Mamie Nell Ford was an African American teenager at the time of the struggle for civil rights for African American people. This struggle for civil rights reached its peak in 1964, when Mamie was seventeen years old. At the time, she lived in the city of Albany, in the American state of Georgia and she was a civil rights activist.
African Americans were struggling for civil rights such as the right to go to schools and universities reserved for white people, the right to use buses and trains that were reserved for white people, and the right to swim at beaches and go to hotels reserved for white people. When Mamie Nell Ford joined protests she was arrested and sent to jail, even though she was still a child.
The leader of the civil rights movement was Dr Martin Luther King Junior. His organisation asked people to join the protests and one day in 1964, they asked activists to travel to a city called St Augustine in the state of Florida. They were planning a protest at a ‘Whites Only’ hotel and they wanted volunteers to join the protest and jump into the ‘Whites Only’ swimming pool at the hotel. Mamie Nell Ford volunteered, because even though very few African Americans could swim, she could.
The activists from Albany travelled down to St Augustine and prepared for their protest at the hotel. Dr Martin Luther King watched from across the street. Journalists and photographers gathered and then the seven protesters, black and white, including Mamie Nell Ford, jumped out from the bushes next to the pool and dived into the water.
The next moment, as the photographers clicked their cameras, the hotel manager emerged and started throwing poisonous pool acid into the pool, shouting “I am cleaning the pool!” A policemen jumped into the water, in his uniform, to try and arrest the protestors. Mamie Nell Ford was struggling to breathe because of the pool acid and it is this moment – the hotel manager throwing in the acid, and Mamie choking, that a photographer caught on camera.
The photograph travelled to newspapers all over the world. The American President, Lyndon Johnson said, “Our whole Foreign Policy will go to hell over this!”
But the photograph had another very dramatic effect: the US Senate is the highest law making body of the US government. Law makers in the US Senate had been trying to pass a law that would grant civil rights to African American people, for a year, but couldn’t get enough votes to pass the law. Twenty four hours after the photograph of Mamie Nell Ford and her fellow activists protesting in the swimming pool went public, the law was passed.
Mamie Nell Ford and the other activists were arrested at the swimming pool protest, but did not spend a long time in jail. She returned to Albany and was one of the first group of just six Black students who attended the formerly all-white Albany High School. Their time there was not easy – they were taken to school in a separate bus for Black students and were mocked and isolated by most white students.
But Mamie Nell Ford never gave up. She graduated from high school, went to university and spent her whole career working in the Education Department.