study of black land tenure and document land loss by African Americans.
Through the years Touré’s legal skills led her to several major cases. In one important case she teamed with noted attorney Johnnie Cochran to seek reparations from corporations who profited from slavery. Seeking academic reparations for African-American students for what she calls “400 years of miseducation and discrimination” is one of Touré’s latest projects. She is also preparing a case on behalf of black women who suffered sexual abuse during slavery. It challenges current laws that, Touré said, “do not offer equal justice from sexual assaults and misconduct towards black women.”
Touré’s day job never kept her away from her extensive community work. In 1982 she co-founded the Black Belt Arts and Cultural Center, an arts-based community organizing group. She founded the National Voting Rights Museum in 1993 to tell the story of the Voting Rights Movement and founded the Bridge Crossing Jubilee in 1965 to commemorate the Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. She co-founded the Coalition of Alabamians Reforming Education (C.A.R.E.) in 1993. In the 1990s Touré spearheaded a movement against the practice of “tracking” in Selma public schools, a controversial system that can limit education and career opportunities. Touré founded the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement in 1985. The group educates young people about the political process and encourages their involvement. It has chapters around the United States and in Mali and Senegal, West Africa.
Mothers of Many (MOMS), a group Touré founded for low-income women, has opened three businesses under Touré’s direction. Touré founded the Replacing Inequities in School with Excellence Network (R.I.S.E.). Their mission is to fight the practice of tracking and work for better education nationwide. She co-founded the Africans in America Renaissance Project. The organization provides land for purchase and development by African Americans in South Africa. Touré also founded MAAT Leadership High, an all-male school.(Source)
Faya Rose Toure spent this past Tuesday night in an Alabama jail for trying to speak out against the city of Selma’s decision to donate land for a monument to General Nathan Bedford Forrest.
For those unsure of what the Bedford monument represents, Occidental Dissident speaks fairly clearly for his supporters. Responding to Toure and others, he says that “Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest is best remembered for the manner in which he dealt with the Black Undertow”. He elaborates:
It’s hard not to cringe when I read this. In the same way that the statues of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu were offensive to Romanians that lost friends, family, and hope under his totalitarian regime, a monument to Gen. Forrest should not be housed in a public space. If a man wants to build a monument to a person who used his power and authority to oppress other human beings, he should do so in the privacy of his own home or backyard. No one should be forced to participate in this particular fetishization of historic nastiness.
After the revolutions of 1989, Romanians removed all monuments to Ceausescu. Residents of Selma should ensure that no monuments to vulgar racists are funded and erected in the first place.
Faya is married to Alabama State Sen. Hank Sanders. When she’s not being arrested by hyperactive local police, Faya serves as the co-founder and chair of the Direct Action Committee of Saving Ourselves (S.O.S.), a Movement of 32 organizations for Justice and Democracy.
Her lack of complacency serves as a reminder that we must insist on our dignity as human beings first and foremost- that we cannot rely on our elected officials to do the daily ethics for us. Alabama is a better place as a result of this woman who refuses to take complacency- “That’s just the way things, are honey… You can’t change the world”- for a serious answer. You can, of course, sign this petition against the erection of a disgraceful monument in Selma.