Darmita Wilson: A family’s journey through the civil rights movement

WATERVILLE — Darmita Wilson remembers sitting under the kitchen table as a child, listening to her grandparents, cousins and older aunts tell stories about their experiences in the South during the civil rights movement — stories that would become important to her family’s history.

Wilson’s mother, for instance, skipped high school with a friend in Indianapolis on Sept. 6, 1955, to attend Emmett Till’s funeral in Chicago.

Till, an African American boy, was 14 when he was lynched Aug. 28, 1955, in Mississippi after being accused of offending a white woman at a grocery store. People who lined up for his funeral in the South Side of Chicago became faint at the sight of his mangled body in the casket, a vision that would stay with her mother forever, Wilson said.

“He was tortured and beaten, and his mother decided that the world needed to see what happened to her son,” she said.

Wilson spoke virtually Monday to about 50 people who tuned in for the Rotary Club of Waterville’s 26th Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. The event is typically held as a breakfast at Senior Spectrum’s Muskie Center, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was hosted online, according to Rotary President Jeff Melanson.

Wilson, a vice president at Northern Light Medical Group, is new to Maine, she said, having asked for 24 months to be a national health care consultant at Northern Light Mercy Hospital in Portland. In August, she applied to be — and was accepted as — vice president of the medical group. She grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and Indianapolis.

Wilson outlined her family’s history, describing her maternal family’s migration from Mississippi to Mobile. Her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother took a bus to Washington, D.C., for the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, to support civil and economic rights for African Americans, she said.

On March 7, 1965, they were on the Edmund Pettus Bridge spanning the Alabama River during the Selma to Montgomery March to protest unfair practices prohibiting voting rights. It would be a day that would later be referred to as “Bloody Sunday,” as law enforcement officials attacked marchers with billy clubs and tear gas.

Wilson’s relatives also took part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted 381 days, from Dec. 5, 1955, to Dec. 20, 1956. African Americans were forced to sit in the back of buses, even though there were spaces at the front, and a movement was launched to boycott riding buses and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. joined the boycott. Wilson’s grandmother and other relatives took part in ride shares and handed out snacks to people who had to wait hours for rides.

Wilson said she was 2 during the March on Washington. During that time, many African Americans used the nonviolent approach King taught at lunch counter protests, where people would kick them and throw ketchup, coffee and other food at them.

“They had to remain passive resistant and not attack the people who were attacking them,” Wilson said.

Wilson attended and graduated from Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, at the same time Vice President Kamala Harris was there. Wilson has worked in more than 24 health systems across the United States in her 32-year career, and is working on a doctorate in health care delivery, with emphasis on special populations and health care disparities.

Melanson thanked Wilson for sharing her story Monday.

“You’ve moved a lot of people this morning,” he said.

Preprogrammed music included singing from Pihcintu Chorus of Portland. Attendees sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” said to be King’s favorite, and “Let There be Peace on Earth.”

The Rev. Maureen Ausbrook of the Waterville Interfaith Council delivered the invocation and Roger Crouse of the Waterville Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints the benediction.

State Rep. Bruce White, D-Waterville, attended the virtual event, afterward referring to it as “wonderful.”

“The personal stories from Darmita were touching,” he said. “The story about Emmett Till was powerful and heartbreaking. The quotes were powerful as well.”

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