By Alison Blumstein, Youth Leader at the Imagine Society and graduating this month pre-Med at the University of Miami
Muriel Tillinghast is a born trailblazer. As a child, she attended meetings for dozens of human rights organizations alongside her grandmother and was exposed to political and economic issues before she even understood their meaning or societal impact. This environment and exposure embedded in Ms Tillinghast an innate drive to be involved in service. That she could be, as Muriel calls it, a "change-agent." It is completely inspirational to me that she has always carried herself with this confidence and this commitment to the message of being active. That helping others is as vital to her as the air she breathes. It is a testament to making sure my generation and the younger generations to come are aware of community issues and know they have the power to change the world, because then, as Muriel shows us, they can change it for the better
As a young Howard University student in the 1960s, she served as president of NAG, the Non-violent Action Group, which prepared her with the skills and fervent spirit to organize. Her love for education led Muriel to work in Mississippi, where she organized a Freedom School that brought members of the community together to talk about African American history, the contributions of Black leaders, and the power of poetry and song.
Muriel is no stranger to the sometimes harsh side of activism. During the Civil Rights Movement she came face-to-face with National Guardsmen in Cambridge, Maryland, brandishing bayonets and spraying her with tear gas. This did not scare her from standing up and using her voice to speak out. Rather, it kindled her passion for helping others.
Since then, Ms. Tillinghast has worked relentlessly on issues of tenant rights, prison education, medical experimentation, and immigration. In 1996, she was the New York Green Party candidate for Vice President. She is a leader who energizes others to tackle challenges that they are most passionate about. In my interview with her, Muriel told me, "Oppression, unfairness, dishonesty—all of that—is everywhere. The question is what will you do when you find it."
What Muriel Tillinghast has taught me is that when you do find it, you "do what you can when you can… You just keep on keeping on." Thank you Ms Tillinghast, for your incredible legacy of service, that will always "keep on keeping on" in so many hearts and lives.
Thank you very much for this award and for the recognition of my efforts. I have worked in various areas of American life for over seven decades. I do what I call "trench work," trying to alter the bottommost structures of American society. I also call my work "rootwork"—an example of the word "radical" meaning to work at the roots. Somebody has got to extricate our lives from the mire and muck of our country's extraordinary beginnings. Being intelligent, we must be ever mindful of its deeply sent claws into the entrails of Blacks and Browns and Yellow and Red/Brown people who are different even between and among each other, but who are here and who have contributed to the gift we like to think of as our America.
For me, it has not been easy. There have been vipers in the pits of all kinds, the left, the right, and the middle. Change comes at a heavy price, mostly the cost is on the change-agent. But I am still doing what I can to build and support a rational humanity in this society.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the source of this award's legacy, is mixed with extremes in human cost and the energy for the changes ultimately made. In my view, those are the essential ingredients of systemic change. Intelligence rather than simply reaction or dogma is the watchword. Exemplified by Clara Lemlich's inexhaustible drive, her work is energy with respectful heaps of verve and guts. That woman had something to say!
My hope is that in this country, as each generation moves into its maturity, that from among them—intelligent, well-schooled, and well-read—each will be committed to take responsibility, to lay afresh and renew a greater and increasingly affirming growth for inclusion and democratization. Borrowing from an old picket sign: "Black is not a vice, white is not a virtue."
The work of improving America lies with each of us. Much is awry in this place which is our home. The benefits of our historical and collective efforts will not be secured unless we who believe in freedom will secure them for ourselves and our progeny, the whole of them. "It takes organization; it takes dedication… it takes the willingness to do what has to be done when it has to be done!* "We who believe in freedom cannot rest"* until the equation is balanced by race and by class. Until then, we must do what must be done when it has to be done. "Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born."**
* Speech, Ella Baker: Making the Struggle Every Day, 1974, Google/Youtube.
** Poem, Margaret Walker: For My People
Muriel Tillinghast, with her words, actions, and presence, was and is a teacher. Soon after arriving in Mississippi as a volunteer for the 1964 Summer Project, she joined two other volunteers in Mayersville, the tiny county seat of Issaquena County. There, the young Howard University student organized a Freedom School that brought members of the community together to talk about African American history, the contributions of Black leaders, and the power of poetry and song. "For someone so young and petite, she had a serene strength about her," said local leader Unita Blackwell, "Muriel Tillinghast truly gave me the education of my life."
In college at Howard University, Tillinghast had been president of NAG, the Non-violent Action Group, so she was well-versed in methods of organizing by the time she joined the Student Nonviolent Action Committee (SNCC). In the summer of 1964, Tillinghast headed the Washington, Issaquena, and Sharkey projects before assuming Cobb's position as the Greenville project director and later acting as the head of COFO's statewide operations in Mississippi.
Blue cotton handkerchief tied around her hair, Tillinghast often caught the eye of local Mississippians: "She walked different than we did. Wasn't no fear we could see… We had never quite seen anybody this unafraid and yet she also recognized, now that I look back on it, the danger that she was in," recalled Unita Blackwell. She was strong in her convictions and proud of her identity, being one of the first women at Howard, and later in the Delta, to wear her hair natural. "Movement has to do with how one sees oneself within the world—what one can do to make the world a better place—and to actually try to do no harm," said Tillinghast.
After her involvement with SNCC, Tillinghast continued to remain involved in activism. She worked relentlessly on issues of tenant rights, prison education, murder/false accusation, alternative sentencing, medical experimentation, AIDs, and immigration. Somehow she works intensely on many levels, locally with her work within the Lutheran Church and in her Green Garden Brooklyn community organization, and globally with Act Local/Think Global, during the Ebola crisis in Liberia and in a small community in the foothills of Haiti in 2014 and 2015. In 1996, she was the New York Green Party candidate for Vice President.
"The movement continues in every aspect of life. I have carried my understanding of its principles to the classroom, to work, and to the prisons and jails in my daily walk through life. It is as vital to me as the air I breathe."
Bio adapted from SNCC digital website.