August 19, 2020, marks 90 years of life for minister, civil rights activist, and vocalist, Rev. Dr. Jesse L. Douglas, Sr. While watching a video of Dr. Jesse L. Douglas singing during an interview, I could feel the impact of the civil rights movement in his powerful and soulful vocals. The song, “I Told Jesus It Would Be Alright If He Changed My Name,” is part of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s recording of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in 1963. Rev. Dr. Jesse L. Douglas, Sr. made significant contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.
After heeding the call to serve in his early 20’s, Dr. Jesse L. Douglas ministered to the people for 53 years while continuing his work in the Civil Rights Movement. As a trusted ally of Dr. King, Dr. Douglas proved his worth. He was instrumental in planning the 1965 Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Dr. Douglas appears in an iconic photo of the historical event, locked arm in arm between Dr. King and former U.S. Rep. John Lewis. Because of his fair skin, blond hair, and blue eyes due to albinism, uninformed White reporters referred to Rev. Dr. Jesse L. Douglas as the “Unidentified White Man” in their news articles. They thought he was merely a sympathizer in the civil rights struggle. Little did they know that he was a leader of one of the Movement’s organizations and undoubtedly a Black man. Dr. Jesse L. Douglas said that they never made an effort to discover who he was.
Though mistaken identity had spared Dr. Jesse L. Douglas from police brutality, circumstances surrounding racial inequality sparked a fire in his soul that led to his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Segregation was out of control in the South, and he experienced it at an early age. In his native city of New Orleans, Dr. Douglas attended a high school designated for Black students with limited resources and lacked educational options outside of trades. Despite that, he gained the necessary academic skills that would allow him to achieve higher education.
In 1960, while pursuing his first doctoral degree in divinity, Dr. Jesse L. Douglas became part of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Atlanta, Georgia. The group took action against segregation by participating in demonstrations, sit-ins at lunch counters, and other forms of protest. The activities resulted in the court-ordered desegregation of dining facilities in Georgia. Upon graduating from the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in 1962, he took his first assignment as a pastor at a church in Montgomery, Alabama. During this time, he joined the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), formed in response to the 1955 Bus Boycott. He was elected President of the organization a year later. When Dr. King expressed an interest in starting a voting rights campaign as the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Dr. Jesse L. Douglas invited him to Montgomery. Dr. King decided to set up his campaign headquarters in Selma. The decision was made after the city’s sheriff publicly declared that a Black man would never vote in Selma under Dr. King’s leadership.
After Dr. King’s assassination, Dr. Jesse L. Douglas delivered the first memorial sermon at the Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He said that he recalls the moment as if it were yesterday. “It was like someone had taken a dagger and stuck it through my heart,” said Dr. Douglas as he held back emotions while reflecting on the loss of his dear friend and mentor.
Dr. Douglas said of the injustice and civil unrest currently taking place, “Demonstrating dissatisfaction with the justice system here in America is on time and long overdue.” He feels that gathering in large numbers for peaceful demonstrations is the only way to get the desired response. As we continue to demand equality as natural citizens of the U.S., we must remain nonviolent. For those who are continuing the fight for racial equality, Dr. Douglas proclaimed, “To all the youth and young adults, this is your day to take a stand and demand justice.”
Dr. Douglas considers fulfilling the ministry to which he has been called by God to be his greatest accomplishment. When asked for his final thoughts, he stated, “People should be treated fairly and with a spirit of love. I think that’s what God requires of all of us.”
Dr. Douglas’s grandchildren have committed to carrying on his legacy and continuing the fight. Known as DGLS, they shared this statement on social media: “The evil of racial injustice in America continues to prevail. As long as it stands, we will continue to fight against it, just like our grandfather, Rev. Dr. Jesse L. Douglas, before us.
Donna Montgomery is a Community Affairs/Arts Writer in Chicago. Find her on social media @GoldenLadyWrites.