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A civil rights leader was able to balance standing up for himself and survival



Time now for StoryCorps. Ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a story from a civil rights leader who died during the pandemic. Reverend Harry Blake, who worked alongside Dr. King, came to StoryCorps with his daughter, Monica. He told her about the first time he took a stand over wages in a cotton field in Louisiana. And a note for our listeners - this story contains racist language.

HARRY BLAKE: I guess I was 11, 12 years old. We were field workers. The adults said, we're going to protest. They sat down at the end of the row. Well, time passed on, and we saw the owner of the plantation was coming toward us. And next thing I knew, everybody was back in the field.

MONICA MICKLE: (Laughter).

BLAKE: I didn't go back. And he scolded me and said, I'm gonna tell your daddy about you. He'll straighten you out. I said, well, sir, we said we weren't going to go back until we told you our grievances, so that's why I'm sitting now.

MICKLE: Even at 11 years old, you had that boldness.

BLAKE: My dad taught me to say what I meant and mean what I say. He knew how to say, yes, sir; no, sir - tip his hat. That was his technique for surviving. But he never feared anyone. I remember he sideswiped a white man's car, and the white man came to my daddy's car and started cursing him and told him, I'll kill you, so and so and so. My daddy's words were, well, sir, I can't keep you from killing me, but you won't kill a nigga who's scared. And of course, the white man backed off.

MICKLE: Right, right. Wow. That's not one I had ever heard.

BLAKE: Yeah. When I decided to work for Martin King, I went to talk with my parents, particularly my dad, to say to them that my life would be threatened and that I might even lose my life doing this. And not only would my life be jeopardized, because I was his son, he might be. And my dad said to me, I would be disappointed if you made a different decision. And I will never forget that.


BROWN: That was the Reverend Harry Blake talking with his daughter, Monica. He spent decades as a pastor and civil rights worker in Shreveport, La. He survived police beatings, arrests and even an assassination attempt. He died in 2020 at the age of 85. His StoryCorps conversation is archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jey Born