Sunday, February 24, 2008

Rev. James Orange, leader of Selma March, dead at 65

Another legend of the civil rights movement, Rev. James Orange, died this week at age 65. Orange played a key role in the Selma March, which led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965:

Orange joined the movement in 1957 and was tapped by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1965 to help organize in Alabama. Orange's arrest and incarceration that year triggered a night-time demonstration in which young Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper.

Jackson's death was the catalyst for the Selma-to-Montgomery march that ended in Bloody Sunday and, eventually, passage of the federal Voting Rights Act.

A songster with a baritone voice that let all know he meant business, Orange could silence a Birmingham bar when King or the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy Sr., King's top aide, needed to be heard. King called Orange the movement's Ground Crew Leader.

"He was the kind of person who did the work and never took credit. But that didn't bother him," eulogized sister Marion Easley of Birmingham. "He's in heaven now, and guess what he's doing? He's organizing a march. And, oh, what a march!"

Orange organized, marched, got beaten and was jailed in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, Illinois and beyond. Yet he returned to the front lines with his non-violent beliefs intact.

With the movement succeeding, and dwindling, Orange took his organizational talents to the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. Later, he served as a special representative of the AFL-CIO.

"He helped untold thousands of families walk through the doorway of opportunity," said Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO's international secretary-treasurer.

Orange, though, never lost his civil-justice bones.

Starting in 1995, he organized the annual King Day march in Atlanta. In 2000, bullhorn in hand, he descended upon the Florida state Capitol to fight affirmative-action rollbacks. Orange even took his organizational talents to South Africa to rally alongside Nelson Mandela.

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