Ray Rickman, a former state representative and one-time deputy secretary of state, visited the Cranston Public Library’s Central Library on Sept. 24 to share stories from his involvement in the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s.
The program, titled “The Civil Rights Kid,” began with Rickman recounting life in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan – and how segregation and stereotypes shared his experience.
Rickman said his father worked as a chauffeur for the then-executive vice president of General Motors, a man named Mr. White. His father would choose the new Lincoln Continental car for Mr. White, and did so when the cars were on sale on July 2 so the vice president could save money.
Every July 4, Rickman said, they would have an annual “Rickman Family Picnic” with many members of his extended family in attendance. He mentioned that one year when they got home from the gathering, the telephone rang, and his aunt informed his mother that his father died from a brain hemorrhage.
After the funeral three days later, said Rickman, Mr. White followed he and his family home. Mr. White then offered the newly purchased car to Rickman’s mother, giving the keys to her. Rickman said his Uncle Buddy, his father’s best friend, told his mother how much the new car was worth, which was a lot of money.
“Do something good with it, for your little family,” Mr. White told her, according to Rickman.
A small number of weeks later, Rickman’s mother and his uncle went to look at a house on Marquette Drive, where “you look out on Waterworks Park, where they process Detroit’s drinking water, 106 acres.” He said that the smallest house on the block was up for sale, and they were interested. When they were looking at the house, Rickman’s mother had to pretend to be Buddy’s maid, and the realtor asked him if he was German or Jewish, according to Rickman. The realtor informed him that “Jews couldn’t live on this street,” Rickman said, and that the neighborhood was meant for Protestants.
They ended up moving onto Garland Street, in a white Catholic neighborhood a block away.
“Uncle Buddy buys it,” Rickman said. “Black folks can’t buy houses in that neighborhood.”
Rickman’s first experience with the civil rights movement took place that September when he started at a new school. He said when they went to complete the paperwork for the school, the secretary was surprised and tells them to show up the next morning at 8 o’clock, even though school started the day after next.
When they showed up the next day, according to Rickman, the secretary was rude to them and demanded they sit in front of the principal’s office. When the principal showed up – stepping out of a black Lincoln Towncar with a black chauffeur – he informed Richman’s mother that the bus would pick Rickman and his sister up the next morning but that they would be taken to a segregated school. Then, he walked away.
Rickman said he and his sister boarded the bus the next morning and met Earl, the bus driver, who was “a charming bald man, 50, rotund, biggest laugh you’ve ever heard in the world.” Then, his mother met with the members of the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP at the Urban League office.
“They’re thrilled to see me,” Rickman said. “Detroit’s been doing this for 20 years. We cannot go to a white school. It doesn’t come up very often, because you can’t buy or rent a house in a white neighborhood.”
After meeting with the ACLU and NAACP, his mother signed Rickman up to be the league plaintiff in a federal lawsuit. It was his first time participating in something like that, and he said he found it “fascinating.”
In federal court, the superintendent attended and claimed the decision on where to send the children was part of school policy. Rickman said when the judge asked him what he thought of the policy, he replied: “I don’t even know what that means. I just want to go to the school.”
Rickman said ultimately, the suit was successful and the school segregation policy was found unlawful. He said he was later involved in three other similar cases.
“Detroit practiced racial discrimination in regards to almost everything,” he said. “They were brutal. They weren’t shy about it. It was the way it was.”
After this period, Rickman attended Foch Junior High School, which was named after a French general from World War I. He said that Detroit had a “fabulous” school system, he said, “except for the way it treated black people.”
When the school was built in the 1920s, it was meant to hold 1,300 students. But when Rickman attended, it had 3,300. He explained that they used plastic chairs to fit up to 35 or 40 more students in a classroom because they were small chairs. After Christmas break, the wooden chairs were gone and replaced with all the plastic ones, which were uncomfortable for students.
Rickman then formulated the idea of a school walkout, and tried to speak with the principal. The secretary told him he could not speak with him. The following day, Rickman made 50 posters with the help of many people, along with the members of the ACLU and NAACP. On the following Monday, every student who attended school that day – about 2,000 – walked
out, while the rest stayed home.
Rickman said the police were waiting, and he was arrested. He had 11 lawyers, according to him, along with U.S. Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr., who blocked the police as they attempted to bring Rickman to jail.
“Charge him or let him go,” Diggs said, according to Rickman. The police chief told the officers to let Rickman go.
The next day, the superintendent of the school district requested to meet with Rickman and his mother. The superintendent asked Rickman what it would take for him to get off his back, and he asked for a new school building. The superintendent said he would discuss it with the school board. Then he made a promise with Rickman that they would all go back to school if a new one was built. The following September, he and the superintendent dug a ceremonial hole to commemorate the building of the new, “accelerated” school.
Rickman said when he was 16, he traveled to Mississippi for a civil rights march alongside James Meredith at Diggs’ request. Before the trip, he attended training for demonstrators in Memphis, Tennessee, learning safety tools, the principals of nonviolence and how to interact with local police.
“The number one thing you’re taught is ‘protect your head,’” he said.
At the march, Rickman met James Ross, who was the son of the then-executive vice president of Bank of America, and became on good terms with him. On the second day of the march, they ended up on a farmer’s property and the police arrested them.
According to Rickman, Meredith was placed in his own jail cell, while the white people were in one cell and the black people were in another cell. Rickman was also in his own cell. He said that the deputies on duty called them all names, and then threatened Rickman by saying they were “going to beat he half to death” – only this ended up not being a threat, but real.
“They beat me, they kick me, they break my ribs, but worse they punch a hole in my head. And out comes part of my brains,” Rickman said.
When Rickman arrived back home, he was the keynote speaker at the Greater Macedonia Baptist Church, where Diggs organized a collection for Rickman’s medical bills. During the event, the congressman had said that Rickman was “Detroit’s greatest citizen, the civil rights kid.” In his speech, he spoke of the nonviolence training, his belief in Martin Luther King, Jr., and how the nonviolence training “may have saved [his] life.” He also showed off the scars on his head and how he calls them the “Mississippi Scars.”
“Then the minister got up, and the minister gave this rousing close, and he said, ‘God called me last night, and he said that young Mr. Rickman will need our prayers for awhile, but in exchange for the brutal beating from the sheriff and his deputies in Mississippi, he will let him grow old … God will take care of the civil rights kid,’” Rickman said.