Long-time civil rights activist gets surprise b-day gift

April 22, 2011 7:49:24 PM PDT
A Bay Area woman has received a unique birthday gift -- a foundation in her name to help carry on her fight for civil rights and equality.

Just about every Monday you will find Jill Wakeman at Call Primrose, a Burlingame organization that provides food to 1,700 needy families each month.

"I just had this need, as long as I can remember, to put myself in somebody else's shoes and say, 'OK, What can I do?'" said Wakeman.

The 76-year-old says she always felt compassion for others, but it was the civil rights movement of the 60s that led her to step up her activism and to answer a preacher's call.

"A Presbyterian minister came through and was recruiting for people to go down there," she said.

The northerner went down south to Mississippi for the summer. Her letters home reveal the culture shock. She wrote, "I feel completely out of the world here."

She took part in the final leg of the historic march and rally organized by James Meredith in the summer of 1966.

"Dr. King came at the last night and Dr. King was there and he talked," she recalled. "It brings tears to my eyes even now."

Once back home in San Mateo she joined with those trying to desegregate the schools, including activist Eleanor Curry.

"Oh yeah, that was unheard of for me," said Curry when asked if it was unusual at that time for a black woman and a white woman to be friends. Curry has written a book detailing some of their projects and programs. "Jill is the kind of person who continues to say, 'What are you doing now? What are we going to do next?'"

One of Wakeman's latest efforts is fighting on behalf of gays and lesbians. For example, by protesting against the Westboro Baptist Church.

To celebrate her activism, her godson Aaron McDaniel gave her a unique present for her 75th birthday.

"I thought how can I create a gift that sort of helps her legacy live on?" said McDaniel.

He has created a non-profit foundation in her honor and developed a fundraiser, Cups for Equality (as in coffee cups).

"One hundred twelve million Americans every day purchase a cup of coffee," he said. "If you think about it, how much change can we do if everyone just gave up one cup."

And if, instead, they donated the coffee money to causes his godmother supports. Call Primrose is one of the organization's Wakeman's foundation will help. That would have a tremendous impact there where they are seeing a record number of clients.

"Anything that is generated by the support from her website and her foundation would really help us to continue to be able to do what we're doing and to keep up with the increased demand," said Mary Watt of Call Primrose.

"I can't change the world, but maybe I can make a difference in somebody's life," said Wakeman.

We salute Wakeman for decades of dedication to her community and creating a legacy of hope and compassion.


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