Most associate the launch of America’s civil rights movement with the momentous events of the 1950s: the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat in 1955 and the rise in influence of the charismatic Martin Luther King, Jr.
Those events dramatically furthered the movement, leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But they were preceded by many courageous acts of resistance, including one 75 years ago today right here in Alexandria, when attorney Samuel Wilbert Tucker masterminded a peaceful protest at the Alexandria library.
That protest long ago on a hot August morning is worth remembering for what it heralded and as an example of the life’s work of a great man.
The protest involved five young black men previously recruited by Tucker. They entered Alexandria’s sole library, which was for whites only. One by one, they asked for a library card.
Upon being rebuffed by the librarian, they each took a book from the shelves and began quietly reading. The young men were ultimately arrested for disorderly conduct. Tucker alerted the media, but the story didn’t receive widespread coverage outside of the black newspapers.
Tucker saw education and the law as the means by which to fight racial inequality. According to an article by S.J. Ackerman in The Washington Post, Tucker became interested in the law as a child. Under the tutelage of family friend Thomas Watson, a black lawyer, Tucker passed the Virginia bar exam at age 20.
Tucker was ahead of his time in many respects. In 1927, almost 30 years before the Montgomery bus boycott, Tucker and one of his brothers were arrested after a white bus passenger told them their movable seat had strayed into the “whites only” section. Watson defended the boys. Amazingly and unexpectedly, an all-white jury found the boys innocent. Tucker realized that action through the courts could be a vehicle for change.
Though brilliant, Tucker was humble and unassuming. According to Ackerman’s research, Tucker once said, “God keeps his eye on the sparrow, but the sparrow never shouts. He just sings his song.”
Tucker didn’t seek the limelight; he simply devoted the rest of his life to fighting inequality in the courts. After serving in World War II, he decided southern Virginia needed more black lawyers, so in 1946 Tucker moved to Emporia. Over the years he litigated many desegregation cases as an NAACP lawyer, including several before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Tucker’s activism earned him the enmity of Virginia Sen. Harry Byrd’s political machine, which unsuccessfully sought to have him disbarred in 1960.
He finally gained the recognition he deserved when Alexandria’s school board in 1999 marked the 60th anniversary of the library sit-in by voting to name the city’s new West End elementary school after him.
Samuel Wilbert Tucker is a hero for the ages. In our current narcissistic era, with its emphasis on personal and partisan gain, Tucker’s life of sacrifice and devotion to others stands as an enduring example. As we remember the events of August 21, 1939, we honor the man who planned them.