By: Chelsea Davis-Bibb, Ed.D.
It was Margaret Mead who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” For Curtis Graves, a native of New Orleans, Louisiana, has fought his entire life for change.
His great grandmother was born into slavery with her White father and slave mother. She was one of eight children, and out of all the children, she was the only one who was purchased by her White half-brother who then freed her in 1861. During her enslavement, she convinced her half-brother to sell she and her husband some of the land he owned, and so he did. By 1881, they were not only free, but were landowners.
His mother was also born on that same property. As he reflected, Graves stated, “That kind of shaped my upraising because I was raised in a house with my mother, my mother’s mother and my father.” He discussed how this is what people did back then and how we should be doing it now. “I credit a lot of my understanding of history to the fact that I was raised with these two old people who had a wealth of knowledge that I would have never picked up on if I was just visiting them once every month on a weekend.”
Growing up, Graves’ parents sheltered him from “having to face the humility” his mom experienced as a child when she couldn’t go into the church for a White wedding when she had attended the church before several times. Due to this, she vowed to keep her children from the realities of segregation. The lies they told him were, “We rode in the back of the bus because it was cooler…or we sat upstairs in the theater because it was a better seat. His parents “had a lie for everything.”
At the age of ten, he came to his senses and realized what was going on. His mom then explained to him what segregation was, but for Graves, he never felt like he was “less than anybody,” stating, “That shaped my life because…I’ve always been the kind of person who’s going to fight for what I think is right.”
Politics has always run in Graves’ blood as his father was a board member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and was “always involved in anything political.” His mom was a dressmaker who did clothing for the wealthiest people in town. He learned a lot from life by simply watching his parents. His parents were not going to let anyone treat them as if they were nothing. “I was raised in a house where people cared about one another and cared about not being treated like they were less than.”
Before he moved to Houston, he attended Xavier University for two years, and then left because he wanted to get away from home. He then transferred to Texas Southern University (TSU) where he met Eldrewey Stearns, a law student at TSU. Stearns had gotten stopped one night for a traffic violation and when he took out his wallet to show his driver’s license, there was a picture of a White Girl, and “they roughed him up just for having a picture.” Stearns went to the city council to discuss what happened and the city council, who was made up of White guys dismissed the case. Not satisfied, and with advice from someone close to him, he demanded action. “He went back to campus and gathered a few of us who were like minded and we had a meeting in one of the rooms in the administration building…and we decided tomorrow (that day was March 4, 1960), we would walk down from the campus to the Weingarten store and sit-in and desegregate the lunch counter.” This was the beginning of the sit-ins west of the Mississippi River. Graves further stated, “It was a tumultuous time and we all committed ourselves to try to do this in a nonviolent way.”
Rev. William A. Lawson, founding pastor of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, was the new campus minister at TSU during that time, and Graves and the others consulted him and asked if he would train them in nonviolence. They had seen what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had done in other places and what could be done in a non-violent way and knew that striking back would only cause a reaction from the police department, which would be negative to their cause.
After the Weingarten sit-in, the group continued and looked for more impressive venues to tell their story. Graves discussed that when John Glen had orbited the earth in 1962, there was going to be a huge celebration for him in the form of a parade. “We decided to have signs about segregation under our coats because of the worldwide attention to this parade. Just as we were preparing to leave, a call came through from city hall and the businesspeople in the community. They called to say that they were going to integrate everything. “We won because Lyndon Johnson did not want Houston to have a bad name. It was the dollars over the segregation,” Graves stated. Because of their bravery, courage, and the hunger for change, Graves and many other students desegregated Houston within months.
After graduating from TSU, he started working and then enlisted in the service for six months and then got involved in politics. Graves went on to be the first African American to serve in the Texas House since 1899. “It was a remarkable feeling that I had achieved something that nobody had since reconstruction…a significant achievement for me and the people of Houston. He also became a businessman, worked for NASA, and is a photographer.
When discussing today’s society, he reflected on the public execution of George Floyd and how it was a wake-up call for the nation. “I remember so well when John Lewis walked over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and was beaten by the cops…and in the history of our nation we had never seen a public execution on television before, and what we saw with George Floyd it was a wake up called for the world.”
This unbelievable action by the hands of a White police officer, sparked something in the nation and “a lot of other things that are coming to the fore, because it was time for us to decide that the kind of police brutality that we have in this country that has been rampant for years and years, that story is now being told just because of a cell phone. Graves made it known that technology is the only difference between what is going on now and what happened in the past. He spoke on how there were thousands of people who were killed, who were dragged behind cars, who died like Emmett Till did, and the list goes on. “We didn’t have a cell phone as a way for this to be shown to the world, but now we do, and this will make a huge difference in the way things happen. Graves also discussed the beating of Rodney King, and the killing of Ahmaud Aubrey and how things are now being showcased for the world to see through technology.
The fight for change is still needed in our world today. It is important that we continue this fight that the TSU-13, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Curtis Graves, and our ancestors started. We are living off the weight they carried on their shoulders, and it is now our time to bear that weight for them.
Graves currently resides in Atlanta and is working on his book titled “From Behind the Screen.” He made it known that “The screen is what divided White and Black people in New Orleans.” His book will be out by the end of the year, and in closing, Graves proudly said, “I came from behind the screen.”