Darnella Frazier

Content Warning: violence

On May 25, 2020, seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier filmed a video showing Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, suffocating him for nearly ten minutes. The video sparked thousands of protests and focused attention on racism and police brutality. 

The most common way that teenagers use their smartphones these days is idly: to pass the time and to avoid interacting with others in real life. So when seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier followed the instinct to use her iPhone 11 to record George Floyd’s deadly encounter with police, she was acting against the impulse many kids her age have to simply do nothing.

Darnella had more reasons to look away than to pay attention. After all, history has not been kind to those who have documented police brutality with smartphones. Ramsey Orta recorded New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo killing his friend Eric Garner with a chokehold in July 2014; police responded by punishing Orta with arrest and imprisonment on unrelated charges. In 2016, Diamond Reynolds captured the aftermath of the fatal police shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile—witnessed both by Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter—in a Facebook livestream. Both she and her daughter were taken into police custody at the scene. (Reynolds later settled out of court due to the false arrest.)

Black teenagers are also aware that police all too often see them as threats, regardless of their innocence. And Darnella had another priority at the time: She was walking with her nine-year-old cousin, Judeah Reynolds, to the store.

But as they passed a police SUV, she heard a man crying, sobbing weakly as a small crowd lingered nearby: “Please, I can’t breathe!  Please man . . .” That was when she decided to start filming, so that the world could see what she was seeing.

Of all the videos that would surface in the following days and weeks, Darnella’s was the only one that clearly captured the officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. In her video, as Darnella moves closer for a better vantage point, the officer responds to the crowd, quickly unholstering something from his belt. “He’s got mace,” Darnella is heard saying, backing away quickly. For all she knew, it could have been his gun.

About three minutes into the video, the man moaned his last words, “I can’t breathe. . .” Before she stopped recording, Darnella zoomed in on the badge of one of the officers and on the number of the police SUV.

Later that night, Darnella posted on Facebook Live about witnessing Floyd’s death in the streets of Minneapolis. Early the next morning, just after midnight, Darnella posted the video to her Facebook page. In the 24 hours that followed, the video was viewed hundreds of thousands of times. The video documented one man’s death—and also held up a mirror reflecting entrenched racism and injustice in American policing.

Filming the incident was not without dangers to Darnella—not just from the armed police officers at the scene of Floyd’s death, who insulted and berated the bystanders, but from the trauma that arose for her in the aftermath of witnessing a death in the street. Research has shown that people—and especially Black women—can experience PTSD-like symptoms from witnessing police brutality online; seeing it up close would certainly have a similar impact. But Darnella was also targeted by a wave of backlash online by some who felt she should have done more to save Floyd.

The backlash greatly obscures and underestimates the power of her video, which crystallized an important moment in the history of social change, while drawing attention to unequal policing practices for a much larger segment of the country.  Perhaps the lack of overt violence or the cold, casual cruelty on display in her video were part of what galvanized so many. Darnella’s video moved thousands to gather at the site of Floyd’s death, which the night after he died, was filled with people, flowers and signs.

Darnella responded to a question from a Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter about why she took the video with a simple answer: “It was like a natural instinct, honestly. The world needed to see what I was seeing. Stuff like this happens in silence too many times.”

Thanks to her, there would be no silence around George Floyd’s death. With her action, she joined the lineage of the dozens of people who have captured anti-Black police brutality on film—from George Holliday’s 1991 recording of Rodney King’s beating in Los Angeles to Ramsey Orta’s 2014 video of Eric Garner’s asphyxiation. In response to these videos finding larger audiences, local protests ensued, some reforms were discussed or enacted, but the status quo always appeared to remain unchanged.

However, Darnella’s video had a farther reaching impact in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact around the globe, requiring most people to stay home and keep up with world developments on their phones. .

Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo called in the Federal Bureau of Investigation after watching Darnella’s video, and within twenty-four hours, he fired the four officers involved in Floyd’s death.

Protests in Minneapolis continued to grow, night after night, with chants of  “Say his name—George Floyd” ringing out across the city.  The police began using tear gas to try to control the crowds. Mike Griffin, a community organizer in Minneapolis, put words to the overwhelming response: “George Floyd’s death represents every fight, every battle for Black progress . . .We want justice for George Floyd, but this is also about Black dignity. We have had to fight tooth and nail for even the most basic standards of living.”

A week after Floyd’s death, people were demonstrating in almost every state in the country.

What made these protests distinct from their predecessors is that they extended far beyond the Black community—people from all neighborhoods, cultures, and backgrounds were leaving the safety and comfort of their homes to take to the streets and speak out against injustice.

By July, the New York Times was reporting that “Across the United States, there have been more than 4,700 demonstrations, or an average of 140 per day, since the first protests began in Minneapolis on May 26 . . . Turnout has ranged from dozens to tens of thousands in about 2,500 small towns and large cities.”

Some polls indicate that more than 23 million people are estimated to have participated in protests in the four months after George Floyd’s death. If true, these protests would constitute the largest and most extensive in modern history.

Within two weeks of Floyd’s death, legislation was being introduced across the country: two different police reform bills were introduced into Congress, and within a month, State Legislatures across the country passed over 150 bills and resolutions related to policing.

Darnella’s courageous action helped change a nation.

Shahid Shafi and Texas Republicans

When a group in Tarrant County, Texas, tried to oust a local Republican party official solely because he was Muslim, Republicans in Texas stood alongside him to defend the principles of equality and religious freedom.

“The real power of America is the power of its ideas and ideals,” Dr. Shahid Shafi explains, “Knowing that we are not perfect, but we continue to strive for that perfection.”

Dr. Shafi, born in India and raised in Pakistan, is a trauma surgeon, a naturalized American citizen, and a Muslim. Growing up under a brutal military dictatorship in Pakistan where free speech was forbidden and habeus corpus ignored, he says, “I grew up with America as the land of opportunity, a cradle of knowledge and education, a haven for free speech and democracy, and a beacon of hope for those oppressed across the world. I came to America for all these reasons.”

After becoming a citizen in 2009, Dr. Shafi served his community first as a volunteer on local boards and committees, and then by running for councilman for the City of Southlake, Texas. Along each step of his journey, although he was welcomed by many, he also encountered those who felt distrust and animosity toward all Muslims.

In July of 2018, Dr. Shafi’s experience with religious discrimination was amplified when he was appointed vice chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party.

When Chairman Darl Easton first approached Dr. Shafi about accepting the position, they had several conversations about the possible pushback they might face because of Dr. Shafi’s faith. Easton, a retired Air Force pilot, was undeterred. To him, Dr. Shafi was the right person for the job and that was all that mattered. Tarrant County Republicans seemed to concur—out of all the votes cast to approve Dr. Shafi’s appointment, only one opposed.

However, soon after the July vote, these fears were realized: that lone dissenting voter, a Tarrant County precinct chair, put forth a motion to remove Dr. Shafi as vice chair.

