By Wiley Henry
MEMPHIS, TN — If Forest and Lillie Montgomery were alive today, they would encourage the people they love and those in their community of New Chicago to register to vote.
“If you lived in the house with my parents, at 18 you registered to vote. My parents were strong proponents of voting,”
said Nova Felton, one of seven Montgomery children. An eighth child died from crib death.
Mr. Montgomery was born in 1901, in Macon, MS., and only had a sixth-grade education. He died in 1986. He would be 119 this year.
“He was well-read,” Felton said. “He read the newspapers and the Bible every day.”
Mrs. Montgomery was born in 1919, in Racetrack, Miss. She made it to eighth grade. If she hadn’t died in 2006, she would be 101 this year.
The Montgomerys left behind a legacy that Felton and her siblings treasure. In fact, she has a trove of artifacts and documents that brings to life the meaning of advocacy and activism.
They were sent to Felton via mail by her sister, Geraldine Montgomery, after the death of their mother. She lives in Chicago and marked the contents in an envelope “Please Handle With Care.”
Rifling through the contents recently took Felton down memory lane. She was astonished to see a minted poll tax receipt that belonged to her father, his war rations book when he served in the army in World War II, and his voter registration certificate dated Aug. 11, 1947.
Mr. Montgomery was 46 years old that year. He was labeled as “colored” on the certificate and considered a legal voter in Memphis – nearly 20 years before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“He was a strong Democrat,” said Felton, a retired public affairs officer for the Internal Revenue Service, who has lived in St. Louis since leaving her hometown of Memphis in 1966.
Voting during her parents’ era likely was mired in problems, much as it is today. But that didn’t stop them. They pursued the vote. Mr. Montgomery put his vote into action and supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“He talked about President Roosevelt all the time. He thought Roosevelt really helped Black folks get better jobs and decent places to live,” said Felton, citing The Works Program Administration, Roosevelt’s New Deal to put Americans back to work.
Felton said her father also was a supporter of Adlai Stevenson. He was the former Democratic governor of Illinois who challenged Dwight D. Eisenhower, the GOP pick from Pennsylvania, in both the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections.
She said her mother was just as adamant about voting and participating in the political process as her father. “My mother would have us campaigning,” she said. “When I was 16, I passed out leaflets. My family was engaged in politics because of my mother.”
The Montgomerys were members of the 40th Ward New Chicago Civic Club. They endorsed candidates, held political rallies, voting registration drives, and held their meetings at the Firestone Union Hall, which was later renamed the Matthew R. Davis Resource Center after the Club’s longtime president.
They also belonged to a group called The Willing Workers Club, which Mrs. Montgomery helped to organize. Civic-minded and politically active, they worked for the betterment of their community.
Mrs. Montgomery took activism to another level in the community. Geraldine Montgomery was an eyewitness and touted their mother’s community service in a letter she wrote about her in September 2005.
“You have left your children and friends something that cannot be bought, sold, traded, taken or stolen,” the letter began. “What you and our father have given to us, many people wish they could have.”
What was noticeable in the letter was Mrs. Montgomery’s attendance at Historic Mason Temple, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “Mountaintop” speech. She and a friend, Mary Ella Sawyer, representing The Willing Workers Club, also attended Dr. King’s funeral in Atlanta.
The letter is laden with a lifetime of Mrs. Montgomery’s work in the community. For example, she immersed herself in the affairs of the NAACP, marched for the right to vote, and registered many people.
Mrs. Montgomery didn’t stop there. She served as an AARP Poll Watcher in the 2000 presidential election. She also traveled with two carloads of people to Washington D.C. to observe a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case involved the removal of a barrier in the street between Jackson and Chelsea. That area was all white, and white people, she wrote, did not want Blacks to crossover or drive through.
Mrs. Montgomery had achieved quite a lot in her lifetime and earned the respect of the political establishment. Her awards and citations are highlighted in the letter, including receiving special congressional recognition, an award from the Memphis City Council, an NAACP Voter Registration Campaign Award, a Resolution from County Councilwoman Hazel M. Erby of St. Louis, and several others.
She also led souls to Christ and, along with her husband, fed the hungry, Geraldine pointed out in the letter.