Nell Braxton Gibson was 13 years old when Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi at the age of 14. She was living 60 miles away from where Till’s body was found, and the memory was one of many that inspired her to share her story with the world.
A child of the Civil Rights Movement, Gibson released her first book this year, “Too Proud to Bend: The Journey of a Civil Rights Foot Soldier.” The book is a coming-of-age story about her experience living in the segregated South.
“A lot of people who read about the Civil Rights Movement think it’s about water fountains and sitting in front of the bus,” she said in a recent interview with the AmNews. “People don’t know about the day-to-day lives of people during that time.”
Get to know Nell Braxton Gibson
- Born in Cordele, Ga.
- First woman to serve on the Board of Trustees at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University
- Listed in Who’s Who Among African Americans
- Member of the Metro-Manhattan Chapter of The Links, Incorporated
- Her daughter is the first African-American Board-Certified veterinary neurosurgeon
Born in Cordele, Ga., Gibson moved with her family in many places in the South, including Beaumont and Austin, Texas; Daytona Beach, Fla., and Tougaloo, Miss., before settling in Sacramento, Calif.
When she was a baby, her family escaped the Beaumont Race Riot of 1943 and was involved in the movement to change things in the Jim Crow South as active members of the NAACP.
Being around civil rights icons such as Medgar Evers was a common occurrence during her childhood. She notes that many Blacks at the time, no matter their socioeconomic class, were discriminated against and were fearful of trying to change things.
“Back then, you could be killed for being a member of the NAACP,” she said. “adults were terrified about saying they were members. Those who were members were terrified of being found out. I remember that feeling.”
Her father was an athletic coach and director for the YMCA and historically Black colleges, including Tougaloo College and Bethune-Cookman University. Her mother held a master’s degree and was a college administrator.
Gibson recalls knowing Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune when she and her sister were children being mentored by her.
“We would spend time at her house and eat cookies and drink lemonade,” Gibson said. “She said to us that Black people who came before us had sacrificed so that our lives would be easier, and she made us promise that we would make the world a better place for Blacks after us.”
Several episodes in Gibson’s life had lasting affects, fueling her commitment to Bethune. One instance includes the non-racially motivated shooting of her teenage boyfriend and a white ambulance driver refusing to transport him to a hospital, resulting in his death. She also witnessed a Black woman with a sick baby being turned away from a segregated hospital in Atlanta and the baby dying.
“I realized this is a planned thing,” she said. “These are not just accidents that happen to us. We are dying all the time. This is causing our death.”
Gibson’s own journey in developing her talent for writing included being educated at Tougaloo College and Spelman College and eventually earning her degree in writing from SUNY Empire State College. Her focus was specifically on Black women writers. Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker are two writer she draws inspiration from.
As she witnessed isolated incidents of injustices against Blacks in the 1950s, she also witnessed and participated in historic moments, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, Rosa Parks’ arrest, marches and the numerous sit-ins, which ignited her hope that things would change.
About current times, Gibson said that recent police killings of unarmed Black men is history repeating itself.
“In my 70-plus years of living, I have yet to have a positive experience with a police officer,” she said. “I can’t begin to imagine what kind of fears and reaction these kids are developing now that will last them a lifetime. I’ve lived long enough to be able to identify as a child. Now I identify as a mother.”
Gibson added that she admires the Black Lives Matter movement started by youth and the role that social media is playing in 21st century Black activism. She feels that without a single leader of the movement, several leaders should set goals for the cause.
Her advice to young activists of today is that even the smallest contributions are making the biggest impacts.
“They don’t have to be big, important people to make change in the world,” she said. “The foot soldiers are just as important as the names that everyone knows.”
More information on Gibson and her book can be found on at www.nellbraxtongibson.com. Gibson will be doing a reading on Tuesday, September 15 at 6:30pm at the Alma Rangel Gardens Courtyard. The event is free and open to the public. Those interested in attending can RSVP by emailing Monica Azare at firstname.lastname@example.org.