Laura Dixie: Remembering a 'Mother of the Movement'
Laura Mae Thompson Dixie, a giant of the Black Freedom Struggle and a key organizer of the modern Civil Rights Movement in Tallahassee, Florida, passed away on Nov. 11, 2017 at the age of 92.
She was born in 1925 in Chaires, Florida, an unincorporated community just east of Tallahassee. Over the course of a lifetime of leadership and service to others, Dixie served as vice president of the Leon County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and was the founding president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 2847. She combined movement activism with community building.
For Dixie, visiting neighbors when they were sick, taking in first-generation Florida A&M college students who needed housing, and feeding people in need were the foundations of community organizing. Dixie was a member of Bethel Missionary Baptist — a preeminent movement church — in Tallahassee for 65 years. In delivering her eulogy, Bethel's Rev. R.B. Holmes called Dixie "The Mother of the Movement in Tallahassee, Florida."
"I had a long finger nail file and they had these signs also where ... they had the patients segregated. They had a white wing, black wing, white bathroom, colored bathroom, white eating dining room, colored dining room, and so I took my finger nail file and went 'round and unscrewed every one of those segregation signs off the door."
Dixie worked as a nursing assistant for three decades. Her fierce advocacy on behalf of hospital workers made her the target of employers' threats, and she was forced to arm herself in self-defense on the job. Along with that of Samuel "Sam" Dixie Sr., her husband of 52 years who passed in 2006, Laura Dixie's life is a testament to the oft-forgotten role of African-American working-class people — especially women — in the making of the modern civil rights movement in the South.
Dixie eschewed speaking in front of crowds and avoided the spotlight. Instead, she was the person that better-known leaders of the movement depended on when funds needed to be raised, voters needed to be registered, and people needed to be organized. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. needed a safe place to stay in Tallahassee in the 1960s, he lodged with the Dixie family, whose house was located in the Jake Gaither community near Florida A&M.
Patricia Stephens Due, leader of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and author of the eloquent "Letter from Leon County Jail," told me on numerous occasions that "CORE could not have made any traction whatsoever in Tallahassee without Mrs. Dixie."
The Tallahassee Bus Boycott
Laura Dixie was a grassroots organizer of the historic 1956 Tallahassee Bus Boycott. During that struggle and for decades afterwards, she was one of boycott leader Rev. Charles Kenzie Steele's chief lieutenants in the Inter-Civic Council (ICC), a local civil rights organization she remained active in for the rest of her life.
During the bus boycott, Dixie helped raise funds for carpools, provided transportation for people who needed rides to work, and exhorted her community to stay strong in spirit. It is important to note that long before either the Montgomery or Tallahassee bus boycotts, Dixie along with other African-American working-class people were challenging segregated seating and refusing to move to the back of city buses. Hence, it is no exaggeration to say that Laura Dixie helped to pave the way for the coming of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Due to her concern over poor educational conditions for her children and other African-American youth, Dixie played an important role in the 1962 lawsuit spearheaded by the Inter-Civic Council against racial inequality in education in Tallahassee. This landmark case, Clifford N. Steele et al. v. Board of Public Instruction of Leon County, was eventually heard before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1969 and was part of a Florida-wide effort by African-American parents to provide quality education for their children.
When African-American parents who worked at W.T. Edwards Hospital were told to end their resistance to segregated schools or risk losing their jobs, Dixie recounted telling her immediate supervisor: "'You go back and tell them this. You tell them I ain't going no damn where.' [Laughter] 'I say, you tell them to fire me. If they want to get rid of me, fire me and I bet you one thing they will never fire another black person.' And I guess he went over there and told them. They ain't bother me no more and nobody else."
The Congress of Racial Equality
Laura Dixie's courage and integrity under fire made her a trusted confidant of a newer generation of Civil Rights Movement activists birthed in the wake of the Tallahassee Bus Boycott. One of these younger organizers, Patricia Stephens Due, frequently relied on Dixie to assist her with logistics for direct action protests, consumer boycotts, and voter registration campaigns.
Dixie and her husband housed and fed CORE organizers who facilitated CORE's North Florida Voter Education Project. She also assisted CORE workers during the sit-ins against segregated lunch counters in downtown Tallahassee. When students were arrested, Dixie brought them food and visited regularly to ensure that they would not be physically abused by police and prison guards.
