Fatima Cortez-Todd: 'My Bucket List Has a Big Priority'
Fatima Cortez-Todd on the Civil Rights Movement and meeting Thelma Caulfield during her time in Louisiana.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the interviewee. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
PBS: You tell Ann Curry that you wanted to move to the South as a Civil Rights task force worker in 1964. Before going into this, did you have any initial concerns about what the environment might be like? What helped you push through your work in spite of the violence that was taking place there, especially after two men held you at gunpoint in Louisiana?
Fatima Cortez-Todd: I was so focused on the importance of the voter education and registration that all else was not important. I was a bit nervous because it was the South, but understood the feeling of true fear after being chased by a truck with KKK members and I hid in the bushes. The most chilling, frozen breath moment was having a young man point a double-barreled shotgun at my head. We stayed eye-to-eye for a moment seeming like forever and then he drove off. What kept me moving was the belief that it was my responsibility to help my fellow citizens exercise their rights. We couldn't let [Barry] Goldwater become president.
"We stayed eye-to-eye for a moment seeming like forever and then he drove off."
PBS: After your training, you moved to Lettsworth, Louisiana where you met Thelma. What was your experience like living with the Caulfield family and the other task force workers?
Fatima: I felt safe and well taken care of. Thelma and her mom fed us from their land and made arrangements for us to bathe down the road since they didn't have an indoor bathroom. I shared a room with Peggy Ewing (aka Meg Redden) and it was very comfortable. When Mr. Caulfield and two of the brothers came home from out of town work, we felt more like family gathered to check in with each other. Brother Ernest even taught me how to shoot a rifle for self-defense since we were there with his mother and sister. There was comfort, safety and love all around us.
PBS: Can you tell us more about how your work in the Civil Rights Movement pairs with your fight for women’s rights?
Fatima: Civil Rights became a part of the bigger global picture, which encompassed all human rights. The progression was my growth in understanding all the ways human beings are terrorized and disrespected as full beings.
The more I learned, the wider my scope became. Anti-war marches, the Poor People's March in DC, women's marches (work in anti-violence, anti-sexual assault, women of color, reproductive rights, etc). The March on Washington had created an environment of inspiration that led me to Freedom Summer 1964 and subsequent conversations in Freedom School classes that I taught and later regarding the interrelationship of the isms, racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. and the issue of internalized oppression. Just a natural progression because it is all linked.
"The progression was my growth in understanding all the ways human beings are terrorized and disrespected as full beings."
PBS: What were you feeling in the days leading up to meeting Thelma?
Fatima: Anxious, wondering how she would remember me. Hoping she would forgive me for being such a spoiled brat (I thought I might have been) and bad house guest since I never sent a note of thank you for her family's hospitality.
PBS: Now that you’ve reunited — what’s next for you and Thelma?
Fatima: We talked about staying in touch and maybe we could visit in New Orleans or Los Angeles. I told her that I had some surgeries coming up and was going back and forth to Virginia to take care of my mom, but we would eventually get together. I had her brother Joseph's phone number in Maryland for my next visit to the East Coast, but I never got to Maryland because I fell ill and returned to Los Angeles. My bucket list has a big priority.
More From This Episode