Mary Ransaw walks through a line where students stand on each side of her shouting insults, hitting and kicking.
It’s not random.
The line is a test.
It’s to see if college students can take part in sit-ins and marches of the civil rights movement without retaliating.
“In going through the line, we were pushed by our peers because they knew that if someone pushed them or kicked at them or spat on them, they were going to hit back. But, there were those of us who said we wouldn’t (retaliate). The ones who retaliated just out of reflex, were pulled,” explained Ransaw, who passed the test.
“I said, ‘take me, I’ll march. I won’t retaliate.’”
At 4 feet, 11 inches, Ransaw didn’t retaliate. She and other students of Morris Brown College, in Atlanta, marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the local department store, Ransaw said. There, they were insulted and vilified. They were eventually transported by patty wagon to the jail area, where they were held and released.
Police, she said, didn’t arrest folks because there were too many to arrest. Atlanta was a hotbed of the movement, a place where students fanned out daily in mass protests for department stores, lunch counters, the train station, bus station and other areas of the city.
Police simply could not arrest a way out of the civil rights movement.
“My history started a long time ago,” said Ransaw, as she sat in her Lillington, North Carolina home on a recent Monday, wearing an African kaftan, natural hair and make-up. The widow of an 82nd Airborne Division Soldier, Ransaw said her journey began at birth in Anniston, Alabama, in 1938.
“I was born into segregation,” she said. She grew up picking cotton before her Family moved to nearby Hobson City, an all-black, self-governed city.
“My upbringing is what I think endeavored me to desire to just be a part of the marches that I took part in. My mother was a very strong black woman, very fierce. She just instilled in me and my sister, Emma. She always said to us, ‘you can be somebody, you can be whatever you want to be.’”
For instance, one evening, Ransaw’s mother took the sisters to 17th Street Baptist Church to meet someone — Mary McLeod Bethune, the renowned educator and activist.
“I must have been around 10 or 11 because I remember it. I remember my mama making sure that we stayed around long enough that her hand touched my hand and my sister’s, and I remember her (Bethune) saying, ‘read, read.’ I remember that,” said Ransaw.
Years later, she recalls meeting King.
“My first impression was that he was friendly,” Ransaw said. “My time with him was not long-spent.”
As she recalls, students gathered at Morehouse College, King’s alma mater, and were asked to voluntarily take part in the marches.
To Ransaw, life had prepared her for the challenge.
“I was always kind of feisty because of growing up with total segregation. My sister and I, we would always go to the white fountain and always have to get a sip. We just felt that it (segregation) wasn’t right then. When the movement started, the non-violent movement, it just caught and captured me because I just wanted to be a part of it,” Ransaw said.
Life led her from Atlanta and, in due course, brought her to Fort Bragg, where she worked as an instructor’s assistant/aide before retiring from Devers Elementary School in 2004.
Today, she spends time teaching Sunday school at Williams Chapel in Spring Lake, North Carolina. She teaches, in some ways, the epitome of what she is, a class called the trailblazers.
A favorite Bible verse is, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13).
“That’s it. That’ll take you. And that’s one of the ones that all the kids that basically come through my Sunday school class, they learn that,” said Ransaw, who teaches fourth and fifth graders at the church.
When she’s not doing church work, Ransaw said she loves driving to see her three children, nine grand- and five great-grandchildren.
Looking back, she wishes children understood the sacrifices her generation made for freedom.
“Our people don’t realize the things that were gone through for it to be where it is right now.”
But, what Ransaw went through, and what her peers went through, marks their place in history.
“It’s a renowned feeling just to know that I was in the era and I made a step toward helping to get the job done. And just to be in the midst of a part of history, to look back … here I am now at the age of 78 and I’m looking forward to seeing more accomplishments granted, or brought forth. I’m still here to witness it. Who would’ve known or who would have thought that lil ole me?”
Ransaw’s voice trails off. She looks up. Or is it backward, to the movement?
“I knew that I was doing something that was important, that needed to be done. My thing is, I was not afraid. I was gung-ho.”