The Assassinated & Forgotten Civil Rights Leader Who Paved the Way for MLK

There are so many influential Black characters that we are unaware of. Today while scrolling through Facebook I came across a quick informative video by Timeline News. Their videos feature Black activists whose stories are never written in the history books, they are our forgotten heroes. Overtime I come across a new name of a Black activist whose done outstanding work for the civil rights movement, I always wonder why the strides of African Americans aren’t well known. Now I realize that the accomplishments of the civil rights movement aren’t generally seen as a valuable part of Western culture. A study done by the Pew Research Center showed the difference between Blacks and whites in ranking the most significant events in United States History. Overall Blacks rated the Civil Rights movement as the third most important event after Obama’s election and 9/11, while the civil rights movement didn’t even rank on the list for whites.

With this knowledge it’s no surprise that Black history is confined to one chapter of most grade school textbooks which are written by majority white authors and approved by majority white school boards. Due to the fact that we live in a majority white society that sees little to no value in learning our history, although it is most certainly a significant part of American history as a whole, we must go the extra mile in discovering the stories of our past on our own. The task is challenging but it is greatly rewarding as only a handful of characters have been selected for us to study in relation to civil rights, like Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, I’d argue that these characters were chosen because they’re the least threatening and controversial. I discussed in an earlier article in the Black History Series the story behind why Parks was chosen as the face for the movement and it had nothing to do with the fact that she was the strongest, bravest or even the first protester of her kind. She was chosen over Claudette Colvin (who protested giving up her seat 9 months before Park) because of her older age and her calm look, while King is hailed for his stance on non-violence. More than a century before Martin Luther King, there was a civil rights leader whose name is hardly recognized in comparison, Octavius Catto.

Octavius Catto was born free in the deep south, February 22, 1839. His mother was born free while his father was born a slave and later gained his freedom. He and his family later settled in Philadelphia where he enrolled in the Institute for Colored youth and graduated as the valedictorian of his class. He worked alongside Frederick Douglass to develop a Recruitment Committee which focused on the recruit newly freed Black men into the Civil War. February 13th and 14th’s Black History Month Series Articles went into more detail about Douglass’ part in the Civil War and his stance on Black men enlisting as soldiers, “let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.” Both Catto and Douglass formed the Union League which was composed of men who promoted loyalty to the Union and the Republican Party. Catto’s part in organizing Black men allowed them to have a stronger political voice. In relation to the Civil War, he also helped raise eleven regiments of the United States Colored Troops and was commissioned as major. Although he did not fight in the war, many of his regiments were drafted into the front lines.

After the war’s end Catto focused more on community organizing. He spent a potion of his time working to desegregate sports during the Jim Crow era. Catto helped to form the Philadelphia Pythians (Pythian Baseball Club) in 1867. This was the first Black baseball club due to the fact that the National Association of Base Ball Players had a restrictive policy on race which banned, “the admission of any club which may be composed of one or more colored persons”. Yesterday’s article focused on the desegregation of sports and Black athletes who rose to the top of their field despite the limitation of Jim Crow Laws. Restrictive policies like that of the NABBP set a precedent for segregated major leagues to continue throughout the twentieth century. This made it very difficult for Blacks to participate in sports, yesterday we saw how segregation restricted athletes like heavyweight champion Jack Johnson from getting fights with white boxers and Olympic Gold track runner Alice Coachman from riding the bus to organized sporting events. It wasn’t until 1871 that the NABBP dissolved their race based policy.

Formal team portrait of the 1906 Philadelphia Giants of the Negro Leagues.

In addition to desegregating sports, like Claudette Colvin, Catto also proceeded Rosa Parks in desegregating public transportation, challenging the ban of Blacks on Philadelphia street cars. Catto spent the night in a street car in protest and organized others to do the same, by 1867 street cars were desegregated. After winning rights for Blacks in public transportation Catto focused his community organizing efforts on voting rights. When the 15th amendment was ratified in 1870, Catto convinced many Black men to register to vote. Democrats terrorized Black men in order to suppress their vote as they traditionally voted Republican at the time. Because of Catto’s leading Black men to the polls became a target of threats and on election day 1871 he was shot 3 times on his way to the polls and died as a result. Catto’s killer was acquitted of murder and his stories of resistance, civil disobedience and civil rights activism were forgotten along with it. Catto’s grave memorial standing in Passyunk, Philadelphia, pays tribute to this fact.

We must recognize the fact that Catto’s early demonstrations of civil disobedience paved the way for the civil rights movement that occurred a century later. Although MLK’s leadership in the Civil Rights movement is valued due to it’s popularization we cannot forget those names who came before his. As apart of Black history month, we should pay tribute to our forgotten hero, Octavius Catto on his birthday February 22. We must remember that there have been leaders making strides for our community since the day we arrived to this country and we must not allow the fact that they aren’t included in the history books or circulated in the media keep us from learning about their work and praising their accomplishments.

To our forgotten heroes, we are searching for your stories, you are no longer forgotten

See the video by Timeline News here.

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