Activist to travel to Washington, D.C., for statue unveiling
ALISBURY — If weather had permitted the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. memorial dedication Sunday on the National Mall, Laura Lansford was going to be there.
She was planning to wear a red sash decorated with badges from many of the causes she fought for 50 years ago. One of the buttons marks the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Lansford was in the crowd that day, listening with 250,000 others to the parade of speakers. She and her husband, Duncan, and their two little girls had fallen in behind an Episcopal Church group and maneuvered their way close to the platform.
In the afternoon, as King spoke the words “I Have a Dream,” Lansford sensed a feeling of transformation running through her and the crowd.
“We were transported,” she says.
Many changes have come in Lansford’s life since growing up in segregated Mississippi in the 1950s and championing causes with her first husband, Duncan, in the volatile 1960s.
But she can’t help but look back with fondness on that time.
“We were young,” she says. “We felt that significant change was needed.”
Her husband today — she and Will Jordan have been married 28 years — knew what Laura’s early activism meant to her and how much she particularly believed in King’s legacy.
“Will is so proud of me,” she says. “He takes pride in the way I lived my life before I knew him.”
Hurricane Irene forced planners to postpone Sunday’s ceremony.
But Jordan had encouraged his wife to attend the King monument’s dedication, knowing that her first husband, Duncan, had personally met with King once in Montgomery, Ala.
Duncan McConnell also had been jailed as a Freedom Rider in Jackson, Miss., and he had been a “reporter” on the scene during the desegregation crisis at Little Rock Central High and when Gov. George Wallace stood in a schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama.
Lansford herself had been involved in marches, rallies and sit-ins on both the east and west coasts, holding down jobs and looking after their two young girls while Duncan was the perpetual student-activist.
Lansford and Jordan contributed money to the King monument and also bought a pair of tickets in the seating section for this weekend’s dedication, which could be challenged by the rains of Hurricane Irene.
“Will just said, ‘We’re going,’ ” Laura says. “Bless his heart. He’s a good man.”
Her mother and two aunts raised Lansford in Laurel, Miss. She never really knew her father, who died before she was 2.
Lansford remembers that an aunt took her one day to the dedication of a new “Negro” elementary school in Laurel. It left a lasting impression on Lansford, then a little girl, who asked her aunt why a new school would be furnished with battered desks and tattered textbooks.
“Laura, that’s the way it is,” her aunt answered.
As a drama and English student at Ole Miss, Lansford met McConnell, a Pennsylvanian who “opened my eyes to the world,” she says.
“Duncan was just one of those people who would fit in anywhere,” she says. “He could talk to anyone.”
They married a week after her graduation in 1955. She worked as a copy writer for an NBC affiliate in Laurel before the couple moved to Tuscaloosa, Ala., where Duncan continued as a student and she worked at the university library and later at the hospital adjacent to the campus.
In February 1956, soon after they arrived in Tuscaloosa, Autherine Lucy enrolled as the university’s first black student. Angry mobs chased Lucy from the campus three days later, and within a month, the university expelled her.
“That fired me up,” Lansford says. “To me, there were never two sides.”
After the Lucy incident, a group of students — Duncan among them — formed a club to keep the integration question alive on campus. Lansford remembers Duncan driving over to Montgomery to speak personally with King and ask him to speak to their club, though he could not.
Lansford can still picture a Klan recruiting rally and parade in Tuscaloosa and recalls the town’s “White Citizens Council.” It reached a point, she says, where the couple had to leave, and they traveled across the country to California, where Duncan was unsuccessful in trying to enroll at UC Berkeley or San Francisco State.
For six months, he returned to Tuscaloosa to avoid being drafted. Meanwhile, Lansford was pregnant, and their first daughter was born in late 1958, followed a year-and-a-half later by another daughter.
Both girls were born in San Francisco. Meanwhile, Laura was working as a secretary at Alameda County State College, where Duncan continued as a student.
The couple joined the American Friends Service Committee and took part in a five-day, 50-mile walk against nuclear testing. They pushed the girls in strollers the whole way.
“That was our first ‘activism,’ ” Laura says, “and it felt right.”
Two months later, the couple attended a program at Berkeley, describing the Freedom Rides taking place in the South. CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) took the initiative in 1961 to desegregate public transportation in the South.
Freedom Rides were meant to test a Supreme Court ruling which had declared segregation in interstate bus and rail stations unconstitutional.
The Freedom Rides led to attacks on and jailings of the riders going into Alabama and Mississippi.
Coming home from the Berkeley program that night, Laura turned to Duncan and said, “You want to go, don’t you?” He answered that he did.
Duncan was part of a second group of Freedom Riders from California. The men took a train to New Orleans and rode from there on a bus to Jackson, Miss., where Duncan was arrested and jailed immediately.
Because the Jackson jail was full, he was incarcerated in the Parchman State Penitentiary. Back in California, Laura solicited students and faculty for money so she could bail her husband out of jail. His stay was 29 days.
In a letter, which Laura still keeps in a scrapbook, McConnell wrote that he was being treated fine and that conditions at the prison were “500 percent better” than he expected.
He described the whole situation in Jackson as “an elaborate, low comedy.” Laura declared at the time she wouldn’t move back to the South for 50 years — a promise she kept.
McConnell finally graduated college in 1962 and took his family on a cross-country trip in a Volkswagen Beetle convertible, checking on potential law schools along the way. He decided on Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Lansford secured a job as a secretary for the law school dean.
The couple continued in their activist roles for a time. Lansford stayed in a activists’ safehouse in Atlanta while Duncan traveled to Tuscaloosa when Wallace stood at the door of the University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium in a symbolic attempt to block black students from enrolling on June 11, 1963.
A couple of months later, their oldest daughter was 4 when King gave his famous speech in Washington. The Washington Post had published a letter to the editor from Lansford, who disagreed with a previous opinion saying parents who took their young children to the D.C. march should be jailed and have their kids taken away from them.
Lansford wrote that it wasn’t right to hide her children from the world and that her 4-year-old already understood what discrimination was. She promised that her small children would be attending, as they did.
“I’m proud of that letter,” Lansford says. “I think I said what had to be said.”
In Washington, Laura’s marriage eventually fell apart as Duncan battled mental illness. She sent the children to Mississippi for a time, and McConnell traveled back to the San Francisco area, where he spent the rest of his life in and out of institutions, she says.
Lansford lived some 25 years in the Pacific-Northwest, earned a doctorate in psychology and followed husband Will to his computer-related jobs in places such as British Columbia, New Hampshire and back to the South once more.
In recent years, they have lived in Charlotte, Concord and Salisbury.
Lansford’s days as an activist ceased long ago. She substituted things such as sewing, photography and church. Today she’s a 77-year-old grandmother of five.
As Laura traveled to Washington, she was depending on a motorized scooter for getting around the National Mall, but she believes physical ailments are just something you live with.
“You don’t quit life,” she says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.
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