Dream weavers

UND’s own pillars of Civil Rights stood up for social change and racial harmony on world stage

Era Bell Thompson, Fritz Pollard, Jr. and Ronald Davies

Era Bell Thompson, Fritz Pollard, Jr. and Judge Ronald Davies. UND Archives.

While Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, three sometimes quiet and other times audacious leaders in their own right, all University of North Dakota alums, similarly were changing the world.

Monday, we celebrated MLK, and rightly so, as the man who personified and died for a dream of social and racial justice for all.

During these occasions, we also should take time to remember UND’s own pillars of the Civil Rights Movement — Era Bell Thompson, Judge Ronald Davies and Fritz Pollard, Jr. — all contemporaries of MLK who didn’t sit idly during those tumultuous times in America.

Pillars for change

Thompson (1905-1986), as editor of Ebony magazine for four decades, shone a steady light of understanding on how to achieve harmonious racial and gender relations. She attended UND from 1925-1927.

Thompson, on several occasions, conducted interviews with MLK to document his nonviolent crusade of civil disobedience for the sake of change.

Davies (1904-1996), as a federal judge, was the man who ordered the desegregation of the previously all-white Little Rock (Ark.) Central High, opening up new frontiers for African Americans and setting the table for President John F. Kennedy’s landmark civil rights legislation shortly thereafter.

Davies, a native of Crookston, Minn., and 1927 UND grad, famously faced down Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, who opposed the federal desegregation order, and called out his state’s National Guard to prevent nine African-American students from going to school on Sept. 4, 1957. Davies stood firm with his order and the “Little Rock 9,” as they became known, eventually were able to attended classes in Little Rock. The incident brought international focus on America’s desegregation effort.

And then there was Fritz Pollard, Jr. (1915-2003), a star UND football and track athlete, who nearly three decades before MLK’s marches on Selma and Washington, D.C., helped serve up a wake-up call on the athletic field that racial dominance was a myth. Though never truly setting out to be a Civil Rights example nor hero, Pollard was thrust into the role on the world stage as a member of the U.S. Track and Field Team at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany.

At the time, Nazi dictator Adolph Hitler had amassed an army of Germany athletes – men and women – that optimized his “Aryan” vision of pure white racial superiority. One problem, at least for Hitler: a handful of young black American athletes, including Pollard and Jesse Owens, were destined to alter the dictator’s grand plan with an athletic display that, in the words of ESPN writer Larry Schwartz, “singlehandedly crushed the myth of Aryan supremacy.”

By the time of the closing ceremonies, Pollard, Owens and five other black athletes on the U.S. team had put Hitler in an embarrassing position after winning 12 medals, many of them gold.

In their own unique ways before, during and after the actions of MLK made the world take notice, these UND alums – Thompson, Davies and Pollard, Jr., were at the forefront of promoting social change and racial harmony in American, always with great courage.

MLK Unity Walk 2017

UND Associate Vice President for Diversity & Inclusion Sandra Mitchell (front left) helps lead a Unity Walk in Crookston, Minn. on Monday, Jan. 16 in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. She is joined by Lorna Hollowell (holding megaphone), director of Diversity & Multicultural programs at the University of Minnesota Crookston. Photo courtesy of Lorna Hollowell.

Day of remembrance

Monday, in Crookston, UND joined the campus community at the University of Minnesota-Crookston in remembering MLK and others by playing host to the Fifth Annual Communitywide Red River Valley Celebration of Dr. Luther King, Jr.

The day began with Unity Walk that culminated on the UMC campus, followed by a commemorative celebration that included performances and presentations developed around this year’s theme: “Let Freedom Ring: Choose Peace, Civility & Nonviolence.”

A number of members of the UND community made the trek to Crookston to take part in Monday’s MLK events, including Sandra Mitchell, associate vice president of diversity & inclusion, as well as member of the UND dance troupe Afro Fusion.