The Civil Rights Movement in Arizona

Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale lead the fight for desegregation in the "Mississippi of the West."

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

The heart of the Civil Rights Movement was in the Deep South in states like Mississippi and Alabama. A similar struggle was happening In Phoenix, Arizona, however, which was called the "Mississippi of the West" because it segregated blacks from whites in public places.

Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale, an African-American couple who lived in Phoenix, successfully fought from the late 1940s until they died in the 1990s to make life there better for everyone.

A book by Dr. Matthew Whitaker, a professor at Arizona State University, tells the story of the Ragsdale's efforts. Race Work is a biography of the couple, but it is also a biography of the Civil Rights Movement.

"Lincoln and Eleanor Ragsdale accomplished a great deal," Dr. Whitaker told the Scholastic Kids Press Corps during an interview recently in Mesa, Arizona. "They helped Phoenix become a more open city, making it possible for things to change so that people of African descent, Latinos, anyone really, could use the same bathrooms, restaurants, movie theaters, and even cemeteries."

Whitaker first learned about the Ragsdales when he was growing up in Arizona. The couple owned the only cemetery in the city that would bury black people.

Thanks to the Ragsdales and other leaders in the community, Phoenix became the first city in the U.S. to desegregate its schools. A desegregation law was passed by the Arizona State Legislature in 1953, one year before the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed desegregation nationwide.
Mrs. Ragsdale became a real estate agent and helped African Americans in Phoenix move into neighborhoods that were once segregated. The Ragsdales started the movement by settling their own family into an all-white neighborhood in North Phoenix, despite efforts to stop them.

The Ragsdales also helped students through college by paying for scholarships.
The book's title is a term used to indicate a person's efforts to stop discrimination. "Race work" literally means work to stop racism.

Writing the book taught him some important lessons, Whitaker said. His own advice to people wanting to pursue a writing career is to find a topic you have been passionate about for a long time, learn as much about that topic as you can, be patient, and, he said, know when to stop!

Whitaker said he was inspired in his pursuit of this topic by his mother, who was a history teacher.

"She knew everything," he said.

The professor is working on two new books now. One is a biography of Muhammad Ali called I Shoot Up the World: Muhammad Ali and the Politics of Popular Protest. The other book is a history of African Americans called Over Jordan: A History of Modern Black America.


Celebrate Black History Month 

For more on the achievements and contributions of African Americans to U.S. History, return to the Scholastic Kids Press Corps' Black History Month Special Report.

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  • Subjects:
    Social Studies, African American History, American History

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