A Bronze Star for Brenda
by Dr. J. Randall O’Brien
Heroes, civil rights heroes and heroines, number in the hundreds, nay thousands — tens of thousands — from the 1960s alone. Immortalized in the pages of American history, many of our country’s bravest soldiers earned their medals of valor on battlefields of strange name: lunch counters, bus stations, courthouses, public schools, swimming pools, jails. Purple Hearts rained upon bare backs in darkened forests and crowded jail cells, where satanic armies tortured God’s precious children of color. There, hooded hoodlums and Klansmen cops dispensed pain to prophets, wounds to warriors, and evil to any who courageously worked for racial equality.
Jesus was an African-American in the 60s. Anti-Christ Christians and other hate-filled citizens murdered him— again, and again and, again.
Wasn’t that a crucifixion on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis in 1968? Didn’t Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman precede Dr. King on Golgotha in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964? Wasn’t Medgar Evers lynched with a bullet to the back in Jackson in 1963? And what about the Amite County, Mississippi, gentleman-farmer-messiah, Herbert Lee? Pray tell, how did he die in September of 1961?
All of these are heroes, fallen heroes, national heroes, and heroes of mine. There are thousands more. One, a young African-American girl, from my hometown of McComb, Mississippi stands out.
On Saturday, August 26, 1961, Mississippians Hollis Watkins and Curtis (Elmer) Hayes, both African-American, sat-in at Woolworth’s “Whites Only” lunch counter in McComb City, thereby becoming two of the first persons to take direct action against segregation in the state. For their revolutionary bravery they were promptly arrested, jailed for 30 days, and charged with breach of peace.
Four days later on Wednesday, August 30, 1961, Robert Talbert, Isaac Lewis, and 16-year-old Brenda Travis sat-in at the segregated Greyhound bus station in McComb. They, too, were arrested immediately and incarcerated for 28 days in the county jail.
After their release from jail, Ike and Brenda were expelled from Burgland High, McComb’s high school for African-Americans, refused readmission, and therefore handed, in effect, lifetime sentences of punishing poverty. Even with a high school education, southern blacks could not, as a rule, expect to earn a fair, living wage. To be denied the opportunity to earn a high school diploma represented cruel and unusual punishment, a sentence of raw poverty for life.
On October 4, 1961, approximately 120 of Brenda’s and Ike’s classmates, angrily protesting the expulsions dictated by an oppressive culture of racial discrimination, marched from Burgland High School through town, led by young Brenda, to the steps of City Hall singing, “We Shall Overcome.” One-by-one the students ascended the steps of City Hall to kneel and pray. For their actions, they were cursed, beaten and kicked by cops and other fine Christian citizens, then arrested.
Student Civil Rights Protest
Brenda related years later, “I believe I was predestined to become an activist. I joined the NAACP and became involved in the movement to get people to vote. But they were afraid.”
Jailed again, this time for her role in the student march, Brenda and the other students sang and prayed through the night. After several days, “They took me out of jail,” Brenda related. “said, ‘we’re taking you to Jackson to see your attorney.’ After a long drive they pulled the car up to the gates of the reform school in Oakley. My family, nobody knew where I was. My family suffered.”
Though sentenced to a year in reformatory school, the young teenager was released before completing her full term, under one condition established by the Governor: she must leave the state within 24 hours of her release!
Following 45 years of exile, Brenda returned to Mississippi, June 21, 2006, for the 45th anniversary of the 1961 direct action against segregation in the state. Determined, I got in my automobile, pulled out of my driveway, and drove ten hours from my home in Texas to find Brenda in McComb. I had something to say to her; I had something to give her.
Following two days of recognition, speeches, awards ceremonies, and a moving graduation exercise, nearly a half-century too late for the expelled seniors of the Burgland High Class of 1962, and a final stirring address to a full house by Brenda Travis, the right moment arrived for me to approach Brenda. My heart raced.
“Brenda,” I began, “I’m Randall O’Brien. I’m a minister and the Executive Vice President and Provost of Baylor University. I grew up in McComb.” “Oh, I’m very glad to meet you.” “No, the honor is all mine. You are a hero of mine. I was 12 years old when you sat-in at the bus station and marched on City Hall. You were 16. Those remain, for me, two of the greatest acts of bravery I have witnessed in my lifetime.”
“How very kind of you. Thank you, Randall.” “Brenda, what happened to you was one of the darkest travesties of justice in American history. I am ashamed; I am embarrassed; I am angry. I am also changed by you, by your life, your courage, and your cries for justice. As you know,” I continued, “our lives always travel down paths of continuation or compensation in the area of racial injustice, one or the other. Your witness, and the courageous work of your sisters and brothers, has been a huge influence upon my life. I’ve tried to live my life to help compensate for all the wrong done to African-Americans. How can I say, ‘Thank you,’ Brenda, for who you are and for who you’ve helped me to become?”
She tried to speak, but couldn’t. Her eyes filled with tears. We hugged. Slipping my right hand into my pants pocket, I clutched the gift I had for her, pulled it out, and placed it in Brenda’s hand.
Leaning back from our embrace while looking into my heroine’s eyes, still holding her hand, I whispered, “A few years after your civil rights battles for our country, I fought for our country on a different battlefield —in Vietnam. Sometimes, in an imperfect world one, might need to fight for his country. But no one — no one — should ever have to fight her country!”
Nodding humbly in silent agreement, brown eyes floating in tears, Brenda stood still, we both did, planted quietly on holy ground. “For my service in Vietnam I was awarded the Bronze Star,” I said. “For your gallantry, Brenda, you were awarded Reform School and cruel exile from your home state and family. You were so many times more heroic than I ever was! I want you to have my Bronze Star, Brenda, for your heroism. You already have my admiration and my heart.”
Weeping, plunging us into tearful embrace again, Brenda whispered to me through her sobs, “I don’t know what to say.” “You don’t have to say anything. I thought about saving my medals for my children,” I confessed, “maybe giving my bronze star to my son so my children would have something to remember me by. Then I thought, ‘No, this is how I want to be remembered: Brenda Travis gave her youth for civil rights for all Americans; Daddy gave his Bronze Star to Brenda Travis.’”
(Dr. Randall O’Brien, president of Carson-Newman University and civil rights activist, Brenda Travis both grew up in McComb, Mississippi.)
Randall O’Brien President, Carson-Newman University Jefferson City, Tennessee