Civil rights 'icon' delivers stimulating message


Photos by Donna Schillaci


by Donna Schillaci


“Our steps are not as fast, but our spirit and will are strong. We continue.”

Those were the words of James McFadden, a civil rights advocate who has been a key player in the fight for racial equality for decades, in a recent speech at the James Jackson Museum of African American History in Muskegon Heights. McFadden, a longtime friend of Dr. Jackson, was brought here by the museum staff in an effort to “bring in people to stimulate us,” Jackson said.

In his introduction, museum trustee William Muhammad used the term “icon” in reference to McFadden, and later audience member Clayton Hardiman referred to his appearance as a “living memory.” The life story he shared with the 40-member audience was a testament to both of these claims.

Born and raised in Thomasville, Ala., McFadden said he’s grateful for his dedicated Christian parents and grandparents who instilled in him strong principles and good family values. From them, he learned “to change things from the way they are to the way they should be. If something is wrong, you have the responsibility to make it right.”

Because of this upbringing, McFadden said he was ready to get active in the civil rights movement shortly after becoming a student at Alabama State College (ASC), a traditionally black institution in Montgomery. In late February, 1960, McFadden joined a group of more than 30 students at a sit-in challenging segregated dining facilities at the Montgomery County Court-

house. This protest was just the third in the beginning of the civil rights sit-in movement, the first being the famous one by four African-American college students at the white-only Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C.

Under pressure from then-Gov. John Patterson and the Alabama State Board of Education, the ASC president expelled nine students, including McFadden, who were identified as leaders of the sit-in and subsequent protests. Although he had completed his coursework and was eligible for graduation in 1960, McFadden didn’t receive his ASC diploma until 2010 when the university board elected to reinstate all nine of the expelled students.

After his expulsion, McFadden remained active in the Montgomery student sit-in movement which eventually joined with other groups to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He then moved to Philadelphia, where he continued as a civil rights leader as founder of the United Community Men’s Breakfast, director of programs for the Youth Development Center, and co-founder of the National Organization for an American Revolution.

After sharing his story as a young civil rights advocate, McFadden turned his attention to current times, saying  “The world has changed. As some problems were resolved, others came up... But in some ways, days today are just like days in the 1960s.”

He then proposed the question, “Where do we go from here as good human beings?” In answer, McFadden offered several suggestions: 1) “Find balance in the struggle we’re involved in. Take care of ourselves.” 2) “Give honor to those to which honor is due.” 3) “Link up with others of a like mind. Don’t go alone.” 4) “Develop a plan. We can make a difference.” 5) “Support each other.” 6) “This is not rocket science. Have courage, be responsible, and show integrity.”

As his parting advice, McFadden reminded those present, “Stay woke and know what time it is. We must move forward now.”

The James Jackson Museum of African American History opened in 2006 with a mission to “provide a forum for urban/community pride while educating the public about African and African American history and culture.” It is named for a civil rights icon in his own right, McFadden’s friend Dr. James Jackson; and Jackson still takes a strong hand in making sure the doors stay open.

The museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 2-5:30 p.m., at 7 Center St., Muskegon Heights. There is more information at



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