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Praises for FEARLESS
“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 ….. I did not show it to my white classmates. We weren’t that close. I didn’t think they cared.”
CHARLENE BUTTS LIGON, author of “Fearless”
BOOK REVIEW | “FEARLESS”
A close, illuminating look at Evelyn Butts, civil rights pioneer
A poor seamstress took down Virginia’s poll tax under Jim Crow. Her daughter’s book brings her legacy to life.
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.
Her mother’s daughter: Charlene Butts Ligon carries on civil rights legacy of her late mother Evelyn Thomas Butts
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in February 2018 issue of the New Horizons
Chances are, you’ve never heard of the late Evelyn T. Butts. But you should know this grassroots warrior who made a difference at the height of the civil rights movement in the Jim Crow American South.
A new book, Fearless: How a poor Virginia seamstress took on Jim Crow, beat the poll tax and changed her city forever, written by her youngest daughter, Charlene Butts Ligon of Bellevue, Neb. preserves the legacy of this champion for the underserved and underrepresented.
Defying odds to become civil rights champion
Evelyn (Thomas) Butts grew up with few advantages in Depression Era Virginia. She lost her mother at 10. She didn’t finish high school. Her husband Charlie Butts came home from World War II one hundred percent disabled. To support their three daughters, Butts, a skilled seamstress, took in day work. She made most of her girls’ clothes.
“The book looks at how political and personal karma took its toll in the end on those who erected barriers to Butts.
For residents and visitors to Norfolk, the only reference to her life are the lighted signs on several Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) buses, destined for the Evelyn T. Butts Avenue transfer station off Little Creek Road. It is near Oakwood, and the street where the Butts’ family home once sat and was the base of operation for her during her career.
Once you read this thoughtful and information-filled book on her life, you will be grateful for her daughter’s dedication to share not only her mother’s legacy, but also, the love she devoted to her research in each sentence, page and chapter. I know I was!”
By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter, New Journal and Guide
“FEARLESS ought to be required reading for every high school student in Virginia. It is the inside story of the struggle for basic American rights, told from the perspective of those who lived through the oppression and fought for change. Any discussion of the impact of the poll tax or civil rights in Virginia, would be incomplete without an understanding of the life and accomplishments of Evelyn Butts.”
—Chuck Robb, former Virginia governor and former US senator
Norfolk Mayor Kenneth Cooper Alexander, in his foreword for the book, said of Evelyn Butts, “What she accomplished as a voting rights champion truly spans the generations and deserves our continued recognition.”
—Kenneth Cooper Alexander, Mayor, Norfolk, Virginia”
“Charlene Ligon inspires the reader to look for “Evelyn T. Butts” in the dictionary under FEARLESS. Too often the story of women especially black women is untold or under reported in the civil and human rights success movement. FEARLESS captures the essence of brilliance and sacrifice of Mrs. Butts and her drive to make the world better for her family, her community, her nation. I appreciate how Ligon does not shy away from recognizing men like Jordan, Dawley, and Holt who valued Mrs. Butts as a peer and a leader while refusing to hide the chauvinism and sexism that too often hindered progress. Another volume on Evelyn Butts & The Women of Virginia’s 3rd Force is in order. Read FEARLESS and have your faith restored in the power of one to make a positive difference for millions. No Evelyn Butts; no Governor Doug Wilder; no President Barack Obama!”
—Rodney A. Jordan, Chair, Norfolk School Board
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Charlene Butts Ligon
Charlene Butts Ligon is the daughter of Evelyn Butts. She is a retired Air Force master sergeant and lives in Bellevue, Nebraska with her husband Robert. In 2017, she started her own publishing company Smallwood Charlotte Press. She is an entrepreneur, publisher and author. She is the Chair of the Sarpy County Democratic Party and Secretary of the Nebraska Democratic Party.
Evelyn Thomas Butts stood in the plaza outside the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on a cold and windy day in January 1966, waiting for an Associated Press photographer to take her picture. With the wind chill, the temperature felt like fifteen degrees. She was wearing a black coat she had made herself. Every garment she wore that day was put together on the sewing machine she kept on the enclosed front porch of her two-bedroom house in Norfolk, Virginia.
She had one black dress for formal occasions. She wore a hat given to her by her sister Estelle, whom her family called Bunky—a soft faille hat with a band around it, both stylish and effective against the cold. Every woman in her family had borrowed the hat at one time or another, and she wore it in Washington as a good luck charm.
Most days, Mrs. Butts could be described as a seamstress, an African-American woman approaching middle age, a mother of three daughters, and the wife of a 100-percent disabled World War II veteran. But on this day, she was the plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Virginia, arguing that its poll tax discriminated against poor persons like herself. That’s why the Associated Press wanted her picture.
The photographer positioned her off the building’s right-front corner and crouched low as he tripped the shutter. In the resulting photo, the Court’s columns loom high behind her. Mrs. Butts is not looking into the camera, but gazing off into the distance, as though she has somewhere to go. She is not smiling. It’s a pose one might expect of a corporate CEO. She looks powerful.
And she was. I know this because Evelyn T. Butts was my mother. My two older sisters and I had front-row seats to many of the moments that led up to this photo. At the time it was shot in 1966, we were all grown and ready to start our own lives. In a sense, this photo, and her victory in the high court case that had brought her to Washington amounted to something like her society debut. From that point on, my mother was an important political figure in Norfolk and remained so until the last years of her life.