Shared from the 2/11/2018 The Virginian-Pilot eEdition

REVIEW “FEARLESS”

An illuminating look at a Norfolk civil rights pioneer

A poor black seamstress took down Virginia’s poll tax under Jim Crow. Her daughter’s book brings her legacy to life.

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Today, some people know Evelyn Butts only by her name in lights on the buses of Hampton Roads Transit.

about the book

“FEARLESS: How a Poor Virginia Seamstress Took on Jim Crow, Beat the Poll Tax and Changed Her City Forever”

Charlene Butts Ligon

Smallwood Charlotte Press. 270 pp. $28.99.

book talk and signing

Charlene Butts Ligon will discuss “Fearless: How a Poor Virginia Seamstress Took on Jim Crow, Beat the Poll Tax and Changed Her City Forever” at 3 p.m. Saturday at Prince Books, 109 E. Main St., Norfolk. 757-622-9223.

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COURTESY OF CHARLENE BUTTS LIGON

In 1963, Evelyn Butts sued to overturn the poll tax on the grounds that it violated the 14th Amendment. In 1966, the Supreme Court voted 6-3 in her favor . Joseph A. Jordan, here with Butts in 1971, was the attorney.

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COURTESY OF CHARLENE BUTTS LIGON

Charlene Butts Ligon, daughter of Evelyn Butts, chronicles the arc of her mother’s life – and her own – as the civil rights era takes hold in Norfolk.

It is seductive – especially now – to think of history as the result solely of powerful agencies or politicians: armies and presidents, nature and nurture. History as what the malign and virtuous do to us.

That’s wrong, of course.

So is indulging the human bent toward hagiography, which renders history entirely as the product of one person’s principles: a German monk, an Indian lawyer, an Atlanta minister, a seamstress from Montgomery.

The truth is it takes both: A crowd to move a nation, and a leader to provide the impulse.

In Hampton Roads, the movement toward justice has had many mothers and fathers – too many forgotten – impelled by the inequities built into the American system. A new book makes the case for a leader some know now only by her name in lights on the buses of Hampton Roads Transit.

Evelyn Thomas Butts, a Norfolk seamstress, successfully challenged Virginia’s poll tax, in a suit decided at the U.S. Supreme Court. Along with others, her suit made it possible for blacks and the poor to cast a ballot in the commonwealth.

She registered thousands of new voters and organized them into powerful voting blocs. She lived a life rich in activism and engagement: in her civic league, in local and national politics, in low-income housing, in the city’s slowly integrating and evolving schools.

She is the subject of the intimate and illuminating biography “Fearless,” self-published by her daughter, Charlene Butts Ligon, a retired Air Force master sergeant who now lives in Nebraska. With the help of journalist Kietryn Zychal , Ligon chronicles the arc of her mother’s life – and her own – as the civil rights era takes hold in Norfolk.

We get a child’s perspective on school desegregation, and the oligarchy of a racist Virginia Democratic Party built by Harry F. Byrd. Ligon vividly narrates the prosaic and systemic racism of Norfolk in the 1950s and later, from the fight over the color barrier in the Coronado neighborhood, which included a bombing, to the broken-down buses blacks were forced to ride to school.

This is a book that tells us what kind of dress Butts, a mother of three, sewed for her Sweet 16 party: “pink brocade, with a daring scooped back featuring a ‘V’ that went down to the waist. She probably stayed up all night to sew that dress.”

Ligon’s book also provides intimate detail about the actors and agendas that drove Norfolk’s politics for the second half of the 20th century. For anyone interested in the history of local power, the book is indispensable.

Butts’ life in politics grew from frustration with conditions in her neighborhood and in the schools, especially in the years after Brown vs. Board of Education was decided in 1954.

She is best remembered for the fight over the poll tax, a Southern innovation designed specifically to exclude blacks and poor folks from the political process. In 1963, on the grounds that it violated the 14th Amendment, Butts sued the governor of Virginia to overturn it. Joseph A. Jordan was the attorney. In an accident of history, activist and crusading lawyer joined forces.

“Mr. Jordan, now a solo practitioner, decided to sue to abolish state poll taxes in Virginia,” Ligon writes. “He had picked a plaintiff, an elderly friend of his father named Timberlake, who earned his living making deliveries with a horse and wagon. When Mr. Timber-lake became ill, my mother stepped into history.”

That suit was eventually combined with others, and was settled in favor of the plaintiffs – and all voters – by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966. It marked the most public of Butts’ many battles for equal and equitable representation.

“One of my fondest memories of high school dates to March 1966,” Ligon writes. “My mother’s picture was on the front page of The Virginian-Pilot when she and Mr. Jordan won the poll tax case in the United States Supreme Court. I took the newspaper to school and showed it to my eleventh-grade government teacher. He was very impressed. I did not show it to my white classmates. We weren’t that close. I didn’t think they cared.”

It’s probably impossible to write dispassionately about a parent, and Ligon doesn’t really try. Her mother’s achievements nevertheless get a proper and detailed context: Butts, after all, helped transform how we vote and the notion of who deserves that right.

As a writer and activist, Ligon is on surest footing as she describes the political education she received from her mother: “The first lesson to take from the life of Evelyn Butts is that you cannot do anything alone.”

Butts’ registration drives after the Supreme Court victory brought thousands of African Americans to the political process. She helped found Concerned Citizens for Political Education, one of the most influential political forces in Norfolk at the time. Those efforts in 1968 helped Jordan become Norfolk’s first African American city councilman in the 20th century; William Robinson might never have made it to the House of Delegates without the organization’s help.

Butts died in 1993, not two months shy of her 69th birthday. She had retreated from local politics, her legacy complicated by infighting among her former allies, what her daughter calls “disappointments and betrayals.”

As The Pilot’s Earl Swift – who long covered Norfolk politics – wrote after her death, that’s not the memorial Butts deserves. “When I heard that she died Thursday, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated. This was someone who should have finished life celebrated, rather than forgotten.”

Her name remains familiar, 25 years later, to anybody who sees an HRT bus heading to the downtown Norfolk transfer station on the street named for her.

That’s not the memorial she deserves, either.

Butts was, without real question, a kingmaker in Norfolk politics right up until the moment she ran for City Council herself in the 1980s. She lost three times, and her political fortunes faded. After a public life dedicated to the disenfranchised, she found herself in the local political wilderness, her style overtaken by new activists and more forceful methods.

The self-published biography could use a sharper editing pen. There are moments when details overwhelm, when names pile too high, when basic chronology is circumvented.

Despite such flaws, “Fearless” remains a remarkably compelling history of a pivotal period in American life. In Norfolk’s life.

“History better be kind to this woman,” Swift wrote after her death. “Evelyn Butts was important.”

Ligon’s biography of her mother is unquestionably kind. It’s also important.

Donald Luzzatto is the vice president for civic engagement at the Hampton Roads Community

Foundation and the former editor of The Pilot’s editorial page.

See this article in the e-Edition Here