Sarah E. Small of Williamston, N.C. was the first African American woman in North Carolina history to run for the U.S. Congress. When she ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1965, she may even have been the first African American woman to do so in American history.
Either way, Sarah Small was a groundbreaking historic figure: wise and seeing, deeply devout, and defiant of tyranny in all its shapes.
The centrality of her Christian faith and her defiance of worldly authority can be seen in a story that she told during an interview on Boston TV station WGBH in 1990.
In that interview, Small recalled a dinner at the White House during a civil rights summit in the 1960s. Unlike the other guests, she had not stood when Pres. Lyndon Johnson arrived late to the dinner.
“Everybody jumped up and I kept on eating,” Small remembered. “This minister said, `Stand up! That’s the president!’ I said, `I stand up for Jesus’—and I kept on eating…
“But that was just me, you know. I promised the Lord that I was not going to bow. I was not going to scratch when I didn’t itch. Or grin when I was not tickled. And I was not going to bow to any man.
“I was going to pray to God. Thank him for what He is to me. And just be Sarah. Plain old Sarah.”
A Militant Attachment… to the Jesus of the Gospels”
She may have been “plain old Sarah,” but she was also a woman of great depths.
After Small’s passing in 2001, at the age of 73, a Boston journalist named Christopher Lydon compared her liberation-oriented theology to that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who defied his church to stand up to the Nazis and was hanged.
“She was a political radical with a militant attachment to the God of Genesis, Exodus, and the Psalms, and especially to the Jesus of the Gospels,” he wrote of her in The Boston Globe.
At a forum at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in 1998, when she was 71 years old, Small made clear where she stood when it came to her faith and social injustice.
“I am a Christian,” she told the audience. “I believe the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all of us therein. And no man got no business having dominion over another man. The Lord put this Earth here for [us all].”
Today I would like to invite you to spend a little time with Sarah Small– woman of faith, mother, civil rights leader, and a pathbreaking figure in North Carolina’s history.
Growing up in Williamston
She was born Sarah Everett in Williamston, N.C., a small farm town 100 miles east of Raleigh, in 1927. She grew up in the Jim Crow South during the Great Depression. Her early life was not easy.
Her father died when she was only 13 or 14 years old. After his passing, she dropped out of school to look after her ailing mother.
“When I was little, they said, `You got to be in your place.” And I wondered about that. What’s my place? Everybody had a place. You had to be in your place. That’s talk. It wasn’t talk to us. We was bullied into having that place. [They] beat you. [They] put you in jail. [They] lynch you. [In days past], they throw your children out. You know, sell your children.”
Sarah Small, JFK Pres. Library, April 19, 1998.
Times were hard, but she grew up in a close-knit family and with a tremendous faith. Her grandfather was a Baptist minister; he had founded the Mt. Shiloh Baptist Church in Williamston in 1874, less than a decade after the abolition of slavery.
His daughter, Sarah Small’s mother, had a faith no less strong.
The fullest account of Sarah Small’s early life that I have seen is David Carter’s article, “The Williamston Freedom Movement: Civil Rights at the Grass Roots in Eastern North Carolina, 1957-1964,” which was published in the Jan. 1999 edition of the North Carolina Historical Review. My account of her early life draws largely from that article.
Throughout Sarah Small’s early life, she breathed in the music of the African American church. She was a gifted pianist. She played by ear, and she could not remember a time in her childhood that she did not know how to play the piano.
Small often played at worship services and prayer meetings in the little country churches around Williamston. During the civil rights movement, she arranged “Freedom Songs” for rallies and, at least once or twice, “warmed up” audiences for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
She met her husband John Small while she lived in New York City for a short time in the late 1940s. He was originally from Elizabeth City, 60 miles northeast of her home in Williamston. The couple soon moved back south and made Williamston their home.
Her brother, J. D. Everett, first drew her into the struggle for civil rights. The proprietor of a funeral parlor and an insurance business in Williamston, he was involved in the local NAACP chapter and was a strong advocate for African American voting rights.
After the Second World War, he had played an important role in organizing local voter registration drives in Williamston. His sister Sarah joined him in those efforts.
At the beginning of 1963, Sarah Small had five children and was devoting most of her time to her family and church. She had a reputation for being a mother not just to her own children, but to young people in need throughout her community.
