Civil Rights and Social Justice Champion Lela Knox Shanks: A Woman of Conscience, An Advocate for Change
UPDATE: As the world turns these days I know when the subject of one of my stories on this blog is in the news by the corresponding uptick in views. When I noted dozens of viewers landing on my profile about Lela Knox Shanks I hoped for the best but suspected the worst, and sadly as some of you reading this right now already know she has passed away after a long illness. She is a woman worth remembering and if you haven’t read the story below yet I trust you’ll take the time to. If you don’t know nothing about her, then by all means familiarize yourself with some of her work and experiences in the civil rights and social justice struggle. If you knew her or her story, you still might find oout something new about her you didn’t know before. In either case, you’ll be honoring her memory by reading about her good works. Rest in peace, Lela.
New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt told me about the subject of this profile, Lela Knox Shanks, and I’m glad he did. I’d never heard of her, but she’s someone who deserves to be more widely known because she’s spent the better part of her 80-plus years doing the right thing in the struggle for freedom, justice, and equal rights. Jeff and I drove to meet with her at her home in Lincoln, Neb., and we were both captivated by her unwavering commitment to equality. She’s taken many brave stances in her life and she’s paid some dear prices, but she’s never backed down, never given up. She’s a model and an inspiration for us all. I think you’ll find as memorable and impressive as Jeff and I did.
Lela Knox Shanks: A Woman of Conscience, An Advocate for Change
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Activist, humanitarian, scholar, speaker, feminist and author Lela Knox Shanks could be excused for getting weary after a lifetime of agitating for equal rights. As an 81-year-old African American who came of age in the Jim Crow South and fought many civil rights battles in the Midwest, she’s stood up against injustice. She’s picketed, protested, demonstrated. She’s written countless letters to elected officials.
Driving up to the cozy home in Lincoln, Neb. she’s resided in 43 years, expressions of her activism are visible in sloganed signs on her porch: “War is not the answer,” “Every human being is born legal,” “The State should be about life, not death.” She’s butted heads with the-powers-that-be. She’s advocated for the oppressed. At various times her activities have made her the object of harassment and surveillance. She’s been arrested but never convicted for her civil disobedience.
Her partner in life and in social justice causes was her husband of 50 years, the late Hughes Hannibal Shanks, who developed Alzheimer’s Disease in the mid-1980s.
A fellow product of the South, he fought his own battles on the job and in the community. Together, the couple proved an immovable force, never backing down from a perceived wrong, always striving to do the right thing. They saw much social progress flower in America, including gains by minorities in education, employment, housing. Their children, now grown with families of their own, are all professionals. The prospects for their grandchildren, bright, too.
AD marked the progressive loss of her best friend. She was Hughes’s primary caregiver when little information about the illness or how to care for loved ones afflicted with it existed. She did what she always does when confronted with an obstacle, she educated herself and threw herself into finding solutions.
Hughes had been the family radical. He presided over lively discussions at the dinner table. Everyone was expected to join in. He and Lela were kindred spirits with their keen social consciousness. As dementia stole more and more of him, she said, “the thing I missed most about my husband was that I didn’t have anybody that I could share that kind of intimacy of conversation with.”
Her odyssey caring for him was a profound experience. It led her to write a book, Your Name is Hughes Hannibal Shanks: A Caregiver’s Guide to Alzheimer’s, that received praise upon its initial 1996 publication and 1999 reprint. It was a fitting project for a woman who earned a college journalism degree and worked for the famous black newspaper, The Chicago Defender, but who abandoned a dreamed-of career as a writer in deference to Hughes’s wish she not work but raise the kids.
Reception to the book was so strong she became a much-in-demand public speaker, thus ushering in a new phase in her life as a lecturer and independent scholar. For years she’s shared her insights on caregiving with audiences around the country. She’s also given many talks about women’s empowerment, once serving on a United Nations panel addressing the subject.
She’s made many African American history presentations, too. Just as she became an expert on caregiving for AD by reading everything she could find on it, she researched black history so she could share this rich heritage with others.
“When I became a speaker on African American history for the Nebraska Humanities Council,” she said, “I made a comprehensive study of it.”
That’s the way Lela does things. No half measures. It’s all or nothing with her.
