A Distraction From the Greater Mission


Just before sunset one night this past September, a group of around seven family and friends got together for dinner on a roof deck apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The sky was golden pink, the air warm yet crisp, accents from places such as Dublin, Detroit and Georgia surrounded the table.

In town from Georgia for a few days, Ralph Stell Jr. and his wife, who were visiting their nephew. He'd just moved to the Brooklyn neighborhood with his girlfriend. By the time the sun passed off the light to the candles, most everyone had moved inside except Mr. Stell and one other.

Soft conversations, clinking dishes and the distinct sound of vinyl spinning on a turntable, Aretha Franklin's Soul '69 paint the background coming from beyond the glass doors that leads inside.

Stell then took a moment and shared how he felt on the day President John Kennedy was killed in 1963. He was still a teenager, and like millions of other Americans, he was shocked and angry. But he said it was the first time he'd been so angry about the events around him that he actually considered lashing out.

The events around him were what's known as the civil rights movement of the Deep South. Young Ralph Stell was a participant in Georgia, and his father was one of its leaders, his name was Rev. Louis Scott Stell.

In 1962 Rev. Stell had led a group of parents, on behalf of their children, including Ralph, in a federal court suit with the goal of forcing the Savannah-Chatham County to follow federal law and desegregate its public schools.

The Fifth Court of Appeals eventually ruled in the parents' favor ordering the Savannah schools to follow the 1955 Brown vs. Little Rock Board of Education Supreme Court ruling.

Later in 1969, Rev. Stell became the first African American member elected to the Chatham County Georgia Commission. In addition to the county commission seat, Rev. Stell served in a number of other leadership and public positions before his death in 1986. Savannah has officially remembered him with the 100-acre Ogeechee-Stagefield Park, which was renamed the L. Scott Stell Community Park in his honor, as well as a community center and other buildings. But the legacy of his work lives on in the day-to-day lives of millions. The efforts of his father and countless others whose names we may not know first hand, held up a collective mirror to the nation's soul.

The reflection helped nudge not just the South, but all of American society forward into a more just future.

"I was born in 1945 in a small town just outside Atlanta," said Ralph Stell. The family later moved to Savannah where his father took pastorship of a church. There, Rev. Stell also became involved with the local chapter of the NAACP. Stell's Mother worked as local director of the NAACP's Youth Council.

Members of local Youth Councils often participated on the front lines of demonstrations that came to symbolize many of the movement's nonviolent tactics. They included sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and other public demonstrations in cities throughout the South. Ralph Stell attended many of those meetings as well as the intense training sessions on how to conduct himself during a demonstration.

Stell remembers the training stressed passive resistance, restraint, even if counter demonstrators called you names, poured sugar on your head or if they spat at you.

"I saw The Butler the other day, and it gave me chills. I got spat on during a sit-in, we just had to sit there, and take that," he said referencing the movie, which contains a scene where a white woman spits at black demonstrators during a sit-in at at a lunch counter.

Years earlier, Stell said he first became conscious that society was segregated, a sort of apartheid in America. He said he remembers being confused. He said he turned to his father for answers.

"My father was always the kind of guy that made us think and ask questions. He made sure we understood, that we were as good as the next person. I just couldn't understand how so many people could think they were better than me and my family," he said.

Complicating his thinking even more, growing up the son of a minister in the church- compounded by a society known as the Bible Belt. It didn't make sense that so many people could profess to be Christian, yet accept or support a status-quo that locked out black people from the most basic opportunity, school, service in a department store - even a cold drink of water?

"Something was not right, how could you go to church on Sunday and say, 'Jesus, Jesus!' - And then you want to put your foot on me, and deny me the same rights that you have?" Stell asked.

That's not to say there weren't allies even quiet participants in the civil rights movement who were white and southern. He remembers a white Savannah minister who came to speak at his father's church, and Rev. Stell spoke at the white minister's church as well. But that wasn't commonplace. In fact, many of those who supported the movement's efforts in other ways such as money or services, both white and black, sometimes bit their tongues in public out of fear of retaliation.

In President Kennedy, many saw not only an ally, but a leader who stood up for the oppressed. The president not only spoke up, but he possessed the power that could help bring change from Washington.

Despite the anger, Stell felt the day Kennedy's potential was snuffed out in Dallas. He said he remained calm, squashing his temporary urge to do something destructive. Instead, he followed his father's teachings and example.

"My father wouldn't let you see him sweat. There may have been some anger going on with him internally through the years -- but he would never let you know it. He may have shared that with my mother, behind closed doors, but even with his children, he was always strong," said Stell.

He said his father saw anger as a distraction that could take focus away from the bigger mission. And clearly, in 1963, it was a mission which had much more work ahead.

All these years later, sitting on that rooftop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Ralph Stell reminds us that there are so many individuals who risked everything they owned, even their lives, to raise awareness and move society forward. Many of those names don't show up in textbooks or official accounts of the movement, but they were the foot soldiers on the ground who changed America for the better.

Ralph Stell said his father has been dead over 20 years now, but people in Savannah still talk about him. There's the park, and education center, and each February during Black History month, his role in the movement is remembered.

Even still, the scars of a system rooted in racist thinking still rear their ugly heads across today's society, even in places like New York City. Today, 650 of the nearly 1,700 schools in the New York City public school system have populations that are 70 percent a single race according to the New York Times.

And a 2009 study from the Pew Charitable Trusts called the Neighborhoods and the White Black Mobility Gap, found that around 60 percent of blacks or whites in metropolitan areas across the United States would have to relocate to achieve racial integration.

And finally too, the 2008 Harvard Diversity Data project, 43 percent of black and Hispanic students attend schools with poverty rates over 80 percent, compared to just four percent of whites.

But those statistics only reinforce the necessity of keeping focus on the mission ahead.

Despite the work that still needs to be done, there's ample reason to believe that Rev. Stell would smile if he could see how fundamentally changed America is today.

Ralph Stell says he cried the night President Obama was first elected. He said if his parents' spirits could somehow see that event, which he believes their spirits somehow did, that they would be pleased. And, one hopes he'd be pleased that his son took a minute to share a memory about the life of this pillar of justice, Rev. L.S. Stell.

"He'd probably say, 'Everything I risked my life for has come to pass.' There's work to be done, but, he'd be pleased for what his contributions are, and where we are in race relations, if you will. He would be happy. He would be happy," said Stell.

With that Ralph Stell looked up into the hope filled glow of New York City's electric sky.

Photo by Cody Lyon