She always made time for Biblical study. At prayer meetings, in small groups, and on her own, she strove to understand Scripture’s teachings and how they call us to live.
Even the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC’s) field organizer Golden Frinks, whom nobody ever called a saint, was in awe of her knowledge of the Scripture.
“She can recite every chapter in the Bible [and] tell you where Hagar was when [she] used the bathroom,” Frinks, in typically salty prose, told historian David Carter.
The Williamston Freedom Movement
Historian Amanda H. Smith’s wonderful, award-winning book The Williamston Freedom Movement: A North Carolina Town’s Struggle for Civil Rights, 1957-1970 is an essential work for understanding Sarah Small’s path toward her run for the U.S. Congress.
As described in Smith’s book, Small first grew into being a leader beyond her family and church during the civil rights struggle that came to be known as the Williamston Freedom Movement.
As chronicled in Smith’s book, black activists in Williamston reached out to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and requested the support of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the spring of 1963.
King had been SCLC’s president since its founding in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1957.
King assigned SCLC field organizer Golden Frinks to go to Williamston and meet with black citizens. Soon after the first civil rights demonstrations began, Small was at their head.
“Actually, when I started marching in the civil rights movement, I was thinking about all these children, all this marching, and I said, `I wonder, do they pray?’
“And the Spirit said, `If you’re so concerned about them praying, why don’t you march with them and pray?’ So that’s why I went out there first, to march and pray and to make sure that God was remembered in those marches.
Sarah Small, JFK Pres. Library, April 19, 1998
“Through the movement she became brave”
A protest at the Watts Theater in June 1963 was the beginning of a long, hot summer of daily marches, sit-ins, pickets, and other non-violent protests aimed at ending racial injustice in Williamston.
“We did a lot of marching. We started marching, and we marched 31 days and nights with no publicity, no TV, no radio, just us and the angry white folk. They was so mad with us. We couldn’t– I couldn’t understand it. Why are they so angry?”
Sarah Small, JFK Presidential Lib., April 19, 1998
Small and Frinks were widely seen as the Williamston Freedom Movement’s leaders. Frinks was fiery, brazen, inspirational, wily. He was already a veteran of several other local civil rights struggles in northeast North Carolina, including in Edenton, his hometown.
Small was visionary, courageous, uplifting, wise, and as protective of the Williamston Freedom Movement’s young activists as a mother bear with her cubs.
At a meeting at Green Memorial Church of Christ, those young activists chose her to be the president of a newly formed local chapter of the SCLC. As a woman president of an SCLC chapter, she was a rarity: in SCLC’s early days, male ministers usually made up its leadership at every level.
The interviews in The Williamston Freedom Movement demonstrate how Small shaped the civil rights protests in Williamston, but also provide hints as to how the protests shaped Small.
“Why did I have to stand out there with the children? Why was I dragged all up and down the street while the men stood on the sidewalk looking, see what was going to happen to us?”
Sarah Small, JFK Presidential Lib., April 19, 1998
For instance, in one interview, Ida Small Speller, one of Sarah Small’s daughters, described an incident in which her mother stood up to Ku Klux Klan nightriders when they attempted to burn a cross in the family’s yard.
Instead of grabbing a shotgun and confronting the Klansmen (as many did) or turning off the house’s lights and hiding (as others did), Small stormed onto the front porch, turned all the house’s lights onto the Klansmen, and shamed them at the top of her voice until they retreated.
Ms. Speller made clear that her mother had not always been so fearless. She told Amanda Smith, “She was always skittish, but through the movement she became brave.”
“Mae, let’s hold hands and pray”
Her Christian faith was at the core of her involvement in the African American freedom struggle. I do not think that I have ever seen or heard a story about Sarah Small that did not discuss her strong faith.
As historian David Carter put it, “She found artificial the distinction between civil rights and divine rights. Freedom was something God-given, not another commodity whose distribution only whites could control.”
In his NCHR article, Carter quotes a story that one of the older activists in Williamston, Mary Mobley, told him about the power of Small’s faith and how it inspired the people around her.
Late in the summer of 1963, Small and Mobley were leading a civil rights march of several hundred black citizens.
“When we got up to the edge of the hill,” Mobley remembered, “we met with about 500 head of white men. Honestly, I felt like I was going to fall, my knees started shaking. I was really afraid, ‘cause I know people are crazy. They will kill you and think nothing of it.”
