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Mountain memories of the civil rights movement and Malcolm X

Selma Sparks Porch collage
Lilly Knoepp
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Selma Sparks had many jobs before retiring in Franklin including civil rights activist, model and journalist.

Western North Carolina resident Selma Sparks is a regular at Macon County rallies and NAACP meetings.

The 90-year-old retiree has been a lifelong civil rights activist and journalist. She worked in Harlem during the 1960s at prominent Black rights and left-wing papers - even interviewing Malcolm X in 1964.

Born in 1931 in Pennsylvania, she says she had a fortunate upbringing.

“I had parents who knew their history and taught me my history so, I grew up differently from most, said Sparks. “I grew up knowing and being proud of my African heritage.”

This upbringing set the stage for Sparks activism in adulthood. She spoke out about human rights at the Hotel Teresa in Harlem.

Now a national historic place, the Hotel Teresa was a hub of Black culture starting in the 1940s when it was desegregated.

“We were doing a lot of things outside of the Theresa hotel. This is where a lot of the public speaking took place. People gathered, and this was not [about] civil rights - I was speaking in favor of Fidel Castro. And as a result, we walked down to the United Nations where I also spoke about it,” said Sparks.

During this time period, Castro was seen by some activists as a voice for the people rising up against the military dictatorship of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista.

“I've never let anybody think that I was not pro-Fidel. He made some mistakes. And I say, 'what president have we ever had who didn't?," said Sparks.

In the 1960s, parts of the civil rights movement were looking internationally for allies against racism – this included Cuba and Africa as part of the Pan African movement. Sparks travelled to Cuba for her work but says she doesn’t identify as communist.

“No, I was never a member of any party. I know when I first started to vote, I was independent and then I finally became registered as a Democrat. But I would say I was just a Black woman who was speaking out,” said Sparks.

Liberation through the written word

Sparks also travelled to Ghana to the international nuclear disarmament “The World Without The Bomb” conference in 1962. At the time she was writing for Liberator Magazine.

“Ghana is magnificent. And they told me I was theirs. I was theirs. Wherever I've gone, it's been like, ‘Hey, I'm here as a guest.’ Of course, when I went to Ghana, no I'm home,” said Sparks.

Liberator magazine was a Black rights magazine published from 1961 to 1971. Sparks’ byline is listed on the advisory board alongside prominent people like author James Baldwin, actor Ossie Davis and others.

The Liberator magazines have been archived online. One cover features James Baldwin with one of Sparks’ stories titled “Dubinsky’s Plantation” about the poor labor practices in New York City’s Garment District. Sparks says she remembers working with Baldwin when she was trying to use an early computer.

“We met, you know, every now and then when he came in, he wasn't a big-time artist yet,” said Sparks.

Remembering Malcolm X

One of the most famous leaders of the civil rights era that Sparks interviewed was Malcolm X. At the time in 1964, she was writing for The Challenge, the communist newspaper and Malcolm X had just left the Nation of Islam.

When Sparks spoke with Malcolm, he had just founded the Organization for Afro-American Unity. This group was designed to bring together Black Americans outside of the Muslim faith.

Sparks says that she has been told she was the only woman journalist to interview Malcolm X.

“Malcolm X [told my publisher] that if they wanted an interview with him, I had to do it. And at that point I said, ‘How does he know anything about me? What does he know about me?’ I was kind of stunned and I didn't want to do it,” said Sparks.

Sparks said she was not pro-Malcolm at the time. But when she sat down with him, she was absorbed by their conversation.

"I forgot to turn on my recorder. And there were things that I should have asked him that - I just got so involved with listening to him that I didn't. But to me, this was a man who was, this was after his trip to Mecca. And this made it difference. And this changed him – and this made him – well I guess that’s why they had to kill him.”

In the interview, Sparks asked, “The civil rights struggle has been referred to as the 'Black Revolution' do you feel this is true and do you think the present leaders are revolutionary?”

Malcolm responded: “I have never heard of a non-violent revolution because power only yields in the face of power. We need leaders who are responsible to Black people and such leadership will not tell Black people to turn the other cheek but will allow the Afro-American to react as a human being. The Negro will never be equal until he can do to others what they do to him.”

Sparks said that after the interview was published a friend told her that Malcolm had liked the article.

