How Ella Mae Wray Seized the Opportunities of 1968
For a young black woman trying to raise three children amid a personal tragedy, the politics of that year were intensely personal.
In response to “1968 and the Making of Modern America,” a year-long project here at The Atlantic, Jeffrey C. Wray, a professor at Michigan State University, shares a story about his mother, Ella Mae Wray, who would never be the same after that year:
Our family’s life was altered by tragedy in 1968. On a late May night, a month after the assassination of Martin Luther King, my own father was murdered in my small hometown of Medina, Ohio, just south of Cleveland.
I was eight. My two brothers, Joe and Jonathan, were 10 and four. We were awakened by sirens in front of our house unaware of what had happened and taken to neighbors. Early the next morning our mother came into that strange bedroom and gathered her boys around her. I’ve never forgotten the look on her 28-year-old face as she told us that our father, Joe Wray, had been shot and killed.
He was 33.
After a few minutes, my brother Joe asked her what was going to happen to us. My mother pulled the three of us in tight and said, “I don’t know. I don’t know what is going to happen to us.”
That spring and summer were rough-and-tumble days of protests and movements; and brutal, violent assassinations of Martin Luther King in April and Robert Kennedy in June. We felt all of the stress, tension, and energy of the times in our small town and in our black neighborhood within that small town. It was in those times—in that climate—that my mother had to decide what to do next in her life and for us, her children.
And in the decade and a half since the Brown decision, in the four years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in the two months since her husband had been gunned down in a small American town, my 28- year-old mother determined what she was going to do for her family’s future. On a midsummer night in July 1968, Ella Mae Wray once again gathered her three boys and told us of her bold plan: She was going to college.
If this was a difficult plan for a black woman with three small children in 1968, it might have been impossible 10 years earlier. After my father’s death, realistic options for a young black woman of my mother’s working-class circumstances might have been domestic work or a low-level job at the community hospital. But consider what had come in her own lifetime, before the night of her husband’s death: not just the Civil Rights Act and Brown v. Board, but also sit-ins, the Freedom Summer, marches, court battles, Malcolm, Martin, and four little girls murdered in the struggle. So, a lone black woman’s decision to take a bold step was greatly informed and influenced by the political actions and movements of the times and their precursors. The personal was indeed the political.
Let’s be clear: Even with years of agitation from Civil Rights and black power movements, the Red Sea did not part for my mother, but a space was made. A sliver, a crack. Just enough for a young black mother in 1968 to think that college was a possibility and that a college degree might make for a better future for her and her boys. And once she got into that small space of opportunity, she fought to increase it, at first simply by being there and eventually by insisting on her right to be there.
In the fall of 1968, on the heels of personal tragedy and national unrest, Ella Mae Wray went to college. She changed her life. She changed the lives of her three sons. In 1968 she was known as Baby Ella after her mother who was big Ella. By 1972 she was Ella Mae Wray with a BA degree. A few years later she was Professor Ella Mae Wray, MA. By the early 1980s she was Dr. Ella Mae Wray Wilson, a vice president of student affairs. She passed away in 2000, much too young at 62, but almost every day I think about her being that frightened young widow in 1968.
50 years ago was the starting point of her journey.
The personal is still made possible by political actions and agitations. Fight every day to create space. Demand it. Then hold it open so that a young black mother with three boys in tow can step into a future that could not possibly be imagined in 1968.
If you’re willing to share recollections, illustrative cultural moments, reflections about family life, anecdotes about technology, photos, or anything else that could help younger people understand what 1968 was like, emails to firstname.lastname@example.org on whatever you find of interest would be much appreciated.