Helen O’Neal-McCray: Civil Rights Worker

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Growing up in the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s Helen O’Neal-McCray saw discrimination all around her. By the time she was a student at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi she was ready to become involved in the Civil Rights struggle.

“I figured I had a right to drink water where I wanted to, I figured I should be able to go to any school that I wanted to,” O’Neal-McCray says. “And the only way that that was going to happen for me, I had to get out and fight for those rights.”

In a mug shot from jail, a neatly dressed Helen O’Neal-McCray stands with a placard around her neck that reads Jackson Mississippi Police Department July 16, 1961.

“I was picketing the southern governor’s conference in front of the Heidelberg Hotel in Jackson, Miss. The conference was to develop strategies to keep the south segregated and it was the time of the freedom rides – they were coming into Jackson every day. And we had formed a movement called the Jackson Non-Violent movement. And I was arrested.”

It would be the first of four arrests for O’Neal-McCray.

“I had a sign and Capt. Ray said that I was disturbing the peace and tranquility of the state of Mississippi and I turned around and when I got to the next corner I was arrested. I didn’t walk back and forth, I was immediately arrested. I wasn’t chanting, I was just holding a sign. I didn’t say anything.”

But it did not stop McCray who was arrested three more times during her Civil Rights career. Later she went on to become a freedom rider, traveling to places like McComb, Mississippi and Shreveport, Louisiana. Today the 65-year-old English professor at Wilberforce University downplays her involvement in the Civil Rights movement. But she thinks her work has led in part to Tuesday’s historic inauguration.

“I think that my involvement in Civil Rights – the end product is Obama. Granted it’s not finished. Even in my wildest imagination, I could not imagine a black man becoming a president of the United States. Still have trouble with it. The night that he won the election I couldn’t sleep, I wasn’t sure, I had to keep watching television. I got concrete proof the next morning with the newspaper.”

O’Neal-McCray says she’ll celebrate Barack Obama’s presidential swearing-in with friends in Yellow Springs. She’ll raise a toast, she says, to America’s first black president.

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