“And then Sarah said to me, ‘Mae,’—she called me `Mae’—she said, `Mae, let’s hold hands and pray.’”
“And we began to pray.” The marchers then proceeded forward. With good cause, they assumed that most if not all of the white men were Ku Klux Klansmen and armed. But they kept praying and continued to walk toward them and then through them.
“And when I got in the midst, about middle way of those men, I felt like I was 10 foot tall over them,” Mary Mobley recalled.
Mobley went on to say, “That’s just the Holy Spirit.” And she added that, at that moment, “I [knew] that God was working in my life.”
The March on Washington
For Sarah Small one of the highlights of that summer of 1963 was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. On August 28, two busloads and many cars full of civil rights activists from Williamston made the trip to Washington, DC.
Of course, the March on Washington is best remembered today for being the occasion on which people across the U.S. heard the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
In the Jan./Feb. 1999 edition of the The Crisis, Small was quoted about the experience and what it meant to her.
“It was like a voice, an unseen voice, called us. People had to come. It wasn’t that we were going around telling people they had to come, but we had to come…. We had been marching so long in Williamston, N.C, all by ourselves.
“When we went to Washington, DC for the march, we looked around and saw all these other 200,000 people—and white people, too—marching with us. That was the most awesome thing I have ever seen.”
The Voting Rights Act of 1965
Sarah Small launched her congressional bid in the fall of 1965. The timing was not accidental. Earlier that year, on August 6, 1965, Pres. Lyndon Johnson had signed one of the civil rights movement’s landmark accomplishments: the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited racial discrimination in voting for the first time in American history.
Following the Act’s passage, civil rights leaders in northeast N.C. hoped that running a black candidate for an open congressional seat in the First Congressional District would build on the new legislation and inspire a wave of black voter participation.
At the time, the First Congressional District covered 19 rural, poor, heavily black counties where African Americans had been systemically excluded from voting and officeholding since 1900.
The last black candidate for the U.S. House from northeast N.C. had been George H. White in 1898. White won that election, but he left North Carolina for good three years later. That was immediately after the N.C. General Assembly passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting, in practice, black citizens from voting or officeholding.
“From this hour on, no negro will disgrace the Old North State in the council of chambers of the nation,” Alston D. Watts, a white legislator in Raleigh, said at the time of White’s departure from the U.S. Congress. He referred to White as “an insolent negro.”
No black woman had ever run for the U.S. Congress in the State of North Carolina. No black individual, female or male, had run for the U.S. Congress in North Carolina since George H. White.
Small ran for Congress in a special election called to nominate a Democratic nominee to replace longtime Congressman Herbert C. Bonner, a staunch segregationist who had recently died.
An African American woman running for the U.S. Congress was so unprecedented that her campaign made headlines in newspapers as far away as Los Angeles. (Los Angeles Times,18 Dec. 1965).
Her two campaign managers reflected her congressional bid’s grounding in the civil rights movement.
One of her campaign managers was Floyd McKissick, Sr., the Durham, N.C. civil rights attorney and activist who would soon be elected chairman of the board of directors of one of the country’s most important civil rights groups, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
The other was Golden Frinks, the co-leader of the Williamston Freedom Movement. Frinks had gotten his start in the civil rights movement in Edenton, N.C., his hometown. After his success there, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had recruited him to work for SCLC.
A Civil Rights Worker and a Housewife
At the time of her run for Congress, Small was 38 years old. She was far from being a typical candidate for national office.
Her chief opponent, Walter B. Jones, was of a more familiar stripe; he was a relatively prosperous white businessman from Farmville, N.C., with strong ties to the region’s business and tobacco farming interests.
Small was different. At the time, newspapers described her occupation as “civil rights worker” and “housewife.” She had six children at home. The youngest of them, her daughter Freeda, was not even two years old.
When asked why she was running for office, she simply explained that she wanted to be the congresswoman “for all the poor people.”
She dismissed questions from white news reporters about her being unqualified because she was poor, black, and did not go to college.
When such concerns were raised, Small replied that she was qualified to represent the poor and disenfranchised in the First Congressional District because “she knows the problems of poor people, by virtue of the fact that she has been poor all her life.”
She said even her experiences in jail—on the multiple occasions when she was arrested for civil rights protests— deepened her qualifications for office.