“And that made me feel very good because like I said, I sat, and I listened to this man. This man who believed in freedom, who believed in mankind, who - I mean, even to this day, tears come to my eyes, just thinking about him. And I wrote the farewell to him, and I wrote it in in the Muslim newspaper because they asked me. They asked me and I did it because I felt very strongly about him,” said Sparks.

Malcolm was assassinated in 1965 in Harlem. The case was reopened in 2021 after researchers in the Netflix documentary series ‘Who Killed Malcolm X?” shared declassified FBI files. The two men originally convicted, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson, were exonerated in 2021. Johnson died in 2009.

Sparks still remembers the night she found out he had been killed at the Audubon Ballroom.

“I was supposed to be there. But my daughter carried on in such a way that I couldn't go to the meeting, and it came on the radio. My mother called me [in] and I just went to pieces. And she said, ‘I'm so glad you weren't there because I have a feeling that you might not have survived that one.’” Sparks recalled.

Growing older in the mountains: Selma Sparks
Special rural retirees Porch episode
Sparks_1.jpg

Working 9 to 5  

Sparks also worked with A. Phillip Randolph, who directed the 1963 March on Washington – famous for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “ Have A Dream” speech. But she didn’t go to the march after a friend expressed concern about potential arrests of demonstrators.

“Because knowing me, they realized that if a white cop put his hands on me, I was going to get killed because I was not going to tolerate it. And I understood it. And I said, ‘Yeah, you're right.’ I mean I wasn’t a person of violence, but I also wasn’t a person who was used to being disrespected in any way,” said Sparks.

Sparks also had many other jobs in her life. She says she worked in criminal court in New York at the same time as the famous Black judge Judge “Turn ‘Em Loose” Bruce” Wright. She also worked with New York unions and at Bloomingdale’s.

"All of this made me the kind of person I became. All of this went into making me: the unionism, the workers, you know, the whole thing. This was all part of it,” said Sparks. “And then I worked Bloomingdale's furniture department and my boss put me outside to deal with all the idiots who came in with complaints because he said, ‘Hey, I hear the way you deal with folks on the phone.’ And the buyers loved me so.”

She retired from a job with New York State as a compensation claims investigator at age 65. She says her friends encouraged her to stay in New York, but she was ready for a change.

“At 65, my birthday came up. I said, ‘Goodbye, I'm leaving,'" said Sparks.

Nothing but blue skies

Sparks moved to Franklin around 2006 after visiting a friend who bought a house because he had family here.

“I said, ‘Oh yeah, it's beautiful. But I could never live here.’ I mean, you know, small town,” said Sparks. “Then one night he spent two hours on the telephone talking to me. And finally, I said, yes. My daughter was very upset.”

Sparks had never lived in the South before moving to Franklin. She says there were some things that she had to get used to. For example, sales tax isn’t applied to groceries in New York state.

“When I came here in Franklin and found out they were charging tax on food, I went berserk. And a friend of mine said, ‘Well we always have.’ And I said, ‘But how, why?’ So, I said, ‘Look, you can't change it. Let it go. The people have allowed it,’” said Sparks.

One of the things that surprised her was attending a rally in Asheville for Barack Obama during his first run for President.

“I was so amazed at the number of young people. And these were young white people who were there,” said Sparks. “And I started asking them questions, you know, how come? And I wrote an [editorial] article [about the experience].”

Sparks has volunteered since moving to Franklin and has remained been active in local politics. But she says she relaxes for the most part.

Looking back on history

The Jackson County NAACP recognized Sparks life of civil rights work with an award in November 2021 which calls her a mentor, historian and in part reads: “She embodies courage, persistence, and an unwillingness to accept the unacceptable.”

Her life experiences have cemented her passion for continuing to speak out on human rights issues from COVID-19 to January 6th insurrection. She encourages people to connect the dots of history, from segregation to voting access and democracy.

“Let's go way back to the history. How did it start? White male property owners were the only ones who could vote. This country was born into racism and until people recognize that we are not going to be able to change. We’re in serious trouble,” said Sparks.

Her greatest hope is in young people and the future. She wants them to learn all they can about history.

"I’m now 90,” said Sparks. “And I'm looking at all of this and I'm saying, how? And I don't have any answers. The only answer I have is we've got to face the facts. We've got to face the reality. And if we don't do that, we're finished.”

This piece originally aired as part of the The Porch.

Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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