Fighting the good fight – and passing it on (Inspiration Series, Week 4)

Lifetime Legacy Award recipient from the American Conference on Diversity, Theodora Smiley Lacey

It seems appropriate to take a look at a woman this weekend, as all over the world groups gathered, filled mostly with women, to express concern, hope, and yes, at times, anger. There are enough opinions to build a mountain, but one thing rang clear to me – women know how to get things done. In that spirit, I’ve chosen one who was an actual influencer from my childhood. 

I knew Theo Lacey as a teacher. A warm but insistent elementary school teacher who commanded respect and gave it back. Even as a fifth grader I could sense she was different somehow. And she was, a lesson we kids would learn year after year when it was time to hear about civil rights.

For Mrs. Lacey did much more than teach from a book – she taught from experience, as an activist who not only had met Martin Luther King Jr., she called him a friend; he even baptized her children. 

Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, she was constantly confronted with injustice and bigotry. In stories published in national newspapers marking the Civil Rights Movement, Mrs. Lacey would recall her mother tracing her feet onto cardboard because she couldn’t try on shoes on the store. And then, organizing rides for fellow blacks during the bus boycott in Montgomery in 1955. Her husband would sometimes drive behind MLK to help ensure his safety.

Mrs. Lacey didn’t leave her beliefs in the South when she moved to Teaneck, NJ. The town was known as the first in the U.S. to voluntarily integrate its schools following the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision, but there was plenty of work to do.  Mrs. Lacey was soon helping driving efforts to integrate housing and ensure access to good schools for all children. 

And of course, there were those talks to students about the famous people she knew, about the struggle I couldn’t always understand. That willingness to participate in the battles, along with the desire to pass on what can feel like old history to those of us who would never experience it, was an immeasurable gift. I didn’t know, at age 10, how special it was to have such a direct link. I sure know now. 

It is the willingness to stand up that I recognize in Theodora Lacey’s stories and life. The determination that comes along with staking one’s position despite huge odds; joining the fight, and speaking out. What takes her a step beyond, for me, is bringing those stories to a bunch of kids living in a very different place and time. She provided context to a history that is usually read about, not listened to, live. Voices like hers will always be essential to making better tomorrows, because they bring past events into the present and keep them from fading away.

For the end of this story, I give you two quotes. First, from the lady herself, discussing progress in 2012:

“There’s still a presumptive privilege I think that many enjoy that blinds them to the inequality that we suffer daily,” she says. “We must continue the dialogue and we must be more open and honest in righting the wrong.”

And from Dr. King:

May we all heed the guidance of these two very smart people. 

For a 2010 video of Mrs. Lacey speaking about her memories of Dr. King:

USA Today story:


About Paula

I am a brilliant writer with the thoughts of a genius, the habits of a sloth, and the perseverance of an ant. View all posts by Paula

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