Upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10, 1964, Dr. King delivered a quiet moment of reflection to the crowd. He confided that he had repeatedly been asked, "What does the Nobel Prize mean to you?" He would recall one time he was scheduled to take a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles. The plane was delayed because of mechanical difficulties. Looking out the window he would see men, dirty, dusty and greasy, scramble to fix the issue with the plane that had arose.
As he reflected he would say that many on the plane may have been thankful for a capable pilot; others may have liked being attended to by a charming and gracious stewardess; but in his thoughts, "first and foremost", was the memory of the ground crew. He would note that there were many pilots who had helped to chart the course of human progress, "and yet," Dr. King would exclaim, "if it were not for the ground crew, the struggle for human dignity and social justice would not be in orbit."
To him the Nobel Prize was a reward for the ground crew, who were, "a movement of great people, whose discipline, wise restraint, and majestic courage has led them down a nonviolent course in seeking to establish a reign of justice and a rule of love across this nation," and because of them, "we have a finer land, a better people, a more noble civilization because of the ground crew which made possible the jet flight to the clear skies of brotherhood."
We should all be appreciative that Mr. Lawrence Curry was a steadfast and dedicated member of the ground crew, and we are all beneficiaries of his efforts.
In 1956 he was assaulted for refusing to give up his seat on a bus. He was a tireless advocate for workplace justice by pushing for an end to discriminatory treatment and retaliatory practices in his place of employment, the US Postal Service, including desegregating restrooms. Remembering the voter suppression and intimidation he had witnessed in his youth he became a lifelong advocate for voter rights and participation.
In 1968 he became the city's first black constable. Not only was he present in Birmingham as Bull Connor used dogs, fire hoses and intimidation to compel local blacks to capitulate, but he was also a participant in a long ago forgotten chapter of Chattanooga history, the Freedom Walk. As recounted in Mary Stanton's account, Freedom Walk: Mississippi or Bust, this was a march for peace and justice that was nearly derailed by the death of Bill Moore and the resolve to complete it by Sam Shirah, Jr., civil rights groups and Lawrence Curry, who drove the Freedom Canteen.
Stanton notes that in the wake of Moore's passing, " Finally at 8:30 a.m., with all public prayers, speeches and announcements completed, the Freedom Walkers began marching up Market Street, across Eleventh to Broad Street, and south on Highway 11 to Lookout Mountain. It was oppressively hot. Chattanooga was experiencing a humid spring. The men carried backpacks and canteens, and perspiration dripped from every neck. Lawrence Curry followed in a big white NAACP freedom canteen, filled with sandwiches, coffee, soft drinks and bandages. The local NAACP field secretary, Vernon Jordan, waved them on and wished them luck."
Later that year, Mr. Curry would give a testimony on his experiences before the 54th Annual NAACP Convention. In 2012, Rep. JoAnne Favors would sponsor HR 229 in order to "honor and commend Lawrence Curry for his courageous struggle to end segregation in Tennessee."
Dr. King was right. It is often the little known citizen advocates that help us to lean to the better angels of our nature and bring about meaningful change. We then say to Mr. Lawrence Curry, thank you for your courage, conviction and dedication. You have made our community a far more virtuous and tolerable place. You were a very essential and indispensable member of the ground crew.