Black History Month: Richard Coleman reflects on legacy in Meridian
MERIDIAN, Miss. (WTOK) - When people think about Black History Month, they often think about civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and W.E.B. DuBois. But what about our local historic figures?
Richard Coleman was born and raised in Meridian. Coleman said he experienced racial discrimination growing up but never understood why blacks were treated differently. He even recalls a time in 1955 when he got a part-time job after school at a 5 and 10 store in downtown Meridian.
“So, when I started working there I would go just in the bathroom. You know, the one that said white or drink out of the water fountain. So the manager called me into the office because he’s always said I was a good worker. Do you know what I mean? And I said, well, I was taught to work. Well, but I got some complaints against you, I’m going to have to let you go. And the complaint was that I’m that colored boy that’s drinking out of the water and y’all got him working here,” said Coleman.
Coleman was drafted into the army reserves at age 19 where he said he once again witnessed discrimination, leading Coleman to file discrimination charges. Coleman said in 1970, a change for the better happened.
“The Department of Defense finally realized that there was a racial problem in the military and they made it mandatory for every civilian and military-connected with the Department of Defense any kind of way would receive 18 hours of race-related education,” said Coleman.
Coleman later became more involved in civil rights and joined the NAACP in 1967. Coleman said he always stood up for what is right and saw a need for his community, leading him to run for ward 2 city councilman in the 1990′s. Coleman was one of the first black city councilmen. He held the position for nearly two terms. He focused on what he calls “basic services” which included cleaning up the city, street paving, and police and fire protection in the areas where the needs were greater.
“I was the first city council person in the city of Lauderdale County to have what they call community ward meetings. I started that. That was a promise I told them, that I would keep you informed and let you have input. Because I’m only as strong as you are. Your voice gets you on the agenda.”
But he said the job wasn’t always easy.
“Oh, I had death threats, name-calling, and all of that. Really, they wanted me to run again but my wife, she was afraid I was going to get killed, my mom. So I resigned about 10 months before my term was up,” said Coleman.
That didn’t stop Coleman from continuing to fight injustices in his hometown. Coleman was also part of a 1965 desegregation case against what was then called the Meridian Separate School District. To this day Coleman visits schools to talk to students. He said he wants to see young people realize we still have work to do and to be involved in fighting for equality in all areas of life.
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