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Frank Dukes, Influential Leader of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 92

Frank Dukes, icon of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement, has died. (Screengrab YouTube)

By Barnett Wright

The Birmingham Times

The Rev. Frank Dukes, an influential Birmingham Civil Rights Movement leader and President of Miles College’s trailblazing student body in the early 1960’s, has died. He was 92.

Mr. Dukes, who passed on Saturday morning, would have turned 93 in fifteen days.

“It is with profound and nearly indescribable grief and sadness I announce that this morning my precious father, Reverend Frank Dukes, icon of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement, Co-Creator of the Selective Buying Campaign of 1962, Co-Leader of the Easter Sunday March of 1963 and one of the Birmingham bodyguards for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,” has passed, wrote his daughter Donna Dukes in a Facebook post on November 11.

Frank Dukes with daughter, Donna, founder/CEO, Maranathan Family Learning Center & Academy, Inc. for at-risk youth and adults. (Donna Dukes/Facebook)

Mr. Duke’s passing comes as the city is commemorating 60 years since the 1963 Birmingham campaign for Civil and Human Rights.

In the early 1960s, Mr. Dukes, as a 31-year-old Miles Student Government Association president, organized students to challenge Birmingham’s stringent segregation through the Selective Buying Campaign.

The campaign grew into a local movement designed as an economic boycott of white merchants who refused to hire Black workers or to desegregate their facilities.  It demonstrated the power of non-violent protest and prompted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Birmingham the following year in 1963 to lead nonviolent demonstrations to end segregation.

Mr. Dukes is also a former Director of the Alumni Affairs Department of Miles College, second Black hired by the Alabama State Department of Education as a vocational rehabilitation counselor, US Army/Korean War veteran and President Emeritus of the nonprofit Maranathan Family Learning Center & Academy, Inc. for at-risk youth and adults, founded by his daughter Donna.

“He served a purpose that was very necessary and the Movement would not have been the same without that type of individual …,” Birmingham historian Dr. Horace Huntley told the Birmingham Times. “[Frank Dukes] was a person that spoke the truth and he could speak to people from all walks of life. That’s always important because at that particular juncture [in Birmingham] you had to speak to those who were in ‘control’ and those who were in the street if you were going to be effective. And was very effective with that.”

Few in the Movement were as fearless as Mr. Dukes, said Huntley.

“I really looked up to him because he had a varied background, meaning that he grew up here in Birmingham, he’d gone off to the service and grew up in the military and then he came back and he was not afraid to challenge,” said Huntley, who interviewed Mr. Dukes in 1995 for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s Oral History Project. “A lot of us when we left [the city], we always had in our mind that we were coming back to help change Birmingham, to solve the problems of Birmingham and he epitomized that thought.”

Mr. Dukes was instrumental in the Selective Buying Campaign at downtown Birmingham stores in early 1962, which had its genesis in December 1961 when he had drafted a public statement entitled “This We Believe” which called for more educational and employment opportunities for Blacks in white stores.

The campaign led by Dukes and other boycott leaders such as Miles College Professor Jonathan McPherson; Miles alumnus retired Judge U.W. Clemon; and three prominent Black housewives, Deenie Drew, Althea Montgomery and Ruth Barefield-Pendelton set in motion the end of segregation in Birmingham.

The following spring the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Alabama Christian Movement for Human Right’s ‘s (ACMHR) Birmingham Campaign launched with Mr. Dukes serving both as a Miles campus organizer and as a guard, protecting leaders during meetings. He was one of four leaders of a mass march from Thirgood Memorial CME Church on Easter Sunday, April 14, and was arrested along with A. D. King, Nelson Smith and John Porter

“He was one of those individuals who was not afraid of [Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner] Bull Conner,” Huntley said. “A lot of us were afraid of Bull Conner, afraid of the police. Frank Dukes [wasn’t] and they knew that, and they respected him for that. White folks and Black folks respected him for the same thing – they couldn’t run over him.”

Mr. Dukes was the third of eight children born to a Fairfield steelworker’s family. He was a graduate of Fairfield Industrial High School served in US Army from 1949 to 1950. After his discharge he worked for Dodge motor company in Detroit, Michigan. In 1954 he re-enlisted for the Korean War and served until 1957. He returned to Detroit, but, after being laid off in 1958 he came home to Fairfield to wait for his recall.

Instead he decided in 1959 to enroll at Miles under the GI Bill. With his broader perspective on justice, and inspired by student protests in North Carolina, Mr. Dukes began urging fellow students to engage in public opposition to segregation in Birmingham. He formed an Anti-Injustice Committee at the college and began formulating demands, including the desegregation of public buildings and businesses and the hiring of African Americans in stores and government departments.

His daughter wrote on Facebook that Mr. Dukes “has made his Earthly transition to be with his Heavenly Father. Please keep our family in prayer … Rest well son, rest well! Lord have mercy upon us! Christ have mercy upon us! Lord have mercy upon us!

Services for Mr. Dukes will be held on Saturday November 18 at noon ion St. Joseph Baptist Church, 500 9th Avenue North, Birmingham AL 35204.