Her interest in history was stoked by the legacy of her great-grandmother, Hannah Mason McCrutcheon, who was born a slave. Lela knew her well and said this matriarch’s proudest moment was having seen Abraham Lincoln speak. This is why Lela’s so passionate to have history disseminated.
“I went to segregated schools (in Oklahoma) and in my school I took Negro history,” Lela said. “So I grew up learning it. Plus, I heard famous African Americans speak at my high school. Mary McLeod Bethune for one.”
Slavery was a taboo topic, however, in her family. Whenever Lela tried bringing it up with her elders, she said, “It was always, ‘Baby, we don’t talk about that.’ It was too awful.” It’s a painful enough history that generations later some descendants of slaves would rather not be reminded of it. “I have relatives today that don’t want me to ever say anything about that. I guess its’ so degrading.”
Linked as she is to that past Lela testified before the Nebraska Judiciary Committee last April in support of a resolution (LR284) that the state apologize for slavery.
“Words cannot really express the emotion I feel, living long enough to testify at such an historic hearing,” she told members. “An acknowledgement by this official body of the historical facts of injustices perpetrated on African Americans due to race, dating back to the Nebraska Territory, clears the air and provides an atmosphere in which honest racial healing and reconciliation can finally begin to take place in Nebraska.
“Passage of this official document can hopefully provide school administrators and teachers with the courage and the information and the permission to teach, finally, an inclusive American history not yet included in American history textbooks, thus preparing all Nebraska children with a better understanding of themselves and their prejudices…and to live in the larger, multicultural world…”
After Hughes died in 1998 there was a hole in her that could not be filled. No one could have blamed her if she’d retreated from her public life. But she’s gone right on fighting the good fight. That’s because adversity is her old friend. “We were born into it,” is how she puts it. Life in the South was a constant reminder to blacks of their second-class citizen status. “It was something I was constantly plagued by growing up,” she added. “One of the hardest things for me to accept was why I have to be treated this way. Why can’t I do something about this?” The experience toughened her for the hard times.
“My husband and I didn’t set out to be activists. We really just wanted to have whatever a so-called normal life was and raise our family, go to church and do the things that were acceptable, support the government where we could.”
Racism made that difficult. Said Lela, “From time to time as African Americans you get so tired of it all. You would like for it to just go away. You’d kind of like to not have to think about it. But we could not ignore it, there was just no way.”
She and Hughes, a World War II vet 10 years her elder, met at Lincoln University outside St. Louis. She graduated with a journalism degree and he with a law degree. He worked for the Social Security Administration. They started their family in segregated St. Louis. When denied the opportunity to apply for jobs he was qualified for he moved the family to Denver, Colo. in the early-’50s.
“Denver was like heaven,” she said, “because we could go to the swimming pools, we could go to the museums, we could go to restaurants. It was wonderful.”
But when the couple’s oldest child, Nena, was denied equal access to the education they wanted for her, Lela drew the line.
“I went to the Urban League, the NAACP, all the civil rights organizations, to see if there was anything they could do about the problem,” she said. “There wasn’t any help coming from anybody, and I just threw myself across the bed and cried, and then it just came to me — You’re the one who’s going to have to do something.”
Questioning authority is something Lela inherited from her Okie upbringing.
“I’m not sure my parents would have even known civil rights, it was just that my mother was given intuitively the ability to speak up for herself. She was not afraid to be her own advocate, and I always say I learned that at my mothers breast because I never had that problem. It’s a great feeling to feel like you always have the inner strength to speak for yourself. It was just given to me — that’s the only way I can explain it.”
Growing up under such “a powerful person” as her mother, who “defied whatever” was in her way, Lela knew she, too, could stand up for her rights.
This same sense of independence is something Lela and Hughes instilled in their own children. As a token of their admiration and appreciation for that lesson they presented her with a card that simply reads, “Question Everything.” It’s displayed on the mantel above her fireplace, next to some of her many awards.
“That’s what my children gave me because that’s what we had taught them — question us, because if you don’t question us and state yourself and stand up for yourself as a human being with us, you won’t stand up to other authority figures. And that’s what you have to do in life — you’ve got to be your own advocate. You can’t depend on somebody else being there for you.”
When the time came for Lela and Hughes to stand together, they never wavered.
“We were different in many ways but we were essentially the same when it came to what was important to us. When we were courting we talked about what was important to us in life. We wanted to help our people but what, of course, I came to realize was that I was helping myself.”
