Fannie Rushing was a small girl living in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood when it came time for her to be enrolled in kindergarten.
Her mother went with a neighbor, the mother of Rushing's playmate, to register the girls in the local Catholic school. At 3 p.m., Rushing's playmate had been enrolled for hours while Rushing and her mother still waited.
Finally a priest told her mother, "We can't accept her in school here. I'd have to close the doors of the church."
Instead, Rushing became the only black child in the kindergarten class of her local public school. It would not be too many years before she would join the civil rights movement of the 1960s to combat segregation and discrimination in schools.
Rushing, now a history professor at Benedictine University in Lisle, was recognized earlier this year for her lifelong work on behalf of civil rights and social justice when she became one of 20 living African-American women featured in a Chicago Freedom Sisters exhibit at the DuSable Museum of African-American History in Chicago.
The Chicago Freedom Sisters was shown in conjunction with "Freedom's Sisters," a national touring exhibit sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and the Cincinnati Museum Center. The national exhibit celebrates 20 women instrumental in the struggles for rights of African-Americans from the 19th century to the present.
Both exhibits recently closed at DuSable, but the museum is working with Macy's, a sponsor of the local exhibit, to place the Chicago Freedom Sisters exhibit in the company's State Street store this spring or summer, said Keiana Barrett, director of external affairs at DuSable.
Macy's, the museum staff and the Smithsonian chose the 20 Chicago women after receiving nominations from organizations, churches and individuals.
Rushing was selected because of her early involvement with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, her work for parity throughout her life, and her dedication to multicultural studies, Barrett said.
Charles Payne, a professor at the University of Chicago who has written about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, said Rushing was one of the early organizers in Chicago.
"Everybody who knows her knows she's a thoroughly committed person," he said. "It has shaped her personal life as well as her professional life."
Hope and struggle
In the early days of the civil rights movement, the struggle was often a lonely one, Rushing remembered. She was barely in her teens when she was inspired by the success of the Montgomery bus boycott that she watched on TV.
"That success was a tremendous impetus to move forward," Rushing said. "It was an extraordinarily exciting time. You couldn't sleep because you were just so excited about everything going on."
Students at black colleges began to hold sit-ins to protest segregation. Rushing organized sympathy sit-ins on weekends while she was in high school.
"My fellow students thought I was very, very strange," she recalled.
Her growing activism upset her parents. They had moved to Chicago from Mississippi in the 1920s and knew firsthand the segregation of the South.
But it was the stories she had heard from her parents' families and friends while she was growing up that helped spur her to action, Rushing said.
"I was just amazed at what people had experienced and how they had survived," she said. "Everyone knew someone who had been lynched. Everyone knew people who had been brutalized. I believed it was going to be possible to change all that."
Rushing became a volunteer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and began organizing a Friends of SNCC chapter at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she was attending. She left school shortly after to become a full-time SNCC staff member.
While with SNCC, Rushing taught in the organization's Freedom Schools, originally designed to promote literacy and prepare people to register to vote. She started a residential Freedom School that brought young people from the South to Chicago for six weeks and sent young black students from the North to Georgia.
When blacks on a plantation in Mississippi were thrown off for attempting to register to vote, SNCC started a food and clothing drive to help them survive the winter.
After several years of activism, an exhausted Rushing left SNCC, returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in anthropology. She taught in an alternative school, worked against apartheid in South Africa and became the Midwest coordinator for the Southern Africa Program of the American Friends Service Committee.
Rushing moved on to become the director of minority student services at Rosary College (now Dominican University) and earned a master's of education in psychology. She planned to pursue a doctorate in anthropology but switched to history so she could do her field work in Cuba.
Her dissertation, "Cabildos de Nacion, Sociedades de la Raza de Color: AfroCuban Participation in Slave Emancipation and Cuban Independence, 1865-1895," reflected her interest in the African Diaspora. Ninety percent of slaves brought to the Americas went to the colonies of Spain and Portugal, she said.
Over the years, she worked with the late social activist Ella Baker to build the Mass Party to bring progressive social change in the United States. During the 1990s, she defended the right of Haiti's democratically elected president, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to govern after he had been ousted by the military.
Barbara Ransby, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has written on Rushing's mentor, Ella Baker, calls Rushing a heroine of civil rights.
"Dr. Rushing has been an exemplary mentor to new generations of students and has organized programs on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the larger movement, which have helped to educate hundreds, if not thousands, about the legacy of the movements of the 1960s and '70s," Ransby wrote in an e-mail.
A professor at Benedictine for the better part of the past decade, Rushing teaches courses on the African Diaspora, Latin American history, social-political movements, global studies and the humanities.
She admits she finds the climate on college campuses today very different from when she was young.
"When I was a student, my teachers were more conservative than I and now my students are more conservative than I," she said.
Rushing said bright expectations she had for the civil rights movement haven't all been realized, but she relishes moments that point to the progress that has been made. She remembers the hopes of people who came to the polls to elect Harold Washington and how traffic on the Outer Drive came to the halt as supporters were awed by the news that he had won.
Barack Obama's election as president in 2008 was another highlight.
"I could not help thinking about how many people have died fighting for civil rights and what they would have given to see that night," she said.
She is now working with others on an SNCC oral history project about the people of the civil rights movement. The project will conclude with the opening of an exhibit at the Carter G. Wilson Library in Chicago in October, 2011.
When the oral history project is completed, Rushing said she wants to return to her own research. Still a resident of Hyde Park where she attended kindergarten decades ago, she said she plans to continue her life's work of supporting parity and justice for all people.
"There's still so much to do," she said.