She outlined her reasoning in one of many public Facebook posts:

We don’t think he’s suitable as a practicing Muslim to be vice chair because he’d be the representative for ALL Republicans in Tarrant County, and not ALL Republicans in Tarrant County think Islam is safe or acceptable in the U.S. . . . and there are big questions surrounding exactly where Dr. Shafi’s loyalties lie, vis a vis Democrat and Republican policies.

Dr. Shafi’s reaction to this was stoic but unwavering. Nearly a decade of experience in local Texas politics had taught him that an overwhelming majority believed in freedom of religion and would strive to live up to the ideals of America’s founding principles. 

At first, Chairman Easton and the Republican leadership of both Tarrant County and the State of Texas, dealt with the situation as an internal party issue, and, at its core, one of religious freedom. They gave Dr. Shafi their complete support.

But as the Facebook posts began going viral, agitation to oust Dr. Shafi based on his religion grew. By November 2018, the national news had picked up the story. At this point, Dr. Shafi felt the time was right to speak up. He released a statement in which he described the movement to remove him as one designed to foment fear and distrust, generated by a group of small-minded, uninformed people. He spoke of his belief in the decency of Texans, noting that they had elected him twice to his council position in Southlake.

He expanded on his statement in a video interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on December 12, 2018:

“I’m a Muslim and I’m an American, and I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive . . . Religious discrimination is wrong on so many levels. . . [This] is not about me retaining the position of vice chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party. It is not even about me as a person. A higher principal is at stake here. The reason I’m standing and fighting is for that principal of equality and for non-discrimination based on religion.”

Dr. Shafi was invited to the December meeting of the Texas State Republican Party in Austin to speak with the executive committee there. He prepared by making a list of all the accusations against him and wrote a response to each one. The document was ten single-spaced pages. But, throughout the day and a half meeting, he never once was asked to defend himself.

Instead, party officials from all across the state stood up for Dr. Shafi. The actions of the fringe group were seen as a fundamental attack on the core values protected by the Constitution. A part of the discussion also revolved around how one member was able to put forth a motion so at odds with the Constitution’s edict on religious freedom. However, since the party rules did not explicitly prohibit such a motion, it had to be permitted to proceed. (Dr. Shafi notes that the State Republican Party is working on amending their by-laws to prevent such a thing from happening again.)

Though they couldn’t stop the discriminatory vote from taking place, the executive committee passed a resolution strongly supporting Dr. Shafi saying, in part, that he “demonstrates through deed and voice his dedication and servant leadership to Republicans in this community and beyond.”

For Dr. Shafi, this response “was just absolutely heartwarming. It reaffirmed my faith in our country and our party. It was really a testament that we continue to believe in our founding principles, in our Constitution, and that everything that we actually say are not empty words.”

As the January 2019 vote on the motion approached, Republicans from Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives Joe Straus, to Texas Governor Greg Abbott, spoke out in support of Dr. Shafi. To Republican representatives across the state, the efforts to cast out a party official because of his faith were “disgraceful and un-American.” Freedom of religion, these politicians all noted, is a bedrock belief upon which this nation was founded.

On January 10, 2019, the vote took place as required. Dr. Shafi went, accompanied by his wife, his mother-in-law and his three children. They made their way through the throng of cameras, media, and police outside, into the packed committee room, where the majority of Tarrant County Republicans stood against fear and hatred. The final vote was 139–49 in favor of Dr. Shafi retaining his vice-chairmanship.

Many of Dr. Shafi's supporters were frustrated he did not have unanimous support. But he takes the long view of a scientist, acknowledging that America's progress isn't linear, but proceeds in fits and starts. The leadership demonstrated by the party, and the support Dr. Shafi received, ensured another step toward a more perfect union.

Dr. Shafi’s humility and trust in his fellow Republicans comes from his deep belief in the founding principles of America. He never thought the issue was about him, or even about his religion. He was simply standing up for America’s core values of equality, liberty, and justice for all.

“To me, the story was how much support I got from every corner of the Republican Party and every corner of society,”  Dr. Shafi said later. “I'm not an activist . . . An issue was thrust upon me, and I did the best that I could. That's pretty much it.”

Pittsburgh's Faith Community

Amid rising anti-Semitism across the country, a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue and committed the deadliest anti-Semitic act in American history. In its wake, the city of Pittsburgh’s religious community provided courageous leadership that inspired acts of solidarity, offering comfort and support to the victims, their families, and to Pittsburgh’s entire Jewish community. This solidarity has continued, crossing faith boundaries, in ongoing stands against acts of hate.

Together, the eleven victims of the October 27, 2018, attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood were the beating heart of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish community. They were all elders over the age of 50 who often rose early to make breakfast for the ones who slept in or otherwise came late to worship on Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath. They greeted worshipers with jokes or a program.

Squirrel Hill and its surrounding neighborhoods make up some 57 percent of Jewish families in the Pittsburgh area. One report refers to Squirrel Hill as the “geographic and institutional center of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community,” and includes the large synagogue Tree of Life, where congregations from Dor Hadash and New Light also worship. The attack that targeted Tree of Life—a rampage that lasted over an hour, killing eleven and injuring six, including four police officers—struck not only at the communal sense of safety but also the tight-knit togetherness that was the way of life in the area.

The drumbeat of anti-Semitism has been growing louder in the United States. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been tracking anti-Semitic incidents for decades and noted that 2017 had shown a 57 percent increase in harassment, vandalism, and assault specifically directed against Jewish Americans. The Tree of Life synagogue massacre was one tragic consequence of this increasing hate.

Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, a federally funded community wellness center created to respond to community needs after the attack, described the legacy of the eleven community paragons by referring to a saying in the Jewish tradition: “May your memory be a blessing.” She added that one way to make people’s memories a blessing is to continue to tell their story.

“I think a lot about the people who we lost that day as people who woke up early to make sure the service could start,” Feinstein added. “I think a lot about how to honor their memory. . . (they) deserve to be remembered as the people who make services happen, who make community happen.”

Feinstein, like others in Pittsburgh’s religious communities, quickly moved from simply reflecting on the legacy of the eleven slain to acting. Instead of mourning in the isolation and shock brought on by understandable fear and grief, the very next day, residents gathered at a swiftly organized vigil at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall. Thousands crowded into the hall for an interfaith, inter-community gathering of love, unity, and resolve. Every seat was filled; people stood in the back, and others spilled out onto the lawn.

As Reverend Liddy Barlow remembers: “People were standing out in the rain where they couldn't even really properly hear what was going on inside, sharing umbrellas with each other, just as that act of solidarity. So very, very powerful.”

A banner hung solemnly from a podium that read: “Stronger together.” Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders spoke at the vigil, condemning the attack on the three congregations as an attack on all of Pittsburgh. Wasi Mohamed, former executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, announced to the group that the Muslim community had raised $70,000 to help victims’ families.

