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Willie Ben Ludden Jr.’s memorial service was Tuesday night, set in the bright, modest chapel of the Evergreen Funeral Home in southern Dallas. Twenty-nine people came to say farewell to the 81-year-old Georgia native felled by pancreatic cancer on May 22. Some were family. Most were strangers.
Sitting among those waiting to offer their farewells was Larry Jefferson, the retired Army captain who, in 2016, became national news after he was tapped to serve as the Mall of America’s first-ever black Santa.
I asked why he’d come. "Did I know him? No," Jefferson said, shaking his head, frowning through his white beard. "We were veterans, though. And veterans support veterans."
David Henderson, a Dallas civil-rights lawyer, said he’d "read up on" Ludden and knew the barest outline of his life and his importance to the civil-rights movement. Henderson, like many of us who had come to the service, found out about Ludden’s death from a Facebook post by prominent civil-rights lawyer Lee Merritt.
Merritt lamented the lack of attention on Ludden’s death. "He was taken for granted," Merritt said as we waited for services to begin. He had been asked to speak, though he, too, never met Ludden and didn’t know much about his life until his death.
"I wish I’d gotten to know him and his legacy before," Henderson said, echoing the frequent lament of other mourners.
One of Willie B. Ludden Jr.’s mugshots from the spring of 1963, when he was working in Jackson, Miss., and being beaten and arrested by police there
Ludden was born in Tifton, Ga., in 1938. In the early 1970s, he moved to Dallas. For decades, he lived among us. Yet none of us knew him. Or even knew of him.
We did not know that this man, who taught high-school history in Grand Prairie, had been an NAACP field worker and youth organizer throughout the Deep South in the 1960s. We did not know that this man, who drove cabs in South Dallas for two decades, had been an officer in the Army yet wasn’t allowed to lead white troops.
We did not know that this man, who wanted to be a Dallas police officer, had been part of the landmark Woolworth lunch-counter sit-ins in the spring of 1963, and that he led marches and protests and organized college students. Or that he was repeatedly beaten and jailed, charged with "obstructing sidewalks" when all he wanted was for the men and women and children who looked like him to be able to sit at the same places where white people dined.
Ludden was a public safety officer — a civilian employee — on the Dallas police force for just three weeks, from March 13 to April 2, 1975. The only surviving note about him in the police department’s files shows that he "resigned." Family members believe he was pushed out because of his civil-rights history — though police and city staffers say they cannot find his personnel file to corroborate their suspicions.
From the Associated Press caption that accompanies this archival photo: "Police in Jackson, Miss., club Willie Ludden Jr. of Atlanta after he resisted arrest during massive demonstration, May 31, 1963. Ludden carried a sign and American flag in the march."
Ludden’s work was well-documented elsewhere. His name can be found in history books, Old Associated Press photographs show cops beating Ludden and hauling him to jail. His name appears in faded civil-rights era lawsuits and police records alongside those of fellow civil-rights fighters Roy Wilkins, John Salter Jr. and Medgar Evers, whose work Ludden continued after a Klansman shot Evers to death on June 12, 1963.
Ludden wrote an autobiography, which is now impossible to find, titled Anatomy of a Civil Rights Worker. In 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee published its lengthy Chronology of Violence and Intimidation in Mississippi Since 1961 which includes a passage about a May 1963 demonstration in which cops snatched American flags from protesters’ hands and beat the marchers — Ludden, their leader, the hardest. That account recounts 421 arrests in Jackson that day.
"Just like Nazi Germany," said Evers, the World War II veteran who NAACP leadership sidelined as the violence escalated and Jackson "became an unvented pressure cooker," wrote Denton Watson in his book Lion in the Lobby: Clarence Mitchell, Jr.’s Struggle for the Passage of Civil Rights Laws.
Detail of a medal Daisy Garner received from the NAACP for her husband Willie B. Ludden Jr. during his memorial service at Evergreen Memorial Funeral Home in Dallas on Tuesday
In his book, We Shall Not Be Moved: The Jackson Woolworth’s Sit-In and the Movement It Inspired, historian M.J. O’Brien writes that Ludden was "young, enthusiastic and a natural leader." O’Brien tells of how the Savannah State College graduate led the boycotts and sit-ins there in 1960, and how he "embodied the spirit of the new black youth movement" that took shape at the beginning of that decade. Ludden, he wrote, "could be brash, calculating and iconoclastic — just what Jackson needed."
Over the phone this week, O’Brien said "the word that comes to my mind when talking about Willie Ludden is fearless." O’Brien, who interviewed Ludden for his book, also thought Ludden had died long ago.
We did not know he was here until he was gone. And perhaps that was what Ludden wanted. His daughter Jackie London-Miller, reached at her home in Memphis, Tenn., said her father often spoke of those brutal days in Mississippi and Georgia and Florida and Tennessee.
"But there was a lot of hurt and pain when he talked about the movement," London-Miller said.
Her mother, too, was a key figure in the fight: Pearlena Lewis, who Evers recruited while she was still in high school to join the NAACP’s North Jackson Youth Council. Lewis, who died in 2001, and Ludden never married, but partnered in the fight for the right to shop and sit alongside their white neighbors.
"Even though they knew they made a difference," their daughter said, "when they talked about it, it was painful."
I asked Daisy Garner, Ludden’s 79-year-old widow, how he could have slipped through our fingers.
"Where was he going to tell his story?" she said. "He told it to the people he knew."
At Tuesday’s service, chaplains Ernest and Debbie Walker directed the affair from behind the podium; Ernest instructed members of the Patriot Guard Riders who assembled for this farewell. A reverend played "Taps" as the Riders took the flag from the casket, folded it and handed it to Daisy, who sat in front dressed in red.
The casket was opened. Debbie asked if anyone wanted to say a few word about Ludden. The attendees were at first reluctant, because most did not know him. But slowly, a few ambled up to the podium.
Lanisha Jackson, Ludden’s 27-year-old granddaughter, said he was "a man not properly honored in life." Angela Luckey, president of the Grand Prairie NAACP, said that when she found out Ludden lived here and no one knew, "it disturbed my inner peace." She read a letter from Grand Prairie Mayor Ron Jensen praising Ludden as "a man who made difference in this world."
Rev. Peter Johnson of Dallas did not know Willie Ludden. But he came to say farewell nonetheless.
The Rev. Peter Johnson, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and came to Dallas in 1969 and never left, spoke, too. Johnson did not know Ludden either, and could not believe their paths had never crossed. He, too, bears scars from the lunch-counter sit-ins: Johnson showed me where, on his torso, a white man extinguished his cigar as two other men held his arms.
"I feel a kinship to him," said Johnson of the man whose name he did not know only hours earlier. "If he worked in Mississippi in the 1960s, I know how much he suffered."
Johnson then turned to Ludden lying in the open casket.
"Brother, like my grandmother said, you done good."