Standing around 5 feet tall, Dixie's physical courage was legendary. During one CORE march in downtown Tallahassee led by Due, Dixie confronted a police officer who menaced her and her children with a truncheon, as she recounted in 2009:
Yeah, he pulled this thing out and he — I looked at him right in his eye and I said, "Now what are you supposed to do with what you got there outta your pocket? I just double dare you to hit me, or either one of my kids … we are not doing anything to anybody. We just marching." I said, "Now I dare you to hit me or my kids, and you better not hit my kids — you will be sorry," I said, "so you put your stick back on your side and get on down that street." And he did, he turned red as I don't know what but he did. Boy we had some hard times, but we made it.
Dixie's civil rights organizing career extended well outside of Florida. As one of the first female board members of the SCLC, she traveled to be with Dr. King and thousands of marchers at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.
In 1987, she was part of a Florida contingent of NAACP activists who joined Coretta Scott King, Andrew Young, Dick Gregory and many others to counter-protest against the resurgent Ku Klux Klan in Forsyth County, Georgia. According to the New York Times, this represented one of the largest civil rights demonstrations since the 1965 March for Peace from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
Laura Dixie's activism in Tallahassee's workplaces was extraordinary. Her renowned militancy on the job as a certified nursing assistant was instrumental in improving the wages and working conditions of health care employees, white, black and Latina/o.
Dixie was a state employee for nearly 30 years and she was the founding president of AFSCME Local 2847 at Tallahassee's Sunland Hospital (formerly W.T. Edwards Hospital). Long before she brought formal collective bargaining to her workplace, Dixie led a wildcat strike against racism and poor working conditions at the hospital. She along with four other employees contacted AFSCME and unionized in 1974. Dixie also helped to organize the hospital's operational unit.
Dixie's union philosophy reveals her approach to community organizing — an approach that we can learn from today. In 1983, she told her union sisters and brothers in AFSCME what was needed: "Solidarity. We must say it and do it and mean it. We must come back together. We've worked so hard together for so long; there's no reason to stop now. The most important thing is that all public employees get organized in one strong union. Dissension is not always bad. No matter what kind of organization you have, even in church, there will be some people pulling the other way. We've just got to accommodate them, and keep going and keep telling all the people how much they need the union."
Dixie emphasized the practice of mutual aid and helping others out during times of duress. She built the union the way she helped build the civil rights movement in Leon County: by visiting union members when they were sick, encouraging people to attend meetings, and urging workers to stand up to abusive supervisors. She was a fierce negotiator on behalf of her fellow workers during bargaining sessions with the bosses, but she was always fair.
Once the union at Sunland Hospital was organized, Dixie put the principles of solidarity and mutual aid to work. She insisted that African-American, Latina/o and white workers stand up for each other on the job. Her union work was infused with a strong belief in the radical Christian gospel of justice to working people. As a shop steward, Dixie recalled,
I just had to see that they [the supervisors] did not mistreat the employees because sometime they would try to take their time and everything. They just couldn't do it. One lady [worker] out there — now this lady was sick. She was really sick. [The supervisors] thought she was drunk, but she wasn't drunk she was sick, and I found out that she really had cancer. They said, "Oh we're going to have to fire her. I said, "No you won't." I said, "This woman doesn't drink, she sick." I hadn't really found out what her sickness is, I said, but she is a good employee. "She's just sick and she's got to work." She finally had to stop because she had cancer and she died. I threw it up in their face. I said, "See, if you had fired that lady, the devil was gonna get you, because the lady really was sick." They say, "You right Mrs. Dixie. She really was sick." I said, "Yeah she was and that's why I wasn't gonna let you fire her."
During these years, Dixie and her husband, Sam — a union member at the downtown post office — faced many threats and hardships, but they persisted in their activism.
In launching the hospital union drive in northern Florida, Laura Dixie helped to connect Leon County workers with their counterparts in cities such as Memphis, Tennessee, and Charleston, South Carolina, who were even then challenging poverty and improving the lives of municipal employees through collective bargaining.
Having fun in the struggle
While Laura Dixie brought a spirit of seriousness to all of the organizing campaigns she was involved in, she also possessed a sense of humor.
During a voter registration campaign in the early 1960s, for example, she felt that some of the wealthier individuals in the community were being evasive about whether or not they were actually on the voting rolls. Seeking to get to the bottom of this mystery, Dixie went to the county registrar and purchased a copy of the current registration list before going to Florida A&M to talk with faculty members about the importance of voting.
