The only thing on her mind while she sat in the orchestra of the Capitol Theater in Trenton was her hope that she wouldn’t end up in a juvenile detention center. Never did Edith Savage-Jennings believe at such a young age that her small act would land her in one of the leading positions of the Civil Rights Movement.
At age 13, Edith and a group of her friends, decided they would help integrate the movie theaters in Trenton. They sat in the main floor of the Capitol and later the Lincoln even though African-Americans were supposed to sit only in the balcony.
“We went down to the theater, got our tickets and went and sat down in the second row of the orchestra and an usher came down and said, ‘You’re in the wrong seats,’” she explained.“I said, ‘Well, we’re not moving’ and we just sat there. Then, the manager came and he said, ‘You’re supposed to be in the balcony.’ I said again, ‘Well, we’re not moving.’ So we sat there and stayed for the whole movie and nobody said anything else.”
Follow-up visits also went without incident. She later helped integrate Texas Wieners hot dog stand on Warren Street.
For Savage-Jennings, now 88 and a resident of Ewing, N.J. those days started decades of service to the Civil Rights Movement. Speaking at Rider on Oct. 25, she described some of her favorite memories of working with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy.
“It started in 1957,” said Savage-Jennings. “Dr. King called and asked if he could come to Trenton because in the South he wasn’t able to raise any money. He had just started the movement.
“So the Rev. [S. Howard] Woodson [Jr.] called me and said, ‘My friend wants to come to New Jersey. Can you think of something we could do?’ And, I said, ‘Well let’s have a mass rally so we could raise money that way.’ So we did, at the Shiloh Baptist Church on Calhoun Street.”
After the rally, her relationship with King and his wife continued as she became heavily involved with civil rights activism. She visited King at his home many times and recalled how he would get up at 6 a.m. to greet the milkman and have coffee.
“It was a very interesting journey,” she said. “Dr. King was a gentleman with a common touch, very much down to earth. I felt he was the 20th-century prophet and the he was anointed to do what he did.”
Savage-Jennings was even asked to handle an assignment in the Deep South for president John F. Kennedy in 1963.
“He asked me if I would go on a secret mission for him,” she said. “Bobby [Kennedy] got on the phone with me and said, ‘We have a very pressing issue in Mississippi and we would like to send you in if you’re willing to go.”
After speaking to her husband about the president’s request, she agreed to travel to Mississippi along with Helen Meyner, the wife of the Governor of New Jersey at the time, Robert Meyner. Mississippi “was deeply segregated” and Savage-Jennings felt there was no way a white woman and a black woman would be able to travel together.
“Bobby said to me,‘You should let us know, if you’re going, what mortician you would like your body shipped to,’” she said.
Savage-Jennings and Meyner became part of the “Wednesday’s Women,” who traveled in interracial teams to advance the cause of desegregation in Mississippi schools. She also dealt with the state’s refusal to use welfare stamps from the government because “they didn’t want to give them to blacks,” according to Savage-Jennings.
Savage-Jennings, who has been a White House guest of five different presidents, and said she feels that King would be proud of the strides America has made in civil rights, especially with having re-elected Barack Obama as president.
She was presented the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2004 that was once given to Rosa Parks and was honored by the YWCA of Trenton as an inaugural member of the New Jersey Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011. She worked for the Mercer County Youth Detention for 32 years as well, retiring as assistant superintendent.
Savage-Jennings grew up on Spring Street in Trenton, an integrated area where she said she had white friends and they would spend the nights at each other’s houses. The high school she attended was integrated as well but it wasn’t as friendly of an environment as her neighborhood was.
“You couldn’t use the swimming pool until it was cleared of white children,” Savage-Jennings said. “You couldn’t use the darkroom at all and I was interested in photography and you couldn’t use the typewriters so I never really learned to type.”
Savage-Jennings mentioned current issues taking place in Trenton involving Mayor Tony Mack who is currently under investigation for corruption. She said she thinks her hometown is “in a political mess at this point” and that the mayor should ultimately resign from his position.
“It’s very interesting what’s going on in the city,” she said. “The mayor is under indictment and the council wants him to resign but he’s not. It’s hurting a great deal because when we have this type of thing going on, something is going wrong in the city and there are many issues— drugs, killings—that we should be dealing with instead of fighting with the mayor.”
Not everything Savage-Jenning has put her efforts into has been accomplished.
“It would be beneficial if we could have college students get involved with nonviolence and total integration” she said. “I was actually hoping that we could pass a bill for higher education particularly for teachers, people who study to be teachers, that they would have to go through a class for curriculum for social change. After 50 years, my bill is still in committee.”
Savage-Jennings stressed that “nothing can be accomplished if you’re going to be aggressive.”
“It’s how you deal with problems,” she said “I never felt that talking loud or shouting or just getting angry when you’re trying to solve a problem is the way to do it.”
Compiled by Jen Maldonado.
Reporting and writing by Sam DeVeau, David Nugent,Vincent Abbatecola, Christina LoBrutto and Erika Sosa.
Printed in the 11/16/12 edition