Civil Rights in Columbia

February 1, 2014

Courtney Siceloff fought for peace and equality to the end

Mary Siceloff remembers her mother’s encouraging, sing-song voice when she would pull her two young children together to say: “Daddy’s been arrested.” Her daddy was Courtney Siceloff, who died in Savannah on Jan. 28 at the age of 92.

Mary Siceloff remembers her mother’s encouraging, sing-song voice when she would pull her two young children together to say: “Daddy’s been arrested.”

Her daddy was Courtney Siceloff, who died in Savannah on Jan. 28 at the age of 92.

Courtney Siceloff became a lightning rod of the civil rights movement as the first executive director of the Penn Center on St. Helena Island from 1950 to 1969.

Courtney and Elizabeth Siceloff were Quakers who spent their entire lives pushing for peace and social justice — in Afghanistan, Atlanta and a quiet Gullah island where Martin Luther King Jr. escaped to plan his nonviolent revolution.

The Siceloff children — John and Mary, both born in Beaufort — had to learn early that being punished for challenging the status quo was not a bad thing.

As a young man, Courtney Siceloff was a conscientious objector in World War II. He served his country during and after the war, but in peaceful ways.

And at 80, he was arrested with three other octogenarians for refusing to leave the Atlanta office of U.S. Sen. Zell Miller because he would not meet with them to answer questions about America getting into war in Iraq.

The old codgers were upset when the criminal trespass charges were dropped. They thought the senator was trying to sweep them under the rug.

It was like the 1960s on St. Helena Island, when Courtney Siceloff felt the nation had a problem that needed discussion, and a peaceful outcome.

“It’s the end of an era,” Mary said. “A lot of the civil rights leaders are passing over, as they say. It’s an important part of our history, and the people who walked it are on a different path now.”

‘message was simple’

The way John Siceloff recalls it, everything changed for the Siceloff family after the 1963 March on Washington.

Word got out that King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference leaders met at Penn, one of the only places in the South that blacks and whites could meet or sleep under the same roof.

At the same time, some turned up the pressure on King, calling him a Communist and anti-American.

In Beaufort, the Siceloffs were shunned. John recalls being denied a haircut and being spat on by an adult white man. Mary’s voice cracks when she recalls her mother taking her to Belk for school clothes, only to be ignored by a clerk who would not ring up the sale, or even acknowledge their presence.

At the Penn campus, their father was shaping an institution that started as a school for freed slaves in 1862.

Courtney Siceloff worked with his close friend Leroy E. Browne Sr. of St. Helena, South Carolina’s first black elected official after Reconstruction, to recruit and train in a Penn Center “boot camp” a new generation of young black community activists.

It was a scary time, with death threats but no real violence.

“But I want to say at the same time that it was part of the work that Mom and Dad did,” John said. “Their lives were devoted to service and to helping those who had little or nothing, giving voice to the voiceless, but they also believed that true change came when all sides participated a path toward change. They made many efforts over the years to reach out to prominent white families, prominent racist families. Their message was simple: We all have to live together.”

‘He showed up’

The Siceloffs left the Lowcountry for Afghanistan and a Peace Corps assignment. Then it was on to Atlanta to work with the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights as the children grew into adults with a most unusual Lowcountry childhood.

John is best known as the Emmy-winning creator and executive director of the “NOW on PBS” news show. He co-wrote the 2008 book, “Your America: Democracy’s Local Heroes.”

He left “NOW” after a decade and now owns and operates Jumpstart Global Media, doing television and film work around the world. He also has started a nonprofit organization dedicated to college completion for at-risk youth, especially youth of color. And for the past year he has served on the Penn Center board.

Mary also has worked in television and film, as well as communications, marketing and branding. She is the business development director for HunterMaclean Attorneys in Savannah, where her father had lived since 2008. She was not there when her mother died in 2003, so she was determined to move from California to be with her father.

Courtney Siceloff had slipped into the land of dementia in recent years, but he was a fighter for a better world well into his 80s.

“He was working on issues as varied as opposing the death penalty, opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, working against institutional racism and working to give a voice to those who had nothing,” John said, “particularly the homeless in Atlanta.”

He and Elizabeth built a little structure in their back yard for use by “Connie,” a homeless, mentally ill woman.

Courtney Siceloff’s last trip to St. Helena was for Leroy Browne’s funeral at Brick Baptist Church in 2007. Courtney surprised his daughter by getting up to speak.

“It was probably the last time he put that many words together, but he wanted to say something about Leroy and he did,” Mary said. “It was a little mini-miracle, but it meant a lot to him. They worked hand-in-hand in everything, and he wanted to be there, and he was. I told Courtney in his last days that he showed up. He always showed up.”

Both Courtney and Elizabeth Siceloff asked that their bodies be used by the Emory University School of Medicine, then cremated and scattered at Hunting Island — a place the family always found freedom.

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