As she recalled in an interview, "We had a lot of fun with that because some of the people …. would say, 'Oh, we are already registered voters,' and then you get this book and turn to them and say, 'You know, it's funny. I don't see your name here,' and you know it was amazing how many people would tell you they were registered voters until you opened those books!"
Dixie inherited her love of justice and equality from her mother, Alice Thompson. When young Laura Dixie went to work for a white family in domestic service, Thompson informed the employers that her daughter would enter the house through the front door, thus violating one of the dehumanizing norms of Jim Crow.
As Dixie told me in a 2009 interview, "My mother always taught us as long as I can remember that we were just as good as anybody else, wasn't anybody any better than you and you do not have to go to anybody's back door. She said, 'I don't care what they tell you. You got to remember, I don't care how white they are, I don't care what color they are, they are not any better than you. You are just as good as anybody else.' She used to tell us that all the time, and I guess that's what that got down in my brain."
Dixie brought this spirit of resistance with her into adulthood. When the pace of de-segregation at W.T. Edward Hospital proved to be slow, she went to work.
"I had a long finger nail file and they had these signs also where, you know, they had the patients segregated," she recalled in a recorded interview. "They had a white wing, black wing, white bathroom, colored bathroom, white eating dining room, colored dining room, and so I took my finger nail file and went 'round and unscrewed every one of those segregation signs off the door [chuckle], and the supervisors said, 'Now who did this?' I didn't say a thing, but the supervisor said, 'I can't picture nobody doing that but Dixie,' but they still couldn't prove that I did it. I was acting just as innocent as I could be."
A black working-class feminist
When I asked Dixie how she could have been so involved in civil rights organizing while raising a family and holding down a full-time job, she responded: "Well, I had a good husband. [Laughter] Sammy can do anything I can do because he could cook, he could wash, he could iron, and you know what he could do that I couldn't do? He could sew, because he made me a dress … I could not sew, but he could. Now see his aunt raised him and she taught him everything. She taught him how to sew [laughter] and he was a good cook, he could clean the house, wash. In fact, I couldn't even iron because when me and Sammy got married, Sammy used to like to wear white shirts. And I would iron this white shirt. Sammy looked at that shirt, he said, 'Laura. If you wash them, just wash them, I'll iron them.'"
The couple worked seamlessly together in the Black Freedom Movement. Laura Dixie took a much more public role in the movement, organizing voter registration campaigns and consumer boycotts, while Sam, then a custodian at Capital City First National Bank, provided his wife and SCLC Vice President Rev. Steele with crucial intelligence on tactics of Tallahassee's white elite — especially the bank's executive vice president, John Humphress, who also was the mayor of Tallahassee. Sam Dixie used his evening cleaning rounds of executives' desks to gather information on the segregationist elite who ran the capital city.
"You know a janitor see a whole lot of things that they normally don't think he would see, on a desk," he recalled in a 1994 interview.
The Dixies were members of the inaugural class of the Foot Soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement inducted into the Tallahassee-Leon County Civil Rights Heritage Walk in 2013. I believe that Sam Dixie would have taken great pleasure in the fact that his wife's Heritage Walk citation is much longer than his own inscription, which fittingly reads: "He was married to fellow activist Laura Dixie."
Meeting Laura Dixie
I first met Laura Dixie in 1994 when I was a graduate field worker with "Behind the Veil: Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South," an oral history project based at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. After two weeks of interviewing African-American elders in Tallahassee in the summer of 1994, I called the office of the AFSCME union headquarters hoping to meet retirees who would agree to be interviewed. The union staffer who answered the phone told me: "You need to talk with Mrs. Laura Dixie. She is a retired hospital worker, one of the founders of our union — she can take you way back." Bursting with excitement, I phoned her, and she quickly agreed to an interview.
The following day I arrived with my tape recorder and a stack of blank tapes to interview Laura and Sam Dixie. What followed was a series of interviews that completely changed my understanding of American history and social change.
The Dixies began their narrative where they assumed I wanted them to begin: the civil rights movement in Tallahassee in the 1950s. They led me through their participation in the bus boycott. But they used this familiar narrative to teach me a more profound truth: The modern civil rights movement in Florida was based on a lineage of struggle that reached back several generations.