But their work was far from done, he said. “We just want to know what you need. If it is more money, just let us know. If it's people outside your next service, protecting you, let us know [and] we will be there.” He added that Pittsburgh Muslims were grateful to repay the community generosity extended to them after both 9/11 and the 2016 election, events that resulted in a spike in hate speech against Muslims.

Other parts of the greater Pittsburgh community followed the leadership of the area’s religious through their own courageous acts, large and small, in a repudiation of hate. During their first game after the Tree of Life attack, the city’s major league hockey team, The Pittsburgh Penguins, held an eleven-second moment of silence in honor of the lives taken. The team wore patches combining their logo with the Star of David that read, “Stronger Than Hate.” Then the Penguins auctioned those jerseys as part of a fundraiser to benefit the victims. Area blood banks, responding to a need for donations to assist those injured in the shooting, stayed open longer in the weekend that followed the attack. Elsewhere, more than 10,000 donors contributed to an online fundraiser, which ultimately raised more than $1 million for Tree of Life victims’ families.

Less than a year later, after the March 15, 2019 attack on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, many Muslims in the United States were afraid for their lives. The Tree of Life, Dor Hadash, and New Light congregations responded by raising funds for security at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. “They stood with us, sang with us, prayed with us, grieved with us,” Donna Coufal, president of the Dor Hadash congregation told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Now, we hope to provide that same support for the Muslim community.”

Once again, the city gathered at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, this time to offer consolation and aid to their Muslim brothers and sisters. Months later, in June 2019, the FBI thwarted a bomb attack on a small Black church on Pittsburgh’s north side. Channeling its outrage at the targeting of yet another holy place, the community again chose love and solidarity as a practice of courage rather than allowing the shared traumas of the past to weaken or demoralize. The next Sunday, people from all faiths filled that church—Jews, Christians, Muslims, Latter-day Saints—creating a congregation of fellowship and communion. The crowd was so big that there were more supporters present that day than members of the congregation itself.

As Wasi Mohammed said at the Tree of Life vigil: “When I look back on this day, I will refuse to remember one individual filled with darkness. I’m going to remember the light. The thousands of people who showed up today . . . .thousands of people filled with love and hope.”

Ricky John Best, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, and Micah Fletcher

Content Warning: violence

When two teenagers on a Portland train were threatened with racist, Islamophobic abuse, three of their fellow passengers stood up to protect them. 

“We weren’t even supposed to be on the train that day,” Destinee Mangum would later remember in an interview.

That day was May 16, 2017. Destinee and her friend Walia Mohamed were lost, and when they boarded a Portland light rail train to get back to where they were going, a stranger began shouting at them. “Muslims should die!,” he yelled. “Go back to Saudi Arabia!”

“It’s like our faces were a trigger,” Walia said. She and Destinee are both Black, and Walia, a Muslim Somali immigrant, was wearing a hijab. The two teenagers were terrified, and the man’s abuse began to escalate.

“I’m just trying to live life,” said Destinee, who recognized that the stranger focused his hatred toward her and Walia “because of our religion or because of our color.” Through his hateful tirade and threatening demeanor, Destinee received the message that this man she had never met believed “that we don’t deserve to be here and we don’t deserve to live.”

“While he yelled, he was staring right at us,” Destinee explained. “His eyes were blank.” The teenagers fled to the back of the train as the yelling became louder and more aggressive. “That’s when Ricky, Taliesin, and Micah stepped in.”

Twenty-three-year-old Taliesin Namkai-Meche took out his cell phone and began recording, showing the attacker that he was being filmed. When the man moved closer, threatening Taliesin, twenty-one-year-old Micah Fletcher stood with Taliesin. Micah told the attacker to get off the train. Instead, the attacker pulled out a knife. He lunged at them, stabbing Taliesin and Micah, both in the neck. When fifty-three-year-old Ricky John Best tried to intervene, the attacker stabbed him, too.

Taliesin, Micah, and Ricky didn’t know each other or the teenagers they were defending. “They just wanted to help,” Walia said later. These three men, in fact, were known for standing up and showing up, motivated by a sense of responsibility and love for others. Their courage may very well have saved Destinee’s and Walia’s lives that day.

Though critically injured, Micah survived and recovered from his wounds. Tragically, Ricky and Taliesin died that day despite the efforts of multiple passengers who came to their aid, trying to stem the bleeding. Other passengers followed the attacker when he fled from the station to ensure that Portland police could locate him and take him into custody.

When the attacker went on trial, evidence showed that he had long-held allegiances to hate groups and ideologies. Walia and Destinee were not the first victims of his threats and abuse; he’d exhibited violent racist behavior toward another woman just the week before. Because of Micah, Ricky, and Taliesin, the attacker was caught and sentenced to life in prison.

In the days after the attack, the families of these three courageous men shared details about them, illustrating how love and responsibility shaped their actions.

Ricky, a Portland city official and a father of four, had retired from the U.S. Army only a few years earlier after more than two decades of service. His family said standing up for strangers was part of his character.

Taliesin was a recent Reed College graduate. At a memorial vigil for Taliesin and Ricky, Taliesin’s mother spoke about the loving son that she had lost to hatred. “His heart was [as] big as the world,” she said. Taliesin’s sister penned a beautiful tribute to her brother, sharing how her “heart feels empty from the loss of [her] big brother, but also from the cruel awakening that hate and judgment can cause someone to do such a thing.” She went on to say: “I am so proud to be able to call someone so brave and strong my big brother. You have always and will always be my hero.”

Micah, a student at Portland State University, was on his way to his job at a pizza shop before the attack. While he sat wounded on the train platform, not knowing whether he would survive, a stranger helped him call his mom. Micah asked her to call his boss and let them know he couldn’t make it into work that day. “Then I told her I loved her,” Micah said later in court, “and that I’d see her soon.”

Like Taliesin and Ricky, Micah was known as a person who made a habit of standing up for what’s right and supporting others in the face of hate. Micah’s mother, Margie Fletcher, said her son has intervened for others before. "Micah's always done that. I'm proud of him for standing up. I'm grateful that he's here. It's hard for me to say I want people to stand up, but two girls might be alive because of them."

Micah remained incredibly humble despite floods of public praise. In a video he posted to Facebook, Micah said all this attention shouldn’t be directed at him. It was Walia and Destinee, he said, who “need to be reminded that this is about them...they are the real victims here.”

But Destinee’s mother, Dyjuana, still sees Micah as “one of the angels that saved my daughter’s life.” Destinee and her mother had the chance to meet Micah in June of 2017. The two young survivors held each other tight. Destinee brought a gift for Micah, a t-shirt that she had made for him: “I love you and you are my hero,” it reads.

