Ruby HurleyAug 15th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Activism
1909-1980 Ruby Hurley devoted more than four decades to the struggle for racial justice. She spent most of that time working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in important administrative positions, while also contributing as an investigator in racially motivated crimes, and was affiliated with many of the most salient events and notable figures of the time.
Child of Jim Crow
While little is known about Hurley’s early life and career, they occurred at the time of a crucial junction in the development of the modern civil rights era. She was born in Virginia in 1909, during the period of so-called Jim Crow laws. These were attempts to impose segregated (and typically inferior) conditions and facilities on African American citizens, following the Reconstruction Period after the Civil War and its efforts to bring civil rights and liberties to Blacks. During the period leading up to Hurley’s birth, beginning in 1890 and lasting until 1910, the formerly Confederate States all passed new state constitutions or amendments that had the effect of disenfranchising their black citizens through a variety of measures that interfered with their ability to vote.
Virginia itself, home to the Capital of the Confederate States of America for most of the Civil War’s duration, almost certainly imposed discrimination, hostility, and diminished opportunity on Hurley during her childhood and early development. But the ensuing civil rights struggle, which to a large extent emerged in parallel with her adulthood, would also have been a powerful influence.
Her first recorded involvement with that struggle was in 1939. In that year, the celebrated African American singer Marian Anderson, who had become an important figure in the fight against prejudice, was scheduled to perform before an integrated audience at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. But the Daughters of the American Revolution refused permission for the concert in their hall. Hurley served on a committee that was formed to find a way for Anderson to perform. President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt personally involved themselves in the controversy, and helped arrange for Anderson to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a live audience of over 75,000 and a radio audience estimated in the millions, creating international visibility for the nascent Civil Rights Movement.
Hurley and the NAACP
Also lending context to Hurley’s early life was the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, with which she would spend most of her career. The NAACP, founded in 1909 by a group of leading black and white social reformers, would become the leading national organization in the civil rights struggle, focused on using legal means to combat Jim Crow legislation and racial crimes against Blacks. By the 1940s, it had become a significant force in civil lawsuits, lobbying, and even U.S. Supreme Court decisions bearing on racial equality, as formalized by the creation of its Legal Defense Fund in 1940.
At the time of the Marian Anderson controversy, NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White was part of the group working with President Roosevelt and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes to stage her performance at the Lincoln Memorial. White almost certainly came into contact with Hurley at that time. In addition to his other responsibilities, White was very active in investigating lynchings, riots, and other race-based violence on behalf of the NAACP. In 1943, recognizing Hurley’s abilities, he appointed her Youth Secretary of the organization. During her tenure, the Youth Chapters grew from 86 to over 250, with a total membership estimated at 25,000.
White tapped Hurley again in 1950, this time with a temporary assignment coordinating membership campaigns in five southern states for the NAACP. By this time she was living in New York, and relocated to Birmingham, Alabama, where she opened the first permanent NAACP office in the deep south. She was so successful in this effort that by the following year, the district was formalized as the organization’s Southeast Region, with Hurley in the position of Regional Secretary.
Hurley’s work in the Southeast Region brought her together with many leading activists of the time. Among them, in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, was Medgar Evers, an NAACP hero who was martyred in 1963. Evers, then Field Secretary in the Mississippi State Office, and Hurley jointly investigated the murder of NAACP Mississippi activist Reverend George Lee in 1955. Also that year, they joined in the investigation of the most notorious murder of the era, that of Emmet Till. A 14-year-old boy from Chicago, Till was killed in the small town of Money, Mississippi, after reportedly whistling at a white woman. The murder and ensuing trial are widely credited as launching the modern Civil Rights Movement, as the acquittal of the suspects (who later confessed) was a blatantly racist miscarriage of justice that attracted international attention.
Hurley also worked on the case of Autherine Lucy, who in 1956 became the first black student to attend the segregated University of Alabama. She was actively involved at the national level with the likes of Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins and Legal Defense Fund head Thurgood Marshall, who would go on to become the first black U.S. Supreme Court Justice. In the 1960s, she was often featured on both local and national television in connection with her efforts.
At the time of Hurley’s achievements, the NAACP and the Civil Rights Movement were still largely dominated by men. Her accomplishments as a woman of color in this context are even more significant, and she is viewed as a pioneer of black feminist activism. Hurley died in 1980 at the age of 70. Among many honors and recognitions received, she was commemorated with citations from Wilberforce University, the Friends of the National Council of Negro women, and St. Mark’s Methodist Church.