In Laura Dixie's mind, the female elders in her family who raised her during the Great Depression, especially her mother, gave her the courage to become a labor and civil rights activist. In our many conversations since that time, Laura Dixie told me that "black people have always been struggling against injustice. It didn't just start in the '50s." This led me to change my doctoral dissertation topic to a study of the Black Freedom Struggle in Florida between Reconstruction and the Great Depression.
The Dixies always stressed to me the importance of intergenerational traditions of struggle — what the scholar Cedric Robinson has called the Black Radical Tradition — as well as the centrality of African-American working-class people in building social movements. They were not happy that much of the existing scholarship of the Civil Rights Movement continued to privilege the role of middle- and upper-class "leaders" who grabbed the spotlight while avoiding the picket line. These lessons informed my book "Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920."
Equally important, Laura and Sam Dixie taught me that mutual aid and self-help are enduring traditions in black communities. After I started asking questions about Ku Klux Klan violence in the Florida Panhandle in my oral history interviews, the Dixies called one evening to tell me that African Americans in the Gaither community feared for my safety. They insisted that I move from the budget hotel I was staying in on the outskirts of Tallahassee to their house. I demurred, telling Sam Dixie that I had years of military training and could defend myself.
"This is not a request, young man," he replied. "You don't understand how vengeful those people are that you are digging into. I'm coming by to help you pack so get ready."
That was the end of that discussion. For years afterwards I stayed with the Dixie family whenever I did research in Tallahassee. We held the first reading for "Emancipation Betrayed" at the Dixie residence with their extended family members in 2005 — over a decade after we had initially met.
A sergeant major in the movement
Laura Dixie taught the history and practices of the Black Freedom Movement to generations of my students at the University of Florida. She and her son, Samuel Dixie II, often hosted our Mississippi Freedom Project field work teams for barbecues, fish fries and history rap sessions at her house. For a decade and running, this became the highlight of our long van rides from Gainesville to the Delta to interview veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. My students and I were humbled that such a remarkable woman would take time out of her busy schedule to provide us with sanctuary and repast on our long journey.
In retrospect, I realize that she was teaching us good social movement skills using food and freedom songs to break down barriers, build solidarity and to create new organizers. Alumni of this trip have gone on to do amazing things including starting chapters of the Dream Defenders and becoming immigration rights lawyers and labor activists. Many of my former students point towards meeting and talking with Laura Dixie as one of the high points of their educational experience at the University of Florida.
Upon hearing the news that Laura Dixie had passed, many students contacted me to share stories about her impact on them: "I grew up in nearby Madison County," Caroline Vickers explained, "unaware that a civil rights giant was in my 'own backyard.' Her courage and strength during turbulent times encourages me to be persistent when I cannot see what I am actually fighting for." After meeting Laura Dixie, Vickers went on to excel at Howard Law School and is now a practicing elder and disability rights lawyer in Maryland.
Samuel Dixie II, a military veteran, offered this poignant observation about his mother's life:
When remembering my mother, Mrs. Laura Thompson Dixie, many descriptions come to mind such as loving, kind, fierce, caring, fighter, leader and organizer. Examples of these descriptions are shown throughout this essay. Even though she was a member of the inaugural class of "Foot Soldiers" in the Tallahassee-Leon County Civil Rights Heritage Walk, I'll remember her more as a Sergeant Major in the movement.
In his second annual message to the Inter-Civic Council given in 1958, Rev. Steele stated: "We have not despaired and above all, we have not grown bitter; instead of sinking into despair we have secured a new and enhanced appreciation of freedom. Instead of growing bitter we have looked with sympathizing love upon our enemies. Yes, thank God, something deep and profound has happened to us. God pity the Southern Negro who has not been touched, affected and changed by the swelling tides of freedom and liberty that sweep through hearts of oppressed peoples all over the world today."
Laura Mae Dixie personified these movement ideals. She was part of a heroic generation of activists who helped Rev. Steele, Patricia Stephens Due and others transform these beautiful sentiments into concrete actions that improved the lives of millions. Dixie taught movement ideals to generations of organizers and students. Let us today learn from her refusal to accept injustice and by her determination to bring the Beloved Community into existence for all.
(This essay was adapted from Ortiz's reflections at the Celebration of Mrs. Laura Dixie's Life at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church on Nov. 17, 2017, with guidance from Samuel Dixie II and Attorney John Due, widower of Patricia Stephens Due.)