In the years since, the walls of the Hollywood Transit Center, where the attack ended, have been transformed into a memorial mural. The mural shows sunset changing into night, with eight lines of poetry, each in a different language—including Somali, in Walia’s honor. Written in gold on the darkest walls are words commemorating the spirit of the men who stood up that day: “We choose love.”

Ana Ramos, Leslie Hiatt, and Bell Gardens Fourth Graders

A fourth-grade class demanded that their state representatives acknowledge and redress a government policy of mass discriminatory deportations against Mexican Americans in the 1930s.

In March 2015, Leslie Hiatt watched as 34 of her students from a mostly immigrant community walked into the California Capitol building to demand justice from their elected representatives. She was overwhelmed with pride. “I just felt like they belonged there,” she said later, fighting back tears.

That day was an emotional roller coaster for Leslie’s students. The state Capitol was full for the state legislature’s education committee meeting. More than a hundred people were in attendance to speak or hear testimony about other legislation. Leslie’s students stood out; they were the only speakers who weren’t even in middle school yet.

Student Nicole Sandoval remembers approaching the microphone to speak and hearing an assembly member ask if she wanted a piece of gum. “He said my face looked so green that I looked like I was going to throw up,” she laughed. Nicole declined the offer. She may have looked nervous, she says, but her focus was not on the people in the room. She was thinking of her mission: to seek justice for the more than one million people who suffered as a result of the U.S. government’s discriminatory policies in the 1930s. “And I just remember feeling a determination that I was going to do a good job for them, not for me.”

That trip to testify before California’s Education Committee was the culmination of hard work and determination on the part of these passionate elementary students. Their drive for justice started the year before, initially ignited by student-teacher Ana Ramos.

“Ana was in my classroom for eight weeks,” teacher Leslie Hiatt reflects, with admiration in her voice. “She changed every single student’s life, and my life, in eight weeks.”

In 2014, Ana joined Leslie’s fourth-grade class at Bell Gardens Elementary School, in Los Angeles County. One of Ana’s last big projects after a successful tenure included teaching a social studies unit. In reviewing the curriculum, Ana saw several historical examples of discriminatory policies that targeted immigrants—the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the World War II imprisonment of Japanese Americans—but one story was conspicuously absent: the forced removal of Mexican Americans from the U.S. in the 1930s.

In response to shrinking employment opportunities during the Depression, the Hoover administration oversaw the so-called Mexican Repatriation, a nationwide effort to remove people of Mexican ancestry from the U.S. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and Mexican Americans were summarily rounded up in raids, often in public places, and deported if they failed to produce legal paperwork. The raids frightened many legal residents into leaving. Others were pressured to leave when local governments coordinated with private businesses to withhold assistance from and refuse to hire Mexican Americans.

In the end, more than one million people of Mexican ancestry were “repatriated.” Some had never before set foot in Mexico. The Hoover administration claimed the repatriations were carried out to vacate jobs in favor of Americans; in reality, however, the policy forced some six hundred thousand U.S. citizens out of the country.

Southern California’s large Mexican immigrant population were specifically targeted. On one day in 1931, more than four hundred people were racially profiled and detained in Los Angeles’s La Placita park—less than twenty miles from Bell Gardens Elementary School.

Leslie and Ana’s fourth-grade students were appalled when they learned about the unconstitutional deportations of the 1930s. “We all took this injustice very personally,” says student Diana Leal. “It happened to people who were just like us, with a Mexican heritage and a Mexican last name.” The population of Bell Gardens is ninety-five percent Latinx, and almost every student in the class was first-generation Mexican American.

The students tried to find out more about Mexican Repatriation, but like Ana, they could not find further information in their textbooks. Searches on the internet didn’t yield much more. When asked to choose a topic for their Language Arts assignment, the children unanimously decided to focus on the lack of representation and redress around this racist policy that affected over a million people. And they set their sights high.

“They were just like: ‘We're going to write to the president,’” Ana said, “‘because this has got to change.’”

Joshua Govea, another former Bell Gardens student, remembers how set he and his classmates were on seeking justice. “We had to do something for our ancestors,” he says.

So the eight- and nine-year-olds drafted a letter to President Obama, telling him what they had learned about the 1930s, how many people had suffered, and why the federal government should apologize to the Mexican American community.

The students were thrilled when, a few months later, they received a response from the White House. But as Leslie read the letter aloud for the class, silence fell across the room. The letter was nothing like what they had hoped for; they’d received a generic message encouraging the kids to keep fighting for justice, with pictures of the Obama family’s dogs.

“He didn’t even mention the deportations or an apology!” one of the students exclaimed.

“I don’t think he even read it,” another student said.

“The kids were just so upset,” Leslie remembers. They felt completely dismissed by the White House’s response. But their drive for justice didn’t dampen; they knew the importance of the story and the righteousness of their pursuit.

The students went back to the drawing board, searching for other ways to correct the historical record. With Leslie’s help, they found creative ways to share what they had learned about Repatriation with guests they invited to their classroom—a school board member, university professors, and even the state assembly member for their district.

Their passion impressed the state assembly member so much that she encouraged the students to enter her office’s contest, “There Ought to Be a Law.” The students could submit a proposal to change California’s history curriculum to fix the problem of underrepresentation they had identified and make sure that every student would learn what happened to Mexican Americans in the 1930s.

Though this wasn’t the students’ original goal, they understood the importance of sharing the story with millions more people. Including the history of Mexican Repatriation in textbooks and curricula in California would ensure that the experiences of their ancestors’ would not go untold.

“The next day we all sat as a class around the screen, and Ms. Hiatt was typing on her computer,” student Nicole Sandoval remembers. “We were all sharing ideas very excitedly, trying to fit our ideas in a little box with a word limit.”

Leslie Hiatt and her then fifth-grade students submitted their entry, and won. A new bill, A.B. 146, was introduced on their behalf. As the winners of the contest, the students were invited to testify about the bill before the State Assembly Committee at the state Capitol in Sacramento, four hundred miles away.

The Bell Gardens community rallied around the class to send them to the Capitol: parents joined as chaperones and sent homemade snacks for the bus trip, the school district helped pay for hotel rooms, local businesses made donations, and the teachers at the elementary school bought brand-new uniforms for the whole class.

After compelling speeches from several students at the California state Capitol, Leslie’s students succeeded when on October 1, 2015 their bill finally became a law, officially incorporating Mexican Repatriation into the California State Board of Education’s recommended social studies material. “It was pretty amazing,” Diana says, “that our hard work actually paid off, and that we got justice for the people who suffered because of these unconstitutional deportations.”

In 2020, five years after the bill became a law, Leslie’s former students reflected on how taking a stand changed them. “It's an incredible experience for anybody to have,” Joshua says, “the idea that you did something that meant so much to so many people and actually made a change.”

Diana hopes her class’s work will inspire others to stand up for what they believe in. “No matter how old you are or where you come from,” she says, “you still have a voice and can still make a change.”

