Civil Rights Act passed 50 years ago

WARREN – To borrow a phrase from country music artist Loretta Lynn, the message at Sunday’s Warren Civic League celebration of the Civil Rights Act’s 50th anniversary was simple, yet important: “We’ve come a long way, baby.”

On a panel moderated by federal Judge Benita Pearson, the first African-American woman to serve as a U.S. district judge in Ohio, female African-America leaders talked Sunday about the struggle of professional black women in America.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Specifically, it ended racial segregation in schools, at the work place and by facilities that served the general public.

Pearson directed a panel at Grace AME Church that featured notable women such as Warren Councilwoman at-large Helen Rucker, former University of Akron nursing professor Dr. Cheryl Sadler, former Youngstown Clerk of Courts Sarah Brown-Clark and retired Youngstown Police Detective Delphine Baldwin-Casey.

The reason Sunday’s event gathered women from such a wide array of professions was to provide evidence that the Civil Rights Act allows women the opportunity to achieve their dreams, no matter what they may be.

“My message to you is to pray and persist,” Pearson said. “What I mean about that is to dream big. I want you young women to overeducate yourselves and I want you to pray big. Ask for all that you believe is possible.”

While Pearson’s message was one of optimism and opportunity, other speakers shared their personal stories of struggle.

Sadler told of encountering racism and sexism within both the medical field and the military, where she served as a member of the Washington, D.C., Army National Guard as a nurse from 1979 to 2005.

“Don’t think that because you’ve reached a high rank (that you will get respect),” Sadler, who retired as a lieutenant colonel, said. “In many people’s eyes, I was just another lieutenant colonel who happened to be a black woman, and that’s the world we live in.

“You have to be strong, young people, and you have to stand up,” Sadler said. “You have to be a survivalist. That’s what it takes to be a black woman.”

The Rev. Gena Thornton has served as pastor of the Grace A.M.E. Church since 2009, although the ministry was not her first calling. Thornton said she first dreamed of a career in the medical field. The doors were closed to women of her generation.

“When I was a little girl, I was was told that I could not be a doctor, and when I asked why, I was told that it was because I was a woman and I was colored,” Thornton said. “I don’t believe I was told that out of malice or meanness. I believe that was just that person’s truth, so I believed her and I lowered my expectations for myself.

“But I wonder what that person would do now if she was here today, and she looked at all the women at this table now.”