There’s an image that resurfaces in my spirit about this time of year as we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It shows racism and discrimination in its rawest form.
A Black man in his Sunday best is kicked in his teeth by an angry mob of segregationists. Some social media post wrongly identify the 1950s photograph as a man on his way to vote that’s attacked by relentless racists attempting to stop him. Not so. In fact, the captured moment is historic, and the victim is an unsung hero in the civil rights movement.
I did some digging because I wanted to know his name. Turns out, it was L. Alex Wilson, a journalist and editor of the Tri-State Defender of Memphis. He was one of a handful of Black reporters on hand to cover desegregation efforts at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. Nine African American students, known as the Little Rock Nine, tried to attend school and were instead blocked by the Arkansas National Guard. The Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case had declared segregation in schools unconstitutional, but protestors who gathered outside the school every morning were intent on preventing Black children from learning next to white children.
Standing 6’3”, Wilson and other African American journalists began weaving through a violent mob waiting for the courageous nine students to arrive on Sept. 23, 1957. Despite showing his press credentials, Wilson was beaten bloodied by rioters, including that unprovoked kick to his teeth and a brick to the base of his skull. Each time he’d get knocked down, fearlessness and tenacity pulled him back up. He’d brush himself off and kept walking, which only agitated the hostile crowd.
His colleagues yelled at him to run, but Wilson refused. He eventually made it to his car and drove away. With the white mobs’ attention on Wilson, the nine African American students slipped quietly into the high school, officially desegregating Central High School.
The brutal attack on Wilson made national headlines. The next day, also stirred by the image, President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent the U.S. Army to protect the Little Rock Nine. Wilson, who returned to his hotel room to meet the deadline for his article, meanwhile, wrote in part: “I decided not to run. If I were beaten, I’d take it walking if I could – not running. … Any newsman worth his salt is dedicated to the proposition that it is his responsibility to report the news factually under favorable and unfavorable conditions.”
As we celebrate Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, John Lewis, and Jackie Robinson this Black History Month, let us not forget the unsung heroes, like Mr. Wilson ꟷ a fellow reporter and editor ꟷ who were instrumental in the fight for equal rights. Sadly, in 1960, after developing an illness that mimics Parkinson’s disease, he died at age 51. His family believes the brain disorder was the result of the hate-driven plummeting he endured in Little Rock.