Pamela Raintree

When a city council member in Shreveport, Louisiana, used the Bible to argue against an ordinance protecting LGBTQ+ people, Pamela Raintree challenged him to cast the first stone. 

Pamela Raintree is no stranger to fighting. A transgender woman from Pascagoula, Mississippi, she has been fighting her whole life—for fair treatment, for representation, and for unity.

“Pascagoula . . . it's a conservative little town, very evangelical town. Growing up as a trans woman before anyone even knew what that meant in that part of the world, it was a very difficult process. I got beat up in school almost every day for the first three years. My parents were really hard on me because I was never one of those people that could be in a closet. As hard as I tried, the girl just stuck out all over the place, so it was difficult.”

Pamela—an Army veteran, a sign painter, and an activist in her sixties—has been a lifelong advocate for equality. She began working in the LGBTQ+ community in the 1980s, counseling transgender people in crisis; she also supported the parents of transgender children. “I developed a reputation for being the person to go to for that, and did just numerous classroom talks. I would go to counselor conferences and address people on gender issues.” Pamela moved up to Shreveport in the late 1990s. “I was the transsexual in Shreveport, so that's how we wound up getting involved when this ordinance thing came up.”

In 2009, as one of his first actions in office, Mayor Cedric B. Glover signed an Executive Order that expanded the city government’s non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Though a step in the right direction, the Executive Order was an impermanent measure; if the Mayor left office the non-discrimination policy would leave with him. At about the same time, Councilmember Ron Webb opposed the use of city funds to support the inaugural presentation of a local Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. Encouraged by the progressive nature of the Mayor’s Executive Order and alarmed by the council member’s opposition to LGBTQ+ rights, the Shreveport City Council and local LGBTQ+ activists decided to work toward a more permanent anti-discrimination law. Pamela joined the fight for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.

More than four years of fearless, concerted advocacy finally resulted in full protection for LGBTQ+ citizens under the laws of Shreveport. The city became only the second in the state to pass such an ordinance. 

That work came to fruition on December 10, 2013 when Ordinance No. 149, known as the “Freedom Ordinance,” was passed by the Shreveport City Council. Of the seven council members, six voted in favor of the law—nearly unanimous approval for equal protection. But there was one dissenting vote: Ron Webb, the same council member whose opposition to LGBTQ+ rights galvanized activists like Pamela years earlier.

Despite the widespread support that the Ordinance enjoyed from every other council member and the community writ large, the council member refused to end his crusade against the LGBTQ+ community. During the following  session, he introduced a motion to repeal the Freedom Ordinance that Pamela and her peers had just fought so hard for.

In an earlier meeting, Councilmember Webb had made his views perfectly clear, saying that he doesn’t socialize with LGBTQ+ individuals because “the Bible tells us that we shouldn’t.” In the same meeting, he cited the Bible as the basis for this rationale, noting that the Christian text portrays homosexuality as an “abomination” and that those who identify as LGBTQ+ “will not inherit the kingdom of Heaven.” He believed that the council would never be able to determine if an LGBTQ+ person was fired or denied service as a result of their sexual orientation. But what infuriated Pamela the most was when he contended that God—not the council—should be the one to judge. Further, he implied that people who choose the path of discrimination do so on God's behalf.

Guided by a deep belief that the separation of church and state is the bedrock of America, Pamela knew that, yet again, it was time to fight. The council member’s failure as a public official to keep church and state separate—and his selective use of Bible passages to veil his own personal prejudices—was a form of hate that Pamela could not abide. She refused to see Shreveport’s Freedom Ordinance repealed, which would eliminate legal protection for LGBTQ+ people and unravel years of advocacy efforts.

Fortunately, Pamela had the community behind her. Dozens of Shreveport citizens came out to voice their support for the non-discrimination ordinance at the January 14, 2014 city council meeting where the motion to repeal would be discussed. One speaker, Sherry Lester Kircus, who grew up in Shreveport, also called on the Bible—but to challenge the anti-LGBTQ+ bias driving repeal efforts. Growing up at her church in Shreveport, Kircus said, she was taught that the Bible’s most important lessons were “to judge not and to love your neighbor,” no matter who they were. “As for obeying the Bible….We don’t worry about mixed fibers in our clothing, and here in Louisiana, we love our shrimp and our pork chops. Surely we can manage to love our LGBT neighbors also.”

But the decisive moment came when Pamela gave a speech that ultimately ensured the ordinance would stand.

“I was furious. I'd heard all the arguments back and forth so many times, not just at that city council, but all over the country . . . ‘It’s immoral.’ ‘It's against God's law.’ [But] this is a secular society.”

Pamela stood up and told the council that she was proud that they had approved the ordinance weeks before: “It made me feel that Shreveport was joining the America I served in the U.S. Army to defend. You know, the land of life, liberty and justice for all.” 

Without the ordinance, she explained, she might face denial of housing or unfair firing, as she had before, with no recourse for legal action.

“People just don’t like people like me. I think I scare them, make them question how well they fit conventional concepts about what it means to be a man or a woman. Whatever the reason, it has been perfectly legal to discriminate against me because I’m transsexual. Well, the last time I was in these chambers, six of you recognized that there is something inherently wrong, something un-American about legally supporting the denial of fundamental necessities of life, and passed an ordinance prohibiting discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders.”

She took a deep breath and gripped the podium tightly as she zeroed in on Councilmember Webb’s biblical argument.

“I want to set the record straight about what the Bible says,” she told the council. “Leviticus 20:13 states ‘If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, they shall surely put him to death.’”

She picked up a stone she had brought with her and dropped it on the table with a thud. If the council member were to truly follow the letter of the biblical law he should've stoned Pamela to death in the chamber room.

“I brought the first stone, Mr. Webb, in case...your Bible talk isn’t just a smoke screen for personal prejudices.” 

After she finished speaking, “You could have heard a pin drop” says Pamela. Then, despite being instructed not to clap, the gallery of observers burst into applause.

The council member knew he had been defeated. Pamela’s act of courage demonstrated that his use of Biblical text was indeed a veil for his own anti-LGBTQ+ bias. He asked the other council members to remove his motion from the agenda.

The powerful clang of that stone in the city council chambers was a culmination of Pamela’s lifetime of struggle and decades of community leadership. That day, she shattered the hate that sometimes shrouds itself in religion.

"I’m just a regular person—just trying to be a decent human.” But she goes on to say, “Our nation is founded on the idea of freedom—freedom OF religion and freedom FROM religion. . . . [Too often] discrimination is grounded in religious-based arguments.”

The story of Pamela’s speech quickly made its way to national news outlets, inspiring audiences across the country. Her courageous act challenged a hateful argument head on, ensuring that, in Shreveport, Freedom Ordinance No. 149 would remain the law of that land.

Aiko Herzig Yoshinaga

At seventeen, she was forced from her home, imprisoned, and told her confinement in an internment camp was a “military necessity.” Decades later, her dedicated research would expose the truth.

