A fighter

Harriet Ludwig joins the MLK Hall of Fame tonight, in tribute to her hard work on behalf of 'the underdog'

Published: Sunday, January 18, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 17, 2004 at 11:57 p.m.

When Harriet Ludwig calls herself "the old lady in tennis shoes," it's not a joke but a matter of pride.

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This image of Martin Luther King Jr. hangs on the wall of Harriet Ludwig's Gainesville apartment. Ever since she moved to Gainesville in 1981, Ludwig has been relentless in battling various social causes. She is always "fighting for someone who can't fight for themselves." Rodney Long, president of the MLK Commission, says of Ludwig

LARA NEEL/The Gainesville Sun

She's always on the move, hitting public meetings, taking notes, researching and working behind the scenes on issues of education and racial equality. She's not one to seek the spotlight, but her efforts get her noticed.

"I've called her the Energizer bunny because she's relentless in her interest in all sorts of social conditions, a champion of the underdog," said longtime friend Nancy Detweiler.

It's this kind of activity that has earned Ludwig a spot in the Martin Luther King Jr. Hall of Fame. She will be honored tonight at 6 p.m. at the banquet at the Paramount Resort and Conference Center.

Alachua County Commissioner Rodney Long, who is also president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Florida, said Ludwig follows the principles of non-violence for social change that the late civil rights leader practiced and preached.

"Harriet has been one of those tireless fighters out there," Long said. "When you see her, you know she's probably fighting for someone who can't fight for themselves."

Ask Ludwig what she's done in her 78 years, and she'll first offer to show the latest photos of her six great-grandchildren and then skillfully direct attention to those who've taught her along the way. Her earliest lessons in race relations came from her grandfather.

She had grown up in Aberdeen, S.D., then a town of 18,000, the state's third largest city, where she doesn't recall ever seeing a black person. But a summer visit to grandparents in Waterloo, Iowa, at age 9 offered her a lasting impression of those of another color.

Her grandfather was a Methodist minister and was good friends with the pastor at the African Methodist Episcopal church, where her grandfather was occasionally invited to preach.

"These people were all so nice, and they had great ice cream socials," she recalled.

That summer her grandfather found young Harriet lots of books to read, including "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and he provided material of his own, interviewing elderly black residents on their memories of slavery for a series of stories for the local paper. She returned to South Dakota with a foundation of knowledge that would serve her for a lifetime, but also with a viewpoint, she would discover, that didn't match reality.

"I had the impression that the Civil War had settled everything," she said.

She still recalls the shock more than a decade later when a real estate agent in Minneapolis happily praised her neighborhood for its ability to keep all minorities fenced out. Then when she moved to Clearwater in 1959, she noticed that blacks would step off the curb to let whites pass and would avoid looking directly into their eyes.

"I was just shocked to death," she said.

As a journalist, Ludwig has written for The Gainesville Sun, Florida Times-Union, Clearwater Sun, Gainesville Voice, Moon and other newspapers. She can trace that passion for writing back to her growing up in South Dakota. Starting as a scribe for her Girl Scout troop, she later signed up for journalism in high school, and she remembers her teacher well.

"He ran that class like a tough city editor. I don't think I ever had a city editor who was that tough," she said.

By age 16, she'd earned her first front-page byline. On weekends of her senior year, she was working as an editor.

"What I learned in journalism really had a lot to do with me becoming an activist," she said.

After moving from Clearwater back to the Midwest - to a suburb of Chicago - in the mid-1960s, Ludwig began working on fair housing issues. When she was invited to speak to the members of her local League of Women Voters, she told how middle-class black families were being blocked from moving into the 'burbs. Ludwig recalls that league members - who considered themselves reasonably liberal-minded - were not pleased to hear Ludwig tell them that, whether they wanted to admit it or not, they were part of the problem. When black families came to their neighborhoods, the message blacks received was "Sorry, we're not ready yet."

"I looked up at the faces in that group. Horrible! The hate. It was like the faces you see in the newspaper pictures of the mobs when they integrated schools," she said.

In March 1965, Ludwig got to see those faces up close. She traveled to Selma, Ala., to attend the funeral service for James Reeb, a Unitarian minister who was attacked by a white mob and killed. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the service.

During that visit to Selma, Ludwig was arrested for her first and only time, for "parading without a permit," when she and other protesters, heading to picket the mayor's home, were rounded up onto a school bus and hauled to jail. She would also meet a woman whose example put her troubles in perspective.

While in Selma she stayed with a black family who lived across the street from the church where the funeral service was held. Seamstress Beulah Wagstaff, her daughter and granddaughter shared their home. She recalled asking Wagstaff how she could raise a family surrounded by such violence. The answer inspires her to this day.

"We just tell them (whites) we're going to be free just like they are, and some of them won't like it, but most of them won't do anything, and the ones who will, well, they can only kill you once," Ludwig said was the answer she received.

Ludwig has continued to work both as a journalist and activist ever since. She has an easy chair in her apartment, but it doesn't get a lot of use. She frequently writes columns that appear on The Sun's editorial pages and occasionally contributes to some alternative publications.

"I just keep finding things to do," she said.

And her community has benefited from those efforts, says Ruth Brown, former head of the NAACP in Gainesville, who met Ludwig shortly after Ludwig moved to Gainesville in 1981.

"She has contributed exceptionally good work and good deeds here in Gainesville," Brown said. "Most communities need more Harriets."

And Liz Jones, who has worked with Ludwig on many issues, says she brings persistence to a job, and she looks deep into issues and finds the issues behind the issues. Jones says Ludwig has the ability to make a point passionately, but without attacking those she opposes.

"She always does it with a twinkle in her eye," Jones said.

Gary Kirkland can be reached at 338-3104 or kirklag@gvillesun.com.

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