'Sister, don't give up': After 60 years, Marilyn Moore still fighting for racial justice

Standing on the Town Hall Green in Trumbull in late August, Marilyn Moore might have been looking at a younger version of herself.

As Black Lives Matter protests spread across the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers last year, the four-term state senator noticed that many of the events, including the one in Trumbull that day, were led by people in their teens or early 20s.

“There’s an army of people coming up now that are ready to bring attention to the racial divide, and are sick and tired of not being heard,” Moore said. “Now it’s time for them to step up more. Run for office and get involved, let people know that (racial injustice) is not acceptable.”

Moore, 72, has been fighting for racial justice since before the parents of many of those protesters were born. The daughter of a Cape Verdean mother and a father who was an Oklahoma-born Army veteran of mixed Native American and Black ethnicity, Moore became aware that people viewed her as different while a third-grader at Columbus School in Bridgeport.

“I grew up in the Hollow neighborhood, and I don’t really remember being treated any differently than the other kids,” she said. “There were some neighborhood kids that would occasionally call me names, but if that’s all you know, it becomes normal.”

But it was a third-grade teacher’s gesture that exposed a different reality.

“She gave me a card to take home that she saw and she said the picture of a little girl on it reminded her of me,” Moore said. “The picture was a girl, pitch black, with a bone in her hair and big lips.”

The irony is the teacher was one of Moore’s favorites, she said.

“She was always very good to me, and I really don’t think she was a racist,” Moore said. “That’s what we learned at the time. If you saw Black people in a history book, they were wild people living in huts. That’s what she grew up with, and she learned that was OK.”

That first lesson in racial otherness was soon followed by others, Moore said. She remembers the 1963 afternoon when she went to the home of a close family friend in the Greene Homes apartment complex and found her in tears.

“The TV had showed the picture of the Black kid getting attacked by a police dog in Birmingham, Alabama, and that was where her family was from,” Moore said. “My family was from Cape Verde and Oklahoma, but that was when I learned that just because I’m safe, it doesn’t mean a thing if Blacks are suffering someplace else.”

It was about that same time that Moore first got to know Charles Tisdale. He was a young teacher at the time who became a kind of surrogate father for Moore, whose own father was born in 1889. Moore was born in 1948 when her father was approaching 60.

Moore’s first Black teacher, he came to Columbus School in 1962, the same year her father died, and the two remained close until Tisdale’s death in 2019. Tisdale eventually became a city leader and a 1983 mayoral candidate.

“For years, I would call him every Martin Luther King Day,” she said. “He was the person I remember learning about social justice from. I used to tell him he was my Martin Luther King.”

As Moore entered Central High School, the Civil Rights Movement was picking up steam across the country and she got involved with the local NAACP youth outreach. She missed King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. — “My mother said I was too young to go” — but found her niche closer to home.

“The first activism I ever did was when the NAACP was talking about starting a petition to change from using Negro to Black in our history books, and that just stuck with me,” Moore said. “We decided to make a statement that the history books weren’t telling the story of Black people.”

Their proposed act of defiance, dropping their history books on the floor and walking out of class, seemed to them innocuous enough. But as the appointed time neared, the school loudspeaker crackled to life.

“The principal came on and said he knew what we were planning and not to do it. They were going to work something out,” Moore said. “Then the teacher, it was my business class, he said, ‘If you leave, I’ll flunk you.’”

Moore, in response, said if he did he would hear from her father’s attorney.

It was a stone cold bluff, she said. Her father by then was deceased and there was no way her mother would have footed the legal bill for a dropped history book.

But it worked. Moore walked out, but she was one of the few. The threat of repercussions kept most of her friends in their seats.

“It was disappointing that there were only a few other kids out there when I walked into the courtyard,” Moore said. “I just remember thinking that I was proud that I kept my word, and that I hadn’t let them threaten me into not doing what I said I would.”