“This is where they’re gonna shoot us,” thought seventeen-year-old Aiko Yoshinaga as she stepped out into the desolate landscape of the Manzanar prison camp in the spring of 1942. If the government killed them all here, Aiko thought, “Nobody would know the difference.” Desert framed by mountains stretched for miles to the east and west, and the camp was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, studded with guard towers patrolled by military police.

Just a few months earlier, Aiko was a high school senior living in Los Angeles, the daughter of Japanese immigrants who struggled and sacrificed to provide for their six children. “As economically poor as we were, my parents managed to pay for my dance and piano lessons,” she recalled later, “at a time when my father was barely able to come up with the rent for our home.”

All that changed on December 7, 1941. “I had just been at a party, and we were going home in one kid’s car.” The radio announced that the Japanese military had attacked the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor in Hawai‘i. Within thirty-six hours, the United States had declared war on Japan, officially entering World War II. Two months later, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the Western Defense Command, responsible for coordinating the defense of the Pacific Coast region of the U.S., to declare that every person of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast would be subject to “evacuation and resettlement.”

More than 112,000 Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes indefinitely and move to so-called relocation centers, hastily built camps where they would be imprisoned until the end of World War II. An estimated seventy thousand of those imprisoned were American citizens like Aiko.

When their evacuation orders came, Aiko and her boyfriend Jake (also the child of Japanese immigrants) realized they were going to be separated. Afraid of losing each other, they eloped, just days before they were forced from their homes and into California’s Manzanar Relocation Center.

Aiko’s marriage kept her close to Jake, but separated from her own family. Her parents and two of her siblings were sent to the Jerome and Rohwer camps, more than seventeen hundred miles away in rural Arkansas. Aiko had no idea if she would ever see them again.

In 1943, Aiko lay in the makeshift camp hospital in Manzanar after giving birth to her first child. She worried that she hadn’t done right by her family. She worried about caring for her baby in a cramped room with Jake and five of his family members, without running water to rinse out soiled diapers, without proper nutrition, without a place to cook, without privacy or freedom.

But she made do. “I think it's just that old Japanese thing,” she said later. “You shikata ga nai. You do the best you can under the circumstances.” She made do when she learned her father was deathly ill; she made do while she waited for permission to transfer to Jerome to see him; she made do on her five-day train journey to Arkansas, without a seat; and she made do when her father died ten days after her arrival, as Christmas Eve turned to Christmas morning 1943.

Aiko also made do when Jake was drafted to fight for the U.S. military while imprisoned at Manzanar.

Two years later, Aiko and her daughter were finally released, handed fifty dollars (around 350 dollars today) and sent out of the camp. Jake was still fighting overseas.

Although at least two government-commissioned studies found no evidence of espionage or threat from Japanese Americans, U.S. officials insisted that imprisonment was a “military necessity.” Some even claimed the internment was for Japanese Americans’ own protection. But forty years after she was released from Manzanar, Aiko would prove that the government was knowingly lying on both counts.

While working full-time and raising a family, Aiko joined an activist group called Asian Americans for Action (AAA). Run primarily by senior-citizen women, the AAA had a profound impact on Aiko’s idea of the world. She began to think differently about the relationship between the government and the people, realizing that she could speak out rather than making do.

In 1978, then in her fifties, Aiko moved to Washington, D.C., and took a break from her decades-long career as a clerical worker. Aiko decided to search the National Archives for internment camp records about herself and her family. She learned from the archivists that thousands of documents existed about the history and policy of internment, and very few people were looking at them. “So I started to examine those records,” Aiko said later, “and they grabbed me. Absolutely grabbed me.”

Aiko had never thought much about the broader story of Japanese American imprisonment—why it happened, who was responsible, and whether it was justified. But as she sifted through government documents, those questions became a full-time project.

Spending fifty or sixty hours a week in the archives, Aiko poured over neglected records, meticulously cataloging her findings. In her first three years of research, she amassed some eight thousand documents, unearthing the true story of Japanese American imprisonment.

Around the same time, the Japanese American Citizens League and Hawai‘i Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga were lobbying for an investigation into the history and impact of the wartime prison camps. They succeeded in 1980 when Congress created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC), which soon hired Aiko as a researcher.

Aiko’s growing catalog was an incredible starting point for the Commission’s work. “I documented everything I got, exactly where I found it: what file, what box, what record group, and everything else,” she said. Aiko wanted the evidence of government misconduct to be crystal clear and undeniable.

But there was one document that still eluded even Aiko’s exhaustive work. In 1942, the Western Defense Command had printed and bound ten copies of their Final Report on Japanese American Evacuation. The report clearly established that there was no military necessity for internment. Leaders of the War Relocation Authority (WRA)—the government agency that handled the internment of Japanese Americans—knew the report showed the government’s policy was discriminatory. Therefore, the WRA demanded all ten original copies be immediately destroyed and revised. But one copy was never accounted for.

One day, deep in her work at the archives, Aiko discovered a book sitting on the corner of an archivist’s desk. She noticed the book looked like the revised Final Report from 1943, but was surprised when she found notes scrawled throughout the text. She quickly realized these were not just notes; they were edits. She was holding the last remaining copy of the original 1942 Final Report, the one that indisputably implicated the government in a racist plan to revoke the rights and liberties of Japanese Americans.

Aiko maintained that she found the report because of luck, but her tenacity and depth of knowledge meant she knew what luck had brought her. Armed with Aiko’s research, the CWRIC returned to Congress in 1983 to present Personal Justice Denied, their assessment of the government’s misconduct and the damage done to generations of Japanese Americans.

CWRIC’s findings, along with pressure from Aiko and fellow activists, persuaded Congress to pass the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, declaring that “a grave injustice was done to citizens and permanent resident aliens of Japanese ancestry” during World War II. “For these fundamental violations of the basic civil liberties and constitutional rights of these individuals of Japanese ancestry, the Congress apologizes on behalf of the Nation.” The law also allocated twenty thousand dollars to each survivor or their surviving immediate family.

Japanese Americans lost much more than the government paid back, and the reparations came too late for many; but the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 ensured a more honest historical record thanks to the massive effort by Japanese American leaders, politicians, and activists like Aiko.

In 2001, the Memorial to Japanese American Patriotism in World War II was completed in Washington, D.C. Part of the memorial is a stone inscribed with a quote from Senator Daniel Inouye, who fought for the U.S. in World War II and later helped lead the redress movement: “The lessons learned must remain as a grave reminder of what we must not allow to happen again to any group.”

Vernon Dahmer, Sr.

Content Warning: Violence

A Mississippi man who fought Jim Crow-era laws to ensure that Black citizens could vote, Vernon Dahmer, Sr. died defending his family from a white supremacist attack. 