Faced with an unfeeling educational system and Hughes once running into a glass ceiling at work, the family left Denver for Kansas City, Kan. at the height of the civil rights movement. There, they butted heads with the public school board. She said boards then used such tactics as gerrymandered school boundaries, selective pupil transfers and feeder schools “to keep the schools separate and unequal.”
Upset by this bias the couple joined others in lodging complaints and finally withdrew their children from school to enroll them in a “protest school” they opened at home. Others joined the protest by removing their kids from the public schools and having them attend what students lovingly called Shanks University.
Ten children in all attended Shanks U that 1962-63 school year. Lela was their primary educator. The ruling class though took a dim view of this renegade school operating in defiance of the established order.
“We were going against the power structure so they weren’t about to certify us and that’s why we were arrested for truancy,” Lela said. “We didn’t trust any of the attorneys there and so we went to Topeka to retain Elijah Scott, the attorney who filed the original brief for the Brown vs. Board of Education case.”
The arraignment proved traumatic. Lela remembers: “Our attorney went to post the bond and while he was gone a couple deputies came over. One pulled on me from one side and the other pulled on me from another side, with my husband and children standing there. My husband knew not to move, not to say a word. The children though were yelling and screaming, ‘Mama, Mama,’ and hanging onto my legs, because it was obvious they were trying to take me away. That was the most terrifying thing about that experience.”
Scott returned just in time, her bond posted, and she was released. Lela and her family left the courthouse breathing a sigh of relief.
In retrospect Lela said, “I can’t even begin to imagine what would have happened to me if I had actually been jailed, because African Americans were telling us it was stupid what we were doing — that we were going to get killed. A lot of the parents wouldn’t let their children play with our children. They were afraid because they just knew whatever we were doing we weren’t going to win and something terrible was probably going to happen to us. In those days African Americans could be killed and nobody gave a second thought to it.”
Lela ran afoul of authorities again when she and others were arrested for picketing outside a federal building. By this time she was active in CORE or Congress for Racial Equality. She was ordered to appear before a federal grand jury. Hughes couldn’t be with her — he was in the nation’s capitol for Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic march and speech on the mall.
She stood up to that inquisition with uncommon grace and eloquence.
“The first question a juror asked me was, ‘What were you doing picketing the federal building?, and I said, ‘I was doing what my husband is doing right now, and that’s marching for my freedom.’”
Lela was acquitted but intrusions into her and her family’s private life continued.
She said their home phone was tapped and that on one occasion three FBI agents showed up unannounced when she was home alone with her youngest child, Eric, demanding she answer questions, “trying I’m sure to intimidate us.”
“They (the FBI) went on my husband’s job and they went on the jobs of several other people who had been picketing,” she said. “We received some death threats, just like all the rest of the people who spoke out.”
Despite the risks, the Shankses stood firm. “We would not have done what we did if we had let fear take us over,” Lela said.
Meanwhile, an integrated lay Catholic social action committee took up the fight to get black children an equal education. Lela welcomed the support.
“We decided it would not be wise to put our children back in public school. We were really afraid of reprisals. We had already had an incident with our oldest child,” she said. “The black teachers were afraid for their jobs. They knew that in integration the black teachers lost out initially. They were the first to be let go. A lot of these principals and teachers we’d gone to college with. They were my sorority sisters, his fraternity brothers. And those people didn’t want to have anything to do with us. We were pariahs, we were troublemakers.”
As Lela can attest, being an activist can be lonely.
“It was always a struggle. I’m a human being and I wanted a fine house and a fine this and a fine that, like anybody would want, but I just found I had to forego that to do what I knew deep within was the right thing to do. We had both agreed that trying to do away with segregation was more important than making money.”
After much wrangling the social action committee arranged for the Shankses and other parents to enroll their children in a Kansas City parochial school.
Hughes was transferred to Lincoln in 1965. The family found a home in an all-white district. He and Lela knew little about Nebraska besides it being the birthplace of Malcolm X and the home to a militant young barber, Ernie Chambers, “who dared to speak the truth to power.” Forty-three years later she praised the outgoing state senator at a dedication naming the capitol’s judiciary review room in his honor.
