by John Liquori
“The Long Civil Rights Movement” is a period that Historians have been writing about only recently. When asked about the Civil Rights Movement, most people think of milestones that happened mainly in the South beginning in 1954 with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that made segregated schools unconstitutional. Historians now debunk that historical stereotype and have moved toward arguing that the LCRM happened all across the United States and had roots far before 1954. In fact, Historians have now agreed that the LCRM was made of local struggles that happened at different times which makes giving the movement a begin date and place almost impossible.
Elmira, NY was no exception and had its own Civil Rights legacy. On Thursday, February 21, I will tell the stories of local Blacks who lived the struggle for racial equality. One of these stories is of Mr. Roland Coleman. Mr. Coleman was a sailor in the United States Navy during and after WWII. His military service was unique and extraordinary because he was part of the integration plan that President Harry Truman implemented in 1948. One experience he remembers vividly during the integration in the military was going to see a movie with his division. Seating was segregated, with the black seating roped off from the where the whites sat. Against seating rules, Mr. Coleman decided to sit in the middle of the white section. His decision drew an awkward response as he felt unwelcome by the whites and was viewed as a traitor by the blacks.
Mr. Coleman’s story is one of many that will be told for the first time in the discussion on the history of Elmira. My presentation will begin the conversation on Civil Rights history in Elmira. For the first time, the struggle for racial equality will be a part of the discussion on local history. The struggle was difficult and racism was deeply engrained in Elmira. I will use stories, testimonies, and other primary sources from the locals who lived the struggle to paint a picture of Elmira that has never before been seen—a history that should not be ignored. The stories and the narration of the Civil Rights era are ones that defined a generation of struggle, sacrifice, and an extraordinary movement that changed Elmira, the United States, and the entire world.