"You get them out while I try to hold them off!" Vernon Dahmer shouted as he passed 10-year-old Bettie, already badly burned from the flames engulfing their home, out a back window to his wife.

The date was January 10, 1966. The place: Hattiesburg, Forrest County, Mississippi. As the Dahmer home and store went up in flames, Vernon Dahmer’s courage and quick thinking saved his family. Grabbing one of several loaded shotguns he always kept nearby, he returned fire on his attackers, trying to give the rest of his family time to get out. As his son Dennis later said, “There were about eight of them shooting at my dad. He's shooting back at them. Running through the house while they’re burning the house, shooting the windows out, throwing gallons of gas in, throwing torches in. My dad running through the flames, shooting out the doors, shooting out the different windows. It looked like it was more than one person that was actually shooting at them. I think that that unnerved them. They got nervous. One of them drops his gun. Then they start shooting one another. The Klansmen.” 

The family escaped, but Vernon’s lungs had been fatally burnt. He died from his injuries the next day. 

Vernon Dahmer lived in a county named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Among many other injustices, Black men and women in Forrest County were routinely denied their right to vote. Literacy tests were just one of the capricious and humiliating barriers to voting. As Vernon’s wife Ellie, a schoolteacher with a Master’s degree later explained, “We had to go down and take that ridiculous long test . . . I went down and took that test at least three times. . . .It would be a long series of questions and then they would give you a little statement on a card and you would have to interpret what the statement meant on the card. An ordinary sixth grade child would have interpreted it correctly, but yet they'd say, ‘You failed it.’"

In 1960, out of Forrest County’s more than 7,000 voting-age Black residents, only about 100 had gotten past the many barriers to register to vote. Vernon Dahmer refused to accept this.

A father of eight who farmed land that had been in his family for generations, Vernon was a respected leader in his community. He taught Sunday school and owned both a small grocery store and a sawmill. Vernon diligently fought against Mississippi’s history of prejudice against Black voters, never ceasing in his struggle to realize the promise of the 15th Amendment—which guaranteed men could not be denied the right to vote based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude”.

In 1962, when the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against Forrest County Clerk Theron Lynd for routinely denying Blacks the right to vote, Vernon volunteered to give a sworn statement attesting to the discrimination he had suffered at the hands of Lynd and his office. “He knew that he might get killed,” Ellie said later, “and he was willing to take the risk.”

This fear was only compounded when Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader and a personal friend of Vernon’s, was assassinated in 1963. Vernon began posting armed guards around his property—sometimes his sons, sometimes other people he hired. He stopped doing anything after dark, never traveled alone, and was himself always armed. 

 But Vernon pressed on. During the 1964 “Freedom Summer,” Vernon was president of the local NAACP chapter. He invited members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to come out to Forrest County to organize a voting registration campaign. Vernon not only hosted the volunteers in his home, but he also gave them transportation and money, either by direct donations or by paying them in return for farm work. 

The Dahmer family faced threats for years in response to Vernon’s activism, including regular harassment by the KKK. The family received menacing phone calls at all hours of the day and night. Cars buzzed through their yard and up their driveway, shooting out the windows in their store and the mailbox off its post. To further protect their home and family, Vernon and Ellie took to sleeping in shifts.

Dennis, who was just 12 years old when his father was killed, remembers a time his father called the local sheriff after the windows of his store were shot: “The sheriff comes out. He looks at the window. He looks at the damage and stuff and he's talking to my dad about it. I remember him looking at my dad and saying something to the effect of, ‘Well, Vernon, if you wasn’t involved in all this civil rights stuff, you wouldn't have these problems.’ He got in his car and drove off. I'm sure that sheriff had a good idea who had done it.”

Later Dennis reflected on the dissonance and injustice of his family’s situation. Ellie and Vernon, Dennis observed, “had five sons serving on active duty . . . We were out there protecting the security of the country. . . And my Dad and my Mom had to sleep in shifts to keep the family from being annihilated by the very people we were protecting in uniform.”

But by mid-1965, the Dahmers began to breathe easier. President Lyndon Johnson had signed the Voting Rights Act, and the battle seemed won. But even though literacy tests were outlawed, the poll taxes endured, and Black citizens in Hattiesburg remained uneasy about registering to vote. Intimidation was still the order of the day.  KKK members routinely hung around the courthouse, staring down Black citizens. So Vernon, or one of his sons, would accompany groups of Black residents to the courthouse to pay their poll taxes and register to vote, protecting and supporting them every step of the way.

Eventually, Vernon worked out an agreement with the local sheriff to collect poll taxes and have a voter registration book placed in his grocery store. On January 9, 1966 Vernon announced this on the local radio station and then went a step further, offering to pay the $2 poll tax for those who couldn’t afford it. 

That night, the KKK came for him and his family. Two carloads of Klansmen roared up from nearby Jones County, led by noted white supremacist Sam Bowers. 

More than a dozen people were known to have been part of the attack on the Dahmer family, but most went free, or received short sentences. Ringleader Sam Bowers was tried three times in the 1960s for Vernon’s murder, but each trial ended in a hung jury.

The Dahmer family never gave up in their quest for justice and peace, quietly carrying on Vernon’s mission. 

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Ellie Dahmer helped the community heal. She accepted the offer from the local white Chamber of Commerce to rebuild the family house, and many white businessmen committed to supplying materials and labor. By bringing the Black and white communities together, she helped reduce the tension and create greater peace.

In 1992, Ellie Dahmer was elected Election Commissioner of Forrest County, serving in this position for more than a decade—the very same district where her husband was murdered for his voting rights advocacy.

A few years later, the Dahmer family approached investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell to help them persuade state officials to reopen the Dahmer murder case. In 1998, Sam Bowers was finally convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Vernon Dahmer, Sr. 

This time, the jury only had to deliberate for 3 ½ hours to find Bowers guilty.

Dennis Dahmer channeled his father’s passion as he spoke to the press after the verdict: “Our father gave his life for a system that he believed in, even though that system wasn’t fair to him in his lifetime. We hope today’s verdict reflects the fact that we’re living in a new South and, more particularly, a new Mississippi.”

Time and time again, Vernon Dahmer, Sr. stood up to hate until he finally made the greatest sacrifice. Etched on his tombstone are some of the last words he ever spoke, as he lay dying in his wife Ellie’s arms:

“If you don’t vote, you don’t count.”

Pauli Murray

Pauli Murray, repeatedly denied opportunity because of her race and sex, refused to surrender to discrimination. Her vision and dedication helped topple the doctrine of separate but equal, carved a path for women's rights, and forged a more just America.

“You say I can’t and I’ll show you I can, even if I die trying. This was my attitude toward America.”

Lawyer, activist, poet, and priest Pauli Murray relentlessly did what others told her she could not. Her life was punctuated with firsts that laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement. Pauli's legal analysis and activism set the stage for women to gain equal protection under the law. But her most enduring impact, which would ultimately change the course of U.S. history, may be her steadfast conviction that segregation could be overturned by the Supreme Court using a legal argument rooted in the Fourteenth Amendment.

