Victoria Gray Adams; '60s Civil Rights Advocate

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 9, 2006

Victoria Jackson Gray Adams, 79, who challenged the political system in Mississippi to give blacks the right to vote and became the first woman to run for the U.S. Senate from her state, died Aug. 12 of lung cancer at her son's home in Baltimore.

She knew in 1964 that she had little chance of unseating the 16-year Democratic incumbent, Sen. John C. Stennis. But she ran anyway, challenging the system of segregationist politics. "The point was to exercise her right as a citizen," said her son, the Rev. Cecil Conteen Gray of Baltimore. She also wanted to galvanize other blacks in Mississippi and incite them to participate in the political process.

After losing the election, Mrs. Gray Adams and the party she helped found, the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, launched a historic challenge of the all-white official Mississippi state delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. Mrs. Gray Adams and two other party leaders, Fannie Lou Hamer and Annie Devine, demanded to be seated as delegates.

"We went to Atlantic City with lots of optimism, because at this point we were still idealistic enough to believe that the constitutional rights were all there to be ours as soon as we met the requirements," Mrs. Gray Adams said in the book "Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement From the 1950s Through the 1980s" (1990).

"So we documented, in all the ways possible, the fact that black people in particular in Mississippi were being denied the right to participate, were being denied the right to representation. You know the old story: taxation without representation."

Before the credentials committee, Hamer made an impassioned speech, which was televised and captivated the country's attention. But that attempt failed. The all-white Mississippi delegation walked out.

Four years later, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenged the Southern politicians again at the Democratic convention. The party won in 1968, seating an integrated delegation and changing the country's politics.

In 1968, the three leaders were the first African American women to be seated as guests on the floor of the U.S. Senate. "We accomplished the removal of the wall, the curtain of fear in Mississippi for African Americans demanding their rights," Mrs. Gray Adams said in 2004.

She was born Victoria Almeter Jackson on Nov. 5, 1926, in Palmers Crossing, near Hattiesburg, Miss. A voracious reader, she attended Wilberforce University in Ohio until her money ran out. She taught public school in rural Mississippi in the 1940s before marrying and living in Germany for several years.

While she and her first husband were stationed at Fort Meade, she began selling cosmetics with the black-owned Beauty Queen Co. Later, she returned to Hattiesburg as an independent businesswoman.

As the Freedom Movement, as she called it, came to her area, she began attending citizenship school led by civil rights activist Septima Clark. Soon, she was teaching literacy and voter registration classes to sharecroppers and domestics, some of whom had never written their names.

In 1962, Mrs. Gray Adams became field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and she helped lead a boycott against Hattiesburg businesses.

Known as a fearless strategist, she also became an associate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s and a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Mrs. Gray Adams, who later described herself as "a spiritual, social activist," lived in Petersburg, Va., for 30 years and a was campus minister at Virginia State University in Petersburg. She was a longtime lay leader in the United Methodist Church.

She taught and lectured at numerous colleges and universities and organizations.

Mrs. Gray Adams is featured in numerous civil rights books, documentaries and films, including the Academy Award nominated "Freedom on My Mind" and "Standing on My Sisters' Shoulders".

Her marriage to Tony West Gray Sr. ended in divorce. A son from that marriage, Tony West Gray Jr., died in 1997.

Survivors include her husband of 40 years, Reuben E. Adams Jr. of Petersburg; two children from her first marriage, Georgie Roswitha Gray Dunn Henderson of Hattiesburg and son Gray, of Baltimore; and a son from her second marriage, Reuben Ernest Adams III of Woodbridge; a brother; and eight grandchildren.

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