Carolyn Coleman got her first taste of community activism as a young girl in a segregated community in Savannah, Georgia. She and her mother went door-to-door collecting signatures to advocate for neighborhood improvements. She continued to work for civil rights and social justice for close to six decades.
In high school, she participated in sit-ins, and she was active in various protest movements in college. She later worked with the NAACP in several Southern states, including collaboration with Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis during the sanitation workers’ strike, which took place just before King was assassinated. Coleman spent eight years as a special assistant to former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt, advising him on concerns close to the minority community.
Today she is a Guilford County Commissioner, a member of the national board of directors for the NAACP and the first vice president of the North Carolina NAACP. She shares her experiences on the front lines of the civil rights movement with host Frank Stasio.
On her first job with the NAACP, in Alabama:
My girlfriend and I went to Alabama to work. And of course, we’d lived in Savannah, and we'd heard about how bad Alabama was, but we had no idea how bad it really was. I mean, everything in Savannah was segregated. But everything in Alabama was doubly segregated. You almost felt like you could not drive down the street without the fear of something happening to you — with being stopped by the police [or] challenged in any way.
On her time in Atlanta:
The NAACP sent me to Atlanta. Now, I have to tell you that I felt like I was going to heaven. Here were black people who actually were elected to public office. There were black people who owned businesses, people that were lawyers and doctors and what have you. So to become involved in a community like that — we still were fighting racism, but not quite as much as in those other states.
On the importance of African American representation in government:
It just makes a difference in terms of understanding cultures and communities when you can bring in people of all cultures. And so I think that it makes a difference to the citizens when they see someone that looks like them … But there also is an understanding of what's going on and what these people need. I say to people all the time: I was able to make a tremendous difference on the outside. But once I got on the inside, I knew how to make it happen. And I was able to make things happen for my community.
On how she keeps going after decades of civil rights work:
There are people who do get tired, and of course all of us get a little bit fatigued at times. But every now and then we have a victory. And I look back at [former president Barack] Obama's election — that made it worth everything that we’ve done in the past. And hopefully now, we'll have another victory in the next election. So things don't always end up the way you want them to go. But I believe if you keep working at it, you're not going to have all negatives all the time. And while we have a Supreme Court now that may be perhaps more conservative than we want it to be, I just believe that things will get better. I don't know how — especially with all of the federal judges that have been appointed that are now conservative — but I just still believe. If you don't believe, I don't think you can do this work.