Growing up as a Black girl in Durham, North Carolina, in the 1910s and 1920s, Pauli experienced racism everywhere, from her grandparents’ stories of the Ku Klux Klan to the “colored” signs over water fountains and bathrooms. Most tragically, Pauli’s father was murdered at the hands of a racist white guard at a grim state-run psychiatric institution. This racially motivated killing stuck with Pauli throughout her life and shaped her lifelong activism against injustice.

By the time she graduated from high school at the top of her class, Pauli was determined to go to college far from the segregated South. “No more segregation for me,” she said later. “I was fifteen, but that I knew.” She graduated from New York’s Hunter College in 1933, one of four Black students in a class of more than two hundred.

Continuing her education became a point of passion for Pauli, but at each brush with academia, she was launched further into activism. In 1938, her application to the graduate school at the University of North Carolina was rejected: “members of your race are not admitted to the University,” the dean’s letter read.

Pauli knew UNC would likely deny her an opportunity to advance her education, but seeing the rejection in print infuriated her. She wrote to the University president and the NAACP, and the story was leaked to the press. UNC’s student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, detailed the campus reactions. “I’ve never committed a murder yet,” one student told the paper, “but if a black boy tried to come into my home saying he was a ‘University student…’” Others “vowed that they would tar and feather any ‘n—er’ that tried to come into class” with them.

Pauli penned a scathing response to one of the Daily Tar Heel’s editorials, but her pursuit of justice was cut short when she met with NAACP lawyer (and future Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall. He explained that Pauli’s case just wasn’t strong enough to mount a legal battle. She was crushed—but she also felt a burden lift.

“Much of my life in the South had been overshadowed by a lurking fear,” she wrote later. “Terrified of the consequences of overt protest against racial segregation,” she had endured its indignities, each one “accompanied by a nagging shame which no amount of personal achievement in other areas could overcome. For me, the real victory of that encounter with the Jim Crow system of the South was the liberation of my mind from years of enslavement.”

Galvanized by UNC’s rejection, Pauli protested segregation on a Virginia bus, campaigned for workers’ rights, and decried the evils of racism in a series of letters to the press and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom Pauli struck up a long friendship and political dialogue.

Though her activist aims drove her, Pauli aspired to be a poet and writer. When she was recruited for law school, Pauli questioned which path to take. Her direction became clear in the summer of 1941 when she stepped into a New York apartment building on her way to a colleague’s funeral, and a doorman insisted she use the service entrance. Racism would follow Black people everywhere, Pauli realized, even to New York City.

Her calling became clear: the only way to escape segregation was to end it. Pauli “went on to Washington to enter law school, with the single-minded intention of destroying Jim Crow.”

Pauli arrived at Howard Law School in 1941 to find that sexism—what she later termed “Jane Crow”—was as persistent an obstacle as racism. Pauli was often mocked, discounted, and excluded by all-male professors and students. But their ridicule only propelled Pauli as she made her way to the top of her class.

In one civil rights seminar, Pauli and her classmates sparred with experienced lawyers on civil rights cases. The class workshopped arguments against Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark 1896 Supreme Court decision that paved the way for racial segregation. It was during this workshop that Pauli began building the argument that would change the course of U.S. history.

Activists and legal scholars had tried for years to overturn the 1896 Plessy decision, which provided the legal basis for segregation ordinances and unequal access to public facilities, stores, restaurants, transportation, and schools all across the South. When Pauli was in law school, the going theory was that Plessy could only be defeated using case-by-case proofs that “separate” Black facilities were in no way “equal” to their white counterparts.

Pauli proposed a different idea: Plessy should be overturned outright for violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. She wrote a legal analysis that was “a frontal attack” on Plessy, arguing that segregation violated “the right not to be set aside or marked with a badge of inferiority.” Segregated facilities relegated Black Americans to a lesser legal and social position. “Having no legal precedents to rely on, I cited references to psychological and sociological data supporting my assertion.”

Her classmates were shocked. It just couldn’t be done, they scoffed. But their derision only impassioned Pauli: “Opposition to an idea I care deeply about always aroused my latent mule-headedness,” Pauli wrote later. Her classmates laughed as she made a ten-dollar wager with her professor. Within twenty-five years, Pauli bet, Plessy would be overturned.

After graduating from law school, Pauli was hired by the Methodist Church to create a pamphlet describing each states’ segregation laws. Instead, they got a seven-hundred page detailed and comprehensive book, States’ Laws on Race and Color.  According to Thurgood Marshall, Pauli’s book served as the “bible” during Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, a direct challenge to Plessy v. Ferguson before the Supreme Court. Pauli’s former law professor, Spottswood Robinson, used her senior paper about Plessy as a guide to craft the argument that would ultimately bring down Jim Crow. The argument was exactly as Pauli had so boldly asserted as a law student years prior: whether racially segregated public schools were unequal and, therefore, violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees citizens equal protection under the law.

On May 17, 1954, Chief Justice Warren delivered the opinion of the court. His words echoed Pauli’s law school argument from a decade before: “Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children,” he wrote. Modern psychological knowledge made that clear. The court declared segregated educational facilities inherently unequal, a deprivation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. Plessy was overturned, decimating the judicial justification for a “separate but equal” society and opening the door for lawyers and civil rights groups to continue challenging segregation in all its forms.

Pauli did not just help deal this fatal blow to Jim Crow but took on Jane Crow as well. Her legal analysis contributed to victories in pivotal women’s rights cases over the next few decades, including White v. Crook that barred the exclusion of women from juries. Pauli’s activism with the American Civil Liberities Union and National Organization of Women also ensured that discrimination on the basis of sex was included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Over fifty years later, Pauli’s efforts continued to advance Civil Rights as “on the basis of sex” would be used in 2020 in the Supreme Court decision of Bostock v. Clayton County, protecting LGBTQ+ Americans from employment discrimination.

Pauli’s own identity likely influenced her defiance of rigid gender categories. Such categories did not fit Pauli. Her romantic relationships were with women, and she identified for many years as a man, despite never finding the understanding or support to live that identity more fully.

“Pauli Murray calls us to confront the way we even categorize and think about things,” says Barbara Lau, director of Durham’s Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice., Pauli’s life and work challenges the concept of courage itself. Courage is not a single act alone—”it’s a practice,” says Lau.

In 1977, Pauli embarked yet another career, becoming the first Black woman ordained by the Episcopal Church. “All the strands of my life had come together,” she wrote. “Descendant of slave and of slave owner, I had already been called poet, lawyer, teacher, and friend. Now I was empowered to minister the sacrament of One in whom there is no north or south, no black or white, no male or female—only the spirit of love and reconciliation drawing us all toward the goal of human wholeness.”