“I have been in and out of jails and have learned about the law and how things are run,” she told a reporter for The Sentinel in Winston-Salem. (The Sentinel, 7 Feb. 1966)
Her campaign platform concentrated on issues relevant to poor and working-class people of all colors. Among other issues, the platform emphasized improving access to health care and increasing Social Security benefits for the elderly.
Her platform also called for the repeal of Section 14B of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, a piece of federal legislation that white business leaders in the southern states often used to undermine the ability of both black and white workers to organize labor unions.
Among pro-labor activists, Section 14B was widely seen as a principal reason that manufacturing wages were so low and working conditions so bad in North Carolina compared to other states in the U.S.
When asked how she would represent the First Congressional District’s “rich people” if she had such a single-minded devotion to the poor, Small replied that she would represent them “through love.”
I do not fully understand what Small meant by that pledge. However, she was not the kind of woman prone to irony or sarcasm. Neither was she the kind of woman that doubted the redemptive power of love.
“From here I think we will grow”
The Democratic primary was on December 18, 1965. When Sarah Small opened her campaign at a rally in Ayden, in Pitt County, she knew full well that the odds against her were enormous.
At that time, African Americans made up approximately half the population in the First Congressional District. However, they made up only a fifth of the district’s registered voters, a reflection of generations of exclusion from the polls and officeholding.
Working largely through African American churches, she and her campaign volunteers focused on spurring voter registration efforts throughout the First Congressional District.
The campaign’s impact on black voter registration was notable. In Bertie County, just north of Williamston, for instance, the number of black registered voters more than doubled in the months prior to the election.
Small’s financial resources were of course limited. Election reports later indicated that she funded her campaign largely through small donations of $2.00 to $25.00.
Most of her campaign support was local. However, she also attracted a surprising number of donations from New England.
To a large extent, those donations were due to relationships that she had built with groups of white northern church activists who had visited Williamston to show their solidarity with the civil rights activists in 1963.
On election day, Walter B. Jones won the contest in a landslide. He garnered 25,927 votes. Small finished second with 6,021 votes, far behind Jones but ahead of two other white candidates.
Small had her best showing in Bertie County, where she came within five votes of defeating Jones.
Though she had done relatively well in Bertie County, her campaign filed a complaint with the U.S. Dept. of Justice alleging that there had been widespread election fraud there.
According to an AP report, the allegations included ballot tampering, ballot box stuffing, and “other irregularities.” Local civil rights activists also alleged that the county’s white farm owners had threatened black sharecroppers with eviction from their farms if they dared to vote.
In the wake of her election loss, Small was undaunted. The determined young mother, civil rights activist, and church leader knew that her campaign was a beginning, not an end.
In an AP story that ran across the U.S. on December 20, 1965, she said, “This is the starting point for Negroes. From here I think we will grow and have a big voice in future elections.”
A Journey North and Back
Three years later, in 1968, Shirley Chisholm of New York City became the first black women to be elected to the U.S. Congress. Almost 25 years later, in 1992, Eva Clayton of Warren County became the first black woman to represent the State of North Carolina in the U.S. House.
Between 1965 and 1970, Small continued to work closely with Golden Frinks and the SCLC. She worked as an SCLC field organizer not only in Williamston, but also in small towns and rural communities in much of Eastern North Carolina.
She made a dramatic change in her life in 1970, however. In that year, she and her children moved north to Roxbury, Mass., so that she could accept an offer to become the director of Packard Manse, a faith-based community center that focused on social justice and peace issues.
Several years later, she also began to serve as a campus minister at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.
She was a woman without a college degree, but she became Dean of the Chapel at U. Mass.-Boston and was part of a remarkable circle of theological leaders stretching from the Twelfth Street Baptist Church in Roxbury to Harvard Divinity School.
She remained a faith leader and community activist in Boston for the rest of her life. Among much else, she was involved in grassroots issues related to the civil rights movement in Boston, the U.S. war against Vietnam, and U.S. support for Apartheid in South Africa.
Sarah Small passed away on Christmas Day 2001, at the age of 73. To the end, as she had promised the Lord, she had not bowed to any man. And throughout her life, she had continued to share lessons that she had learned back home in Williamston about faith, discipleship, love, and the need for revolutionary change in America.
Her funeral was held at the Shiloh Baptist Church in Williamston, the church that her grandfather established in the 1800s.