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Catherine Burks-Brooks, 1939-2023

Catherine Burks-Brooks made a terrific self-portrait on May 28, 1961. There was, for sure, someone else in the Jackson police station who snapped the shutter, but the photograph is all Catherine conspiring with the camera to let us know what’s what. Sixty-two years later, her message seems as clear, and as relevant, as ever. 

Burks-Brooks was of the moment in 1961, and made for the moment. She passed, earlier this week, at 83. Born in Alabama, she grew up in Birmingham and went to college at Tennessee State in Nashville, where she soon joined the Nashville Student Movement. She was active in the sit-in campaign in Nashville in 1960, was a Freedom Rider in 1961, then worked in the Jackson Movement and in Mississippi, among other campaigns. She later taught in the pubic schools in Birmingham. 

During my interview with her in 2007, she talked about her earliest stirrings of resistance.    

“It might have been around fifth or sixth grade when I began to protest the way things were. I refused to step aside when walking downtown, when a white person would approach me. My mother – of course, because I love things – she used to carry me to town, and she used to pull me in front of her when we approached white people. My grandmother used to take me town, also. She never did pull me in front of her. That’s why I think, you know, my protest started there.”

I asked her about practicing nonviolence in Nashville in 1960, in the face of physical threats.  

“It was touchy to have someone maybe push you and to not push back. I was Christian and everything, but I was used to pushing back. I was used to not stepping to the side, to saying, “I’m gonna hold my ground.” With the nonviolence, you’re kind of stepping to the side. I can remember in one of the demonstrations [in Nashville], a white fella coming toward my face with a cigarette. I was just standing there. I was not gonna move. My girlfriend, Lucretia, was behind me. Later she told me she was gonna put her hand in front of my face. In the end, he didn’t try to put the cigarette on me. But I had planned, in my mind, I was gonna stand there.”

Burks-Brooks also talked about the study of nonviolence in Nashville.  

“There was a lot of talk about the philosophy of nonviolence, and books to read about India and Gandhi and others who had been involved in nonviolence. There were a lot of things going on, as you know, during that time, violent and nonviolent. I think Castro was up in the hills at that time, and I used to be kind of like in between. I’d be so tired when I’d wake up in the morning sometimes because I’d been up there in my dreams fighting with Castro. Then I’d go be on the nonviolent team. So it was a lot going on. Plus all of the African countries working for their independence, Dr. [Kwame] Nkrumah [in Ghana] and [Patrice] Lumumba [in Congo]. Oh, it was a glorious time to be alive.”