Before Hughes moved his family up north he went on ahead alone, unsure what reception awaited a black man in the Woods Park neighborhood. As a precaution, Lela said, he slept on a board in their home’s bathtub. When a week passed without incident, he had Lela and the kids join him. One neighbor, who later became a close friend, asked Lela if they wouldn’t feel more comfortable in the Malone area, a black section. Another neighbor circulated a petition “to get us out,” said Lela. Nothing happened. The family wasn’t going anywhere anyway.
Lincoln became home. The kids went to public schools — often the only blacks in their classes. Hughes still brooked no inequity at work. Once the nest was empty he finally relented and let Lela work — as a field supervisor for CETA with the Nebraska Department of Labor. She’s immersed herself in Nebraskans for Peace.
The journey that is her life is “an evolutionary process” to “break through the boundaries of tribes, ethnic groups, religions, nationalities” that, she said, separate us. Her search is to “find that common thread…that lives in all of us and links us one to the other.” She said this “unseen force pushes the human race forward to do new things, such as discover cures, invent the computer and to elect a Barack Obama. The change we need is already here. We just have to catch up with it.”
Like most folks Lela’s age the idea of a black president seemed remote and yet Obama’s attained the highest office. Did she think she’d see it happen in her lifetime? “No, I did not, but without a doubt I knew it was possible,” she said.
“Hughes would have celebrated Obama’s election. We would have hugged each other and cried together.” The way she sees it, Obama seized a moment in time when America was ready for historic change.
“Obama is a man for his time,” she said, “and this is his time right now. I think the time is more important than the person. I don’t think you can stop a thing when its time has come. You just can’t stop it. And he’s the man at this particular time.”
No matter what happens during his administration, she said, things will never be the same because his presidency has broken barriers once thought unbreakable.
“Even if he’s the worst president…it still will have changed this world, not just this country,” she said. “It’s inevitable that there will be psychological effects on peoples around the world, and that’s just for starters.”
The fact the White House is occupied by a strong black family presents an image that not all the marches during the entire civil rights movement could project. Obama’s victory is a culmination of what that movement and a lot of other efforts to combat discrimination and racism fought so hard to bring about.
Lela recalls how not so very long ago even the suggestion that blacks be portrayed in the popular media like anyone else amused or appalled producers, whose views, she said, reflected the demeaning way blacks were held.
“I remember when I would hear advertisers on television laughing when asked, ‘Why don’t you use African Americans in commercials?,’ and, ‘Why don’t African Americans ever kiss on television?’ These were big Madison Avenue advertisers and they thought it was funny to even ask the question,” said Lela. “Their reply was, ‘White people wouldn’t be interested in seeing African Americans kiss or caress. They don’t want to look at them on TV.’”
The Cosby Show disproved that notion. That was a situation comedy though. Oprah’s immense popularity has given lie to that thinking as well. But she’s a talk show host. The Obama presidency is on a whole different scale.
“Every day now there’s going to be a black face on TV for the world to see.” Lela said. “I mean, they’ll see his two little children and his wife, and him with his family, and see these people acting like what they are — human beings. That’s part of that psychological effect that it will have.”
Looking at things from a broad perspective, Lela believes the Obamas will do much to supplant the dehumanizing stereotypes that for so long have been used to denigrate African Americans. The First Family’s example won’t eradicate racism, she knows, but it will expose the fallacies of long ingrained beliefs that blacks are somehow inferior or different.
“The people who say that are people who have not yet discovered their common humanity,” she said. “That’s ignorance, sheer ignorance. That’s the way I would describe it, because when you discover that common humanity then you know at least intellectually that you have to accept everybody as they are. It’s the same with any of the differences (between people). When you get right down to it we’re all just people. All wanting the same thing pretty much, and all doing the same things pretty much every day. Why can’t we get this through our head?
“That doesn’t mean I’m going to agree with everything you say. I certainly don’t agree with some of the things Obama says. But you see when you discover that common humanity and you know that that DNA is virtually the same in all of us, you don’t think like that anymore.”
If nothing else, she hopes the Obama factor opens the door to multiculturalism.
“You know the great tragedy of the bigotry that we have so made a tradition in this country is that it denies us the enriching life we could have if we opened ourselves up to three fourths of the rest of the world’s population, because three fourths of the world’s population are people of color.”
Her extensive travels to speak across Nebraska convince her the state is a microcosm for a parochial outlook on the world.
“Nebraskans have not permitted themselves to really learn enough about the rest of the world,” she said, “and I think many Nebraskans still envision that the world is just like Nebraska — mostly all white.”
