A mother’s inspiration: “How my mom’s brave actions helped shape my future”
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Johnson & Johnson’s Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer Wanda Bryant Hope celebrates her mother’s legacy by sharing what it was like for her mother to fight for equal rights in the 1960s.
My mother always taught me about the importance of history and how critical it was to take steps to make your dreams come true. She passed away in early 2023, but her lessons of courage and resilience live on as her legacy. It may surprise you to learn that one of the things that inspired me to pursue my dreams was actually a roll of toilet paper!
Why is this roll of toilet paper so important?
It all started on February 21, 1961. On that day, students from Morris College—a small historically Black college in Sumter, South Carolina—should have been attending classes, studying and enjoying college life. But these students had a higher calling: Their purpose was to change the world. They were actively involved in the civil rights movement and wanted to ensure equal rights for all Americans.
My mother, Tillie Bing Bryant, was one of those students. That afternoon, she participated in a lunch counter sit-in at a Kress Five and Dime Department Store in Sumter.
I don’t mind being in jail, as long as I know one day, when I have children of my own, they will have privilege and can do the things we are fighting so hard for today.
At that time in the South, Black people were not allowed to sit at the same lunch counters, drink from the same water fountains, or use the same restrooms as white people. So this was a brave and courageous act on her part.
My mom had a very light complexion, so she was able to sit at the counter and order lunch without being detected as a Black person. She ordered a burger and a soda. When the food arrived, she signaled for the Black male students waiting outside to enter and quickly pushed the food down to them to eat.
As you can imagine, chaos ensued.
Sheriff’s officers were called to arrest the students, who were dragged out of the store by their collars. They were threatened with police dogs and water hoses before being thrown into police cars and sent to jail.
My mother was arrested several times during the civil rights movement. During this particular jail stay, she wrote her story on a roll of prison toilet paper, describing her fight for equality and freedom and why it was important to her. The passage on that roll that means the most to me is when she talks about her mother telling her not to “get in jail.”
In response, she wrote: “Mommy, I don’t mind being in jail, as long as I know one day, when I have children of my own, they will have privilege and can do the things we are fighting so hard for today.”
In our commitment to take care of the world, one person at a time—to, in effect, change the world—it’s not just our aspirations and inspirations that set us apart. It’s what we do to help make them come true.
As I remember my mother fondly, this cherished story of hers is a constant reminder to me that no matter what drives us, inspires us, we have to take action in order to make a difference.
I see that spirit in what we do at Johnson & Johnson every day.
Throughout the year, we work to support our employees’ passions and their efforts to be positive forces in the world. This is particularly true on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when we celebrate his life, legacy and courageous efforts to advance a more inclusive society.
It is our hope that on this national day of service, our employees in the United States and Puerto Rico will be inspired to live into Our Credo values and honor Dr. King’s legacy by giving back and serving the communities where they work and live. In our commitment to take care of the world, one person at a time—to, in effect, change the world—it’s not just our aspirations and inspirations that set us apart. It’s what we do to help make them come true.
Watch this video to hear more from Wanda Bryant Hope about her mother’s activism and how the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. inspires us all to help make the world a better place.