Moore remained an activist, although she still felt occasional disappointment as time went on and changes were slow to come.

“When it comes to civil rights, it seems like we made a lot of progress, then hit a plateau,” she said. “A few people get elected or appointed here and there so they can check a few boxes, and it was like, ‘OK we’re done.’”

Moore also became active in city and state politics, aligning with candidates like Tisdale and state Sen. Edwin Gomes, whose political careers in ways were a prologue to her own.

Tisdale lost to incumbent Republican Len Paoletta in 1983 by about 1,000 votes in a race in which former Democratic Mayor John Mandanici ran as an unaffiliated candidate and received 10,000 votes. Moore, 36 years later, narrowly missed unseating Democratic incumbent Joseph Ganim in a mayoral primary she won on the Election Day vote but lost by less than 300 after tallying absentee votes.

Moore also served as an aide with Gomes, who in 2004 bucked the city’s Democratic machine on his way to serving multiple terms in Hartford.

“That was when I started thinking about running for state Senate,” Moore said. “Working for him, it seemed like, ‘I can do this.’”

Moore defeated a party-endorsed candidate in three Democratic primaries and won four terms on the state senate.

Still, as Moore geared up to run for her fourth term in 2020, she said she worried that there seemed to be a shortage of activism-minded young people stepping up to replace those like herself and Gomes, who died in 2020 following a car crash. Once again, a Black leader in Bridgeport was there to reassure her, she said.

“After church, I was talking to Pastor (Anthony) Bennett at Mt. Aery, and I said, ‘where are the young people?’” Moore said. “And he looked at me and he said, ‘Sister, don’t give up. You have no idea how many young people look up to you.’”

Bennett, who has known Moore for more than 20 years, said the support and encouragement went both ways.

“I am inspired by her tenacity,” he said.

In the lead-up to her 2019 mayoral run, Bennett said, he saw Moore struggle with unrealistic and sometimes contradictory expectations.

“She fought against those in the community who said ‘She’s not Black enough,’” Bennett said. “The bar for people of color, particularly women, is so high. Others thought that, more than representing the people of part of Bridgeport and Trumbull as a senator, they had the expectation that she would be the representative of all Black people everywhere. No one else has those expectations.”

Bennett said Moore had been a source of comfort to his family after the unexpected death of his daughter in 2019. And just a month later, the roles reversed as he and the church community propped up Moore’s spirits after a tough primary loss to Ganim.

“That was the time she needed the affirmation of our community,” he said. “And she moved forward, and she’s still fighting. That’s what inspires me about her — she perseveres.”

And a little less than a year later, after a summer of pandemic and racial unrest, Moore watched Trumbull High students Chelsea Morton and Nheriessa Medwinter rally a crowd for racial justice and inclusive textbooks, and recount stories of being mocked for their hair and having Black role models denigrated by teachers. And Moore said she felt confident that the fight would be carried on.

“I think the generation after me, they kind of got comfortable, but these young warriors will carry the movement,” she said. “They know what this is about.”

Greater Bridgeport NAACP President the Rev. D. Stanley Lord said older generations watching the younger ones reach and surpass their own accomplishments was part of the natural progression.

“When you look at the history of civil rights, it’s always been the younger generation doing the marching, and the older people sharing their wisdom,” he said. “Martin Luther King was 26 during the bus boycott and 34 at the march on Washington.”

Morton, 16, a junior at Trumbull High School who spent much of the summer working with Moore, said she sees in herself many of the same characteristics that Moore displays.

“I see that drive and determination to fight through adversity,” she said. “She never placed barriers on me because of my age. She created space for me and other Black women and men to find and use my voice and it’s an honor to be part of that legacy.”

But even though Moore can now see those who will continue to fight for social change after her, she said she has no intentions of leaving the social justice stage any time soon.

“I’m going to keep going as long as I keep waking up every day,” she said. “I’ll fight until I see real change.”