'The Forgotten Hero' Of The Civil Rights Movement Octavius Catto led the fight to desegregate Philadelphia's horse-drawn streetcars, raised all-black regiments to fight in the Civil War, and pushed for black voting rights — all before the age of 32. Despite all that, he's barely remembered today. But a new book sheds life on his groundbreaking work.
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'The Forgotten Hero' Of The Civil Rights Movement

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'The Forgotten Hero' Of The Civil Rights Movement

'The Forgotten Hero' Of The Civil Rights Movement

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

A hundred years before the civil rights protests in Selma and Birmingham, a 27-year-old African-American named Octavius Catto led the fight to desegregate Philadelphia's horse-drawn streetcars.

He did it in 1866 with the help of other prominent civil rights activists like Lucretia Mott and Frederick Douglas. Catto raised all-black regiments to fight in the Civil War. He pushed for black voting rights, and he started an all-black baseball team, and he did this all before the age of 32.

And if you visit Octavius Catto's grave at Eden Cemetery, just outside Philadelphia, the epitaph reads: The Forgotten Hero.

And it was that forgotten history that prompted two reporters, Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin, to dig deeper and to try to resurrect Catto's story, and they tell it in their new book. It's called "Tasting Freedom"

Mr. DAN BIDDLE (Co-author, "Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America"): People like Catto, the beginning of the black intelligentsia in this country, were a very small cadre of men and women. And I think that's one of the reasons he was looked up to.

RAZ: Catto was such a talented person at such a young age. At the age of 24 - this is in the summer of 1863 - after the Confederates invade Pennsylvania, he helps Frederick Douglass begin to raise all-black regiments. And at first, there was some resistance by Union generals to accept their help.

Mr. BIDDLE: Yeah, I mean, there was resistance from Union generals and from the government to black troops period...

Raz: Yeah.

Mr. BIDDLE: ...for more than two years. And the war is going badly - and in 1863, quite frankly, the Union needs black troops. And the black leaders of Philadelphia, in fact of the country, started agreeing we have to do this. And they started having meetings.

RAZ: Catto even puts up this poster, this eight-foot-high poster in the streets of Philadelphia.

Mr. MURRAY DUBIN (Co-author, "Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America"): That says: Men of color, to arms, to arms, now or never. One morning, that appears all over black Philadelphia neighborhoods. And the message of it is that it's now or never for proving that black men can fight bravely and sacrifice for the union.

RAZ: Octavius Catto doesn't see action during the Civil War, but he does attain the rank of major for his recruiting efforts. After the war, very shortly after the war, a year later, he turns his attention to desegregation Philadelphia's horse-drawn public transit system.

You guys describe this as a civil disobedience campaign. Can you explain what he did?

Mr. DUBIN: Sure. What happens throughout the war years is that the mothers and brothers and sisters and loved ones of black troops, whom perhaps are in hospitals recovering from wounds, they can't visit them because they can't ride on streetcars.

RAZ: In places like - they can't go to Washington, D.C., for example...

Mr. DUBIN: That's right.

RAZ: ...or even in Philadelphia.

Mr. DUBIN: ...or hospitals in Philadelphia. People are angry about this, but not much happens. After the Civil War, Catto and a lot of other black men and women decide they must do something about this. So a campaign starts.

It starts out quietly. It's writing letters. It's holding meetings. But for Octavius Catto, that isn't enough. While we can find very few instances of civil disobedience prior to that, somewhere, Catto figured out that was the way to do it.

And we believe what he did is he organized pregnant women; he organized college students to simply go on the streetcars en masse.

Mr. BIDDLE: And calls for public defiance, which is almost unimaginable in that time.

RAZ: My guests are Dan Biddle and Murray Dubin. They're the authors of the new book, "Tasting Freedom." It's a biography of a forgotten civil rights activist from the 19th century named Octavius Catto.

1871, the 15th Amendment passes. All blacks in America are enfranchised. October 10, 1871 is a momentous day in Philadelphia history. What happens that day?

Mr. BIDDLE: It's a big election. A new mayor is going to be elected, and it's anticipated that just about every black man who's able to vote is going to vote Republican.

Well, the white Democrats in town are well aware of this and felt skunked about how many black men had gotten out to vote in the election of 1870, right after the passage of the 15th Amendment. And it was clear that they weren't going to let that happen again.

By the night before, violence has begun in the black neighborhoods, and it's not black violence. It's white men, many of them white police officers, some in uniform, some not, going after black men.

RAZ: Just random black men?

Mr. DUBIN: Yeah, right. I mean, there's a black man who is simply shot and killed. There's another man shot and wounded just on the street, just to scare people.

RAZ: And the thinking is there's another vote the Republicans have lost.

Mr. DUBIN: Exactly, exactly. And Election Day itself is just as bad. Black voters are pulled out of line replaced by white voters. They're kicked, they're punched, they're shot. It's a terrible day.

RAZ: And what is Catto doing that day? Where is he?

Mr. DUBIN: You have to understand Catto is a very well-known guy. Everyone knows who he is. He cannot walk down the street unnoticed. And to white Democrats, seeing someone like him, he's a target.

Mr. BIDDLE: And there's already been, by the time, he's on his way home, two or three murders. And there's one white guy who witnesses say had a peculiar bandage wrapped around his head, stuffed underneath his hat.

And this guy, Frank Kelly, happens to be on the payroll of the most powerful Democrat in South Philadelphia. By the time Catto was walking home, Frank Kelly and a sidekick were working their way through the neighborhood.

RAZ: So how does Octavius Catto get caught up in this?

Mr. DUBIN: Well, simply walking home, he is recognized by Frank Kelly, and Frank Kelly stalks him. And Frank Kelly is armed and Octavius Catto isn't. Catto unfortunately comes to an end he wished didn't happen.

RAZ: Of course, he is shot, and what was the reaction in the community, in Philadelphia? I mean, he was a local celebrity. How did people respond?

Mr. BIDDLE: Huge, huge reaction, described as the biggest public funeral in the city, perhaps ever at that point, rivaling that of Civil War heroes.

RAZ: How would you sort of assess Octavius Catto's place in the history of the American Civil Rights Movement? Is he somebody - he's a forgotten figure, obviously, but is he somebody you would sort of rank up there with Rosa Parks and Medgar Evers?

Mr. DUBIN: Du Bois, in his famous "Philadelphia Negro" book in 1899, writes about Catto, and everyone then and in the beginning of the 20th century read Du Bois. So it's safe to assume that the leaders of the NAACP, which started about 10 years later, knew that Catto existed.

I'd love to tell you that Martin Luther King knew about Catto, and that's why he did what he did, but I can't prove that. But Dan and I both think that Catto and those dozens and dozens of other men and women, it was their shoulders and Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Ralph Abernathy and all those people stood on top of.

RAZ: That's Murray Dubin and also Dan Biddle. They're the authors of a new book. It's called "Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America."

Gentlemen, thank you so much for coming in.

Mr. BIDDLE: Thank you very much.

Mr. DUBIN: Thank you very much.

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