September 30, 2014

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Lorain play revives civil rights icons

LORAIN — Joanne Eldridge drew on her personal history of the Jim Crow South as well as history books to perform Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day tribute to three women who championed civil rights.

“Three Bodacious Women,” a one-woman play by the 58-year-old Eldridge, portrays civil rights activists Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks and former U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm. It was partially inspired by Eldridge’s visits to her relatives in Mississippi and Selma, Ala., in 1965. Eldridge, who grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind., was unprepared for the harsh realities of Southern segregation.

It was the year Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, but Eldridge recalled “colored only” rules that denied her and her family equal access.

“That just resonated with me,” said Eldridge, Lorain Public Library System director. “It’s part of our history that we as Americans need to remember.”

Monday’s performance before about 30 people at the Lorain Public Library Main Branch featured spoken word, singing of Negro spirituals converted to civil rights anthems, and call-and-response chants. Eldridge said Monday was the second time she had performed the play, which she wrote in 2006.

The performance was 20 minutes, and Eldridge said she kept it short to keep the attention of the many children who attended. While the story of Parks — selected by King to challenge back-of-the-bus rules for blacks in Montgomery, Ala., in the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott — is frequently taught to children, they may be less familiar with Chisholm and Hamer.

Eldridge graduated from high school in 1972, the same year Chisholm, America’s first black congresswoman, ran for president. Eldridge said she was inspired by Chisholm’s book “Unbought and Unbossed,” which documented the racism and sexism Chisholm encountered.

“If we don’t reach out and help Americans, then who will?” Eldridge said, portraying Chisholm. “If I can help somebody along the way, then my living is not in vain.”

Eldridge invoked Hamer’s speech at the 1964 Democratic convention to tell the story of the Mississippi activist who was arrested, beaten and shot at while fighting for equality. Hamer, who famously declared she was, “sick and tired of being sick and tired” had to fight to be seated as a delegate at the convention because she was black.

“Is this America, the land of the free, the home of the brave where we sleep with our telephones off the hook because our lives be threatened every day?” Eldridge asked.

Eldridge — who said she met Parks in the 1980s in Los Angeles — told the audience that Parks “ignited a flame for justice and dignity” through her arrest for refusing to move to the back of the bus. The arrest led to a successful 361-day boycott.

“People walked in the rain, in the snow, when it was hot and when it was cold,” she said. “People walked for justice, dignity and respect.”

Eldridge said segregation and the civil rights fight was a dark period in American history that she hopes is never repeated, but she enjoys sharing it with children.

“They need to know that we’ve come a long way,” she said.

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.