Living through world-shaping events can be as mundane as walking miles to work or school instead of taking a bus, typing news releases to keep boycott members informed as well as warned, and going to church, listening to an obscure minister preach about nonviolent resistance of racism.
Theodora Lacey lived this way as a parishioner in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., where her father, Dr. Clarence Theodor Smiley, the high school principal, was president of the board and where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was called to minister.
King was different from the other leaders of his time said Lacey, a Teaneck resident and activist since 1961.
"He set real high moral values and truly lived by them; he was not interested in being in the public eye or the limelight. His work was not about personal gain. Sometimes [contemporary] leaders have been caught up with their own personal gain, rather than the cause. But that was not him. He was not materialistic. He truly believed in the betterment of man and that’s what he gave his life to. He could have been a professor at any number of universities. He got his Ph.D. at the age of ‘7. He could have lived a peaceful and comfortable life, but that was not what he sought."
When King came to Montgomery, he found compatriots among the Lacey family because, Lacey said, as children they were taught they could become anything, and never to allow anyone or any law to make them feel inferior. "We were taught not to lose sight of who we are even in the most severe segregated situations."
In 1955, when Lacey was ”, one of her friends, Rosa Parks, took such lessons to heart and refused to give up her seat and move to the back of a bus. For the next 381 days, the world watched as a small group of African Americans did not argue with white authorities; they convened. They did not fight injustice; they resisted it. They did not win equality, they achieved it. The difference in words was subtle; the result shattered forever the hold bigotry had over a nation.
It was the message that King communicated through not only his sermons but his life. "There was something about not only what he said, but the manner in which he presented himself that made me understand and think really hard about nonviolence . I saw him practice what he was saying, and it made me resolve that he was right," said Lacey, 53 years later from her home in Teaneck.
It was also a lesson taken to heart by the Jews in the community, she said. "The segregation laws not only extended to African Americans but to a lesser agree to members of the Jewish community . In many instances Jews were not welcome, though they were not subjected to the laws the African Americans were subjected to . They were treated somewhat differently, also. As a result many of them lived in the African American neighborhood or on the fringe of the neighborhood."
If there was any group of people speaking out or not being in accord with some of the inhumane things that were going on in the South, in Montgomery, Lacey said, they were members of the Jewish community.
In fact, a Jewish family spoke up for Lacey’s grandfather and got him released when he was unjustly arrested. He was the first African American to be a letter carrier. Because he was earning more money than the average African American he had two homes and was bringing some clothes and food from one house to the other. The police stopped him because they didn’t believe that he could afford what he was carrying.
Lacey said it wasn’t until she moved to the North in 1960, with her husband, Alabama State University professor and boycott strategist Archie Lacey, that she ever heard anything negative about the relationship between the African American and Jewish communities. "It was mostly stereotyping," she said.
The couple made King’s message their life’s work.
When they moved to Teaneck in 1961, the Laceys found that, despite the town’s reputation for welcoming racial diversity, Realtors resisted showing them homes for sale in predominantly white neighborhoods.
They became the third black family to buy a home on a block where most black homebuyers were steered at that time. They found friendly neighbors but also some unexpected hostility as some white neighbors moved away.
Lacy reflected, "I see people whose experiences have been very limited and whose knowledge also is very limited, and I feel sorry for them. Early as a child, I would have been very angry but I learned that I should not be. I feel sorry that in [this century] there are those still carrying the burden of prejudgment."
Almost as soon as she arrived in Teaneck, Lacey became involved with the League of Women Voters. Later, in cooperation with the PTA of the Bryant School, where her four children were enrolled, she started an after-school and Saturday program that operated for several years. At the same time, the Laceys founded and organized the North East Community Organization, initially as a group of neighbors who joined to preserve the quality of town services that had been attracting families to Teaneck. NECO developed into a guiding force in Teaneck’s voluntary integration of its public schools. The Laceys helped township leaders formulate an integration plan that, although heatedly opposed, was implemented in 1965 without incident.
While Lacey has always been a strong proponent of integration, she feels that in some ways "we’ve lost something in trying to assimilate, we’ve lost sight of those aspects that helped to make us very strong and to recognize our own worth. That’s taught in the home still. I’m not sure it’s taught in the schools. I’m not sure that the curriculum shows the kind of diversity that gives every child the opportunity to feel good about [himself or herself]. I think we can do a better job on that."
And with that it comes full circle, to what people feel about themselves and others. Lacey said segregation laws were born out of a history of treating other human beings like animals and of a fear of facing the truth about what enslavement does not only to the slave but to the master.
Now there are laws that guarantee equality, yet they can’t do anything about hatred.
"In reality," she said, "I’m not sure we’ve embraced [equality] as we should and that it is carried out to the letter of the law."
Lacey will give a sermon on her memories of King on Saturday morning as part of the Martin Luther King Shabbat program at the Jewish Center of Teaneck.
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