Along with a broader world view, she’s hopeful “a more inclusive history” — one that includes the whole of the African American experience — will be adopted and taught in schools, where there’s a paucity of materials from a black perspective. “You can graduate from college with a Ph.D. having never read a book written by an African American,” she said. It’s something dear enough to her she’s gone out of her way to promote it at teachers conferences.
“I made up a bibliography of books for children about black Americans in l986 to give to teachers. I took about 25 books with me to show to them. These were primarily children’s books about every aspect of African American history, culture and life. Some of the schools where I spoke in during the ‘80’s and ‘90’s either had no books or very few about African Americans, so for awhile I bought books and donated at least one to their school libraries in honor of Hughes.
“When I talk on African American history I say, ‘The important thing for you to know about the slaves first of all is that they laid the foundation for this country to be the number one economic power in the world through those 200 years of free labor.’ Nobody ever talks about that. Let’s talk about what African Americans were doing besides being slaves — they were inventors, they were artists, they were explorers, they were in every discipline of American life. There were always some free blacks, even in the midst of the darned slavery.”
At times she’s rankled by mainstream America boxing black history into one month, February. She said, “We ought to be talking about African American history in every month of the school year.”
In an even larger sense, she feels Obama’s presidency represents a return to the common origin of our species. “There’s always deeper meaning of things than just the obvious and I think symbolically he represents taking America and the world back to where we began. History’s been rewritten so much that people forget this is where it all started — in Africa — and symbolically he represents the possibilities of the uniting.”
One thing Lela won’t do is give Obama a free pass just because he’s black. “I know that being African American is just one part of who I am and so my judgments don’t go through that prism before they go through just common humanity.” She realizes Obama must tread carefully. “I understand what he’s going through. I know that as an African American he’s going to bend over backwards trying to make sure he doesn’t come across as a militant or these things that don’t put you in good standing with the public in general.”
Similarly, she doesn’t view Obama as some kind of savior figure. “I don’t feel that way about people. You have to be your own savior. And I’m not inferring I don’t believe in a higher power.” She does, explaining, while “I am not a member of an organized group, my faith is my anchor, my life. That is where I draw my strength from. My faith is what I hang on to. That is what keeps me going. Outer labels have different meanings for different people, so I avoid them. Ultimately, I believe it is our energy that tells people who we are.”
To Lela’s way of thinking, we’re each responsible for making our own path. “I think everybody can be a leader and certainly should be their own leader,” she said.
She’ll judge what kind of president Obama is on his own merits and it’s much too early yet to form an opinion. Lela will closely eye his decisions.
“Now whether he will be this person of peace, that’s to be seen, we don’t know that. Only time will tell,” she said. “He’s already calling for more troops in Afghanistan. He believes in the death penalty. Rev. (Jeremiah) Wright said he would be watching Obama just like he would anybody’s administration, and that’s exactly what I will be doing. And when I think he’s wrong…well, I already wrote him two or three letters during the campaign about things where I thought he was wrong. I have a file. One thing I may write him a letter about is — if Rev. Rick Warren is acceptable why is not Rev. Wright? That is something I would really like to ask him.”
If Lela’s learned anything it’s that the change we seek is within us. “With what I did in the civil rights movement, really the most important thing was that I changed myself. You’ve got to free itself. I learned I can’t free other people, but I can share my experience if people ask for it and maybe something will have some meaning for them. But ultimately something has to be triggered on the inside for each of us.”
In her book she writes about “finding the strength to face each new obstacle and a solution for each new problem. Difficulties can be transcended. There is always a new way. The choice is ours.” Through her trials Lela has learned the art of surrender. That’s why as trying as Hughes’s condition was, she said, “I knew it was a gift, I knew it had happened for a purpose, never dreaming that I would go all over the country speaking to people that they have a choice in life. That they don’t have to be a victim. That’s really what I try to do.”
For all her contentment, would Lela still be willing to go to jail for her convictions? “If my medical needs could be met, yes,” she said. If she could relive her life, would she be an activist again knowing the sacrifices it exacts? “Yes, I would, because it gives purpose, meaning and value to my life.”
Lela says one’s words or actions tell only so much. “The doing is the being. I think it’s what we transfer to each other in an unseen way that tells about you.” In that case then Lela Shanks Knox is a warm light in the cold darkness.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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