When his wife gave birth to the last of their five children in 1977, James Featherstone asked her whether they could name the boy Ralph. James had a younger brother named Ralph, who had been killed by a car bomb in Bel Air, Md., in 1970 while working with H. Rap Brown and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
This would be the Featherstones' way of memorializing a family freedom fighter.
Today at age 22, Ralph has become something of a freedom fighter in his own right, and his namesake would no doubt be surprised at the course of his young life.
In 1995, Ralph graduated from Banneker Senior High in Washington, having scored an impressive 1,200 on the Scholastic Assessment Test. He had won scholarships to Florida A&M and Morehouse, two of the most prestigious historically black universities in the country. Anyone familiar with the older Ralph Featherstone knows he would have approved of either.
Featherstone, or "Feather," as he was known at SNCC, was very pro-black. A graduate of D.C. Teachers College who worked as a speech therapist in D.C. public schools, he was in his early twenties when he left Washington to join the modern civil rights movement in the South. In Mississippi, he helped blacks set up their own catfish farms and assisted in establishing 41 "freedom schools" for black children. He participated in numerous sit-ins and freedom rides, and he constantly criticized the U.S government for "waging unjust wars against Third World countries as well as against Afro Americans here at home."
How would he have felt, then, when young Ralph turned down two fine black schools and chose instead to attend the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis?
Perhaps such a question is unfair. But members of the Featherstone family have certainly given the matter considerable thought. And they say their only regret is that Feather was not alive to see Ralph graduate from the academy last week and receive his commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps. Coincidentally, the graduation ceremony was held on May 26 -- Ralph Featherstone's birthday. He would have been 59.
On March 9, 1970, while Brown, SNCC's national chairman, was awaiting trial on charges of arson and inciting a riot in Cambridge, Md., a car Featherstone, then 30, was driving exploded. He and another SNCC member, William Herman Payne, were killed. Police speculated that Featherstone and Payne were transporting dynamite to blow up the courthouse where Brown was to be tried, but civil rights activists believed someone planted the bomb in an attempt to kill Brown.
No arrests were made, and the highly charged atmosphere of bombings and black militancy has all but faded from memory.
"I think my brother would have been extremely proud of his nephew," James Featherstone said yesterday. "I think he would have tried to explain life's inequities to Ralph without discouraging him, as I have tried. But we all know that the world changes, although not overnight."
And yet, it is hard to imagine two worlds more different than the ones seen though the eyes of the two Ralph Featherstones over the course of a single generation.
In June 1966, Ralph Edward Featherstone was in Philadelphia, Miss., attending an anniversary memorial service for three slain civil rights workers, when a group of black and white civil rights activists were attacked by white segregationists. Featherstone, then a field secretary for SNCC, called the FBI office in Jackson and reported: "We are armed and returning fire. You can do what you want about it."
Featherstone was seen by some as anti-white, and his remarks were often interpreted as preaching hate. But that was not how he saw it.
In a 1964 interview, he was quoted as saying: "When people start talking this trash about hating all white people, I say, `Hold on a minute. White people have been with us for a long time, and many have been willing to give their lives for our cause.' All I'm trying to do is teach black people to look the white man in the eye and not be afraid to try to change the political and economic structure. To do this you sometimes have to say things that wake people up, maybe even make 'em a little mad."
At the Naval Academy, Ralph Leo Featherstone would prove to be very much like his uncle in some interesting ways: Both had the same penmanship, James Featherstone says, and both were quick to speak their minds. Neither would back down from a challenge, and both would look you squarely in the eye.
Young Ralph distinguished himself both academically and as an athlete. He played field hockey, of all sports, in part to help break down stereotypes that some white cadets held about blacks.
His plans for a military career will involve specialization in logistics or intelligence, again, raising eyebrows. The day after his Naval Academy graduation, Ralph and several other Banneker alumni visited the high school to donate money toward a scholarship fund that would reward character and academic achievement.
"We don't want anybody to ever have to apologize for being smart," he said. As for his uncle's legacy, Lt. Featherstone said, "What better way to honor him and the others who sacrificed so much than to take full advantage of the opportunities that they helped to make available?"
CAPTION: Lt. Ralph Leo Featherstone, 22, recently graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.