category: Campus News

‘The greatest act of bravery I’ve ever seen’


Dr. Randall O’Brien, president of Carson-Newman College, and civil rights activist Brenda Travis both grew up in McComb, Mississippi. Travis was jailed for entering the “white only” Greyhound Bus Station, and 45 years later O’Brien presented her with the Bronze Star he had earned in Vietnam. (Staff Photo – Steve Marion)

BY STEVE MARION – Standard Banner Staff Writer

Story courtesy of the Standard Banner

The name in the local newspaper caught Randall O’Brien’s eye.

“Brenda Travis.”

That was the girl he had a crush on. She was ten years old, a grade behind him at their school in McComb, Mississippi.

But as O’Brien read more closely, he saw that it wasn’t his Brenda in the paper. It was another Brenda. This one was 16 years old. She was a Negro, as people in McComb said in the rare instance when they didn’t use an ugly word to describe her race. And this other Brenda Travis was in jail. She had been arrested for sitting in the clearly-marked “White Only” Greyhound Bus Station.

O’Brien didn’t know it at the time, but this new Brenda Travis would have a far greater bearing on his life than the first one. But it would be more than 40 years before he met her.

Civil rights activist Brenda Travis, who speaks at Carson-Newman College this morning, where Dr. Randall O’Brien is president, didn’t wrestle with her decision to walk to the bus station on August 30, 1961. Everything – her dignity, her citizenship – was gone. She didn’t have anything left to lose.

McComb in 1961 was a place where police officers entertained themselves on a Saturday night by beating blacks. It was a place where the Baptist churches sanctioned “n—– committees” that hung out on the church steps on Sunday morning, smoking and making sure no one of color even thought about entering, O’Brien recalled. The editor of the newspaper had been thrown through a plate glass window because he showed some evidence of a conscience about the situation – and many local officials didn’t hide their allegiance to the Ku Klux Klan and other similar hate groups.

“McComb was called the ‘dynamite capital of the world,” said O’Brien. “It wasn’t because we made dynamite – it was because of all the bombings of African American churches and homes.”

Travis had been changed forever by the pictures in Jett magazine of Emmett Till. One showed him as a happy 14-year-old. The other was of his beaten, disfigured body after they pulled it out of the Tallahatchie River. His crime was supposedly flirting with a white woman.

She was convinced the same thing would happen to her 13-year-old brother after the sheriff jerked him from his bed one night in a case of mistaken identity.

“I thought he would die,” she recalled. “When I saw him again I held him with everything I had. I never wanted to let him go.”

Even though she was only 16, Travis felt as if the choice had already been made for her. She didn’t have anything left to fear.

“There comes a time when we all must take a stand,” she said. “I was already mentally, spiritually, and psychologically dead. The only thing they had to do was kill me and lay my body down. I had nothing to lose. I was already dead.”

Travis was inspired by the example of Robert “Bob” Moses, a Harvard-educated organizer who had been beaten severely as he worked on voter registration in McComb. She had joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), certain that Moses had come as “our deliverer, to show us the way.

“I saw him with all those white bandages on his head, and I told him it reminded me of the crown of thorns,” she said.

Shortly before, two voter registration workers, Hollis Watkins and Curtis Hayes, had been arrested for sitting in a F.W. Woolworth in McComb. Travis went to the bus station with two young black men, Ike Lewis and Robert Talbert. They were arrested, and Travis spent a month in the Pike County Jail. She was expelled from her high school as a result.

Travis and the rest of the “McComb Five” marched with about 200 fellow students to city hall, where they proceeded to pray on the steps until all were arrested. This time, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom she never met, paid her bail, but she never received a hearing. Instead, she was assigned to a reform school for a period of one year, but after about six months, was released in the middle of the night and told that if she didn’t leave Mississippi, her safety could not be assured.

After a three-hour visit with her mother, Travis left the state and stayed briefly in Talladega and then Atlanta, where Ella Baker, founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee, became her guardian. Until the age of 19, Travis was sheltered and helped by workers in the Civil Rights movement. She studied at Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina, and later worked briefly for Jessie Jackson’s Operation Bread Basket in Chicago. She later settled in California, where she worked for the state university system and played an active role in its employee union. In 2006, she was awarded the inaugural Moral Compass Award from the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.

In 2006, Travis was invited back to McComb to receive her high school diploma along with about a dozen others who had been similarly treated. The event rang hollow, she recalls. After the ceremony, the superintendent of schools failed to issue her an honorary diploma – and it was another five years before it arrived, after his departure.

But the trip back to McComb held something more meaningful to Travis and her family.

O’Brien, who had read about the event in the McComb paper, made the drive from Waco, Texas, where he was working at Baylor University. Travis noticed him in the audience – in the front row.

“I just remember this guy with a big smile on his face,” she said. “After I spoke to the group, he came up and told me he had something he wanted to give me that evening. I didn’t really know what to think.”

Travis recalls – only half jokingly – that she told her family so they could watch out for her. That evening, O’Brien came up again and took from his pocket a little box containing the Bronze Star he had been awarded for bravery in Vietnam, while he was with the 101st Airborne. He wanted her to have it “for the greatest act of bravery I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

O’Brien was finally able to give a gift to Brenda Travis. It was just a different gift – and a different Brenda Travis – than he had expected.

“Some people are asked to fight for their country,” he said. “But no one should ever be asked to fight her country. And that is exactly what she had to do.”

Travis was moved to tears by the gesture. She and O’Brien have remained close since then, and she was wearing his Bronze Star during her local speaking engagements this week.

“I didn’t know what to say then,” she said, “and I still don’t know what to say. I’ve never had anything like this happen before.”

“I think your life said it all, Brenda,” said O’Brien.

See Brenda Travis’s Closing Remarks


See Also — WBIR Story

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