DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Since six Baltimore police officers were charged in the death of a young black man - Freddie Gray - we have heard from many advocates and community leaders in that city. They're looking to solve the poverty, drug abuse and violence that plague Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods. But few of them have been at it as long as 80 year old Helena Hicks. NPR's Jennifer Ludden introduces us to a local civil rights icon.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: It was January 1955. Helena Hicks and six classmates were waiting in downtown Baltimore for the number three bus to Morgan College.
HELENA HICKS: I wasn't going to stand on a cold bus stop without something hot to drink.
LUDDEN: She says she didn't plan it, but this soft-spoken woman - just 4'10" - led the group into Read's Drug Store and sat at the lunch counter.
HICKS: They called us names. They told us we had to get out. We sat there. A little on the half-hour and we've decided to leave because we knew they were going to call the police and we'd get locked up.
LUDDEN: That sparked other protests, and a few days later, Read's announced it would desegregate all its 37 stores. That was five years before the more famous sit-ins.
HICKS: My father taught me that you were somebody. If it's wrong, you do something about it.
LUDDEN: Hicks has taken that message to heart ever since, focusing on the ills that plague the West Baltimore neighborhood where both she and Freddie Gray grew up.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We're going to go ahead and get started. The kids are coming in, so we're...
LUDDEN: Hicks recently organized this rededication ceremony at the Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center. It's named for her late sister, also an activist. Hicks's sleek silver bob isn't much taller than the podium set up for the event.
HICKS: Well, good morning.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Good morning.
LUDDEN: Over a hard-working air conditioner, she addresses several dozen politicians and pastors, representatives from the police and nonprofits. She cajoles them to donate goods, money or time to this center and a school next door.
HICKS: It all starts with volunteerism. People volunteer and you can get a lot done.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: All right.
LUDDEN: Hicks is retired from a career as a professor and public servant, but she's still quick to volunteer her efforts when it comes to civil rights.
MEREDITH CURTIS: She called us with concerns when Baltimore was seeking to expand their youth curfew.
LUDDEN: Meredith Curtis of the ACLU Maryland says that was last summer and they've been talking ever since.
CURTIS: We talk about all kinds of things that have been going on in the city - police-related issues and young people.
LUDDEN: After the rec center event, in a park across the street, Hicks says the attention over the Freddie Gray case is a renewed chance to combat decades of neglect. But she worries that politicians will only use it for political gain.
HICKS: You can't throw money at it and make it disappear. You have got to work from the bottom up.
LUDDEN: Then, as a friend walks up to say goodbye, Hicks notices something about the rec center. The letters of her sister's name have been removed. They were old and tarnished, but Hicks isn't happy with a temporary sign in their place that gives the mayor's name top billing.
HICKS: I mean, how dare she do that?
LUDDEN: Out comes her cellphone. She gets the voice mail of a local radio host.
HICKS: You must talk to me about it and you must help me get it out into the media. I'll talk to your later - bye-bye.
LUDDEN: As she turns 81 this month, Helena Hicks knows some might expect her to stop being quite so feisty.
HICKS: And I've had that experience, you know, just ignore her till she stops talking, but I don't stop (laughter).
LUDDEN: Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Baltimore.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.