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As a child, Gilda Goings always wondered if the water in the "whites only" water fountain was any different from the fountain she and the other "coloreds" in her hometown of Savannah, Ga., were forced to use.
"I later found out it was the same water," Goings said jokingly. "My mother would say to us: 'You're not less than, you're not better than -- you're just as good as (them).' "
Goings, 63, has lived in Rochester for more than 13 years. She and her family were active in the 1960s civil rights movement from the start, working with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders at the forefront of peacefully changing racial inequities across the nation.
Though Goings faced prejudices daily while growing up -- from verbal abuse to unequal pay -- one defining moment propelled her family further into the cause. In 1963, her cousin and two other peaceful protesters were arrested for attempting to dine at the "whites only" counter of an S.H. Kress & Co. restaurant in Savannah.
"We said, 'No more,' and that's when my mother decided that the only thing that's going to change this is the vote," Goings said. "The only way we are going to be able to vote is if you could read."
In 1960, according to a U.S. census report, the number of illiterate people older than 15 in the United States exceeded 3 million, with the majority in Southern states. This was a major impediment for minorities who, prior to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, were subjected to literacy tests administered to them as a prerequisite to vote.
Goings' mother, Charlotte Dawson, a stay-at-home mother of five, became a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was headed by King until his assassination in 1968. The SCLC launched a campaign in the early 1960s to register as many African-Americans as possible to vote.
Dawson, along with other organization members, recruited hundreds of illiterate men and women from the community who wanted to vote. They met three nights a week at the St. Peters Baptist Church in Savannah to learn how to read and write.
"My mother got with Dr. King, and they all met together and they decided that this is the way we do it," Goings said. "We do it nonviolently, and we do it with love."
Goings recalled one night when her mother was preparing documents to teach to those unable to read. Among the documents was the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, which some people -- most of whom couldn't even write their name -- might be asked to read or write as part of the literacy test.
"I remember tears falling, because she realized how unfair that was," Goings said. "Some of them would never get to that point of reading all of that, and the laws had to change before they could really vote."
As a teenager in the mid-1960s, Goings witnessed a sermon by King at a church in Savannah.
"He was dynamic and so articulate ... He was bigger than life to everyone by that time," Goings said of her brief encounter with the civil rights leader. "I was able to shake his hand and say "hello.' That was impactful."
Goings' cousin, Carolyn Coleman -- now a legislator for Guilford County in North Carolina -- also recalled her childhood being inspired by her mother and aunt who participated in the civil rights efforts with King in Georgia. She later collaborated with King herself, in Alabama during a series of peaceful protests. She said the leader was able to not only increase awareness of the movement but also inspire those around him.
"He was a fearless man," Coleman said of King. "He was always leading the efforts, and he was a very interesting person to talk with ... He was always interested in relating God's work to what we were doing."
Goings brought the civil rights movement's lasting effect to Rochester. She has used the prejudices she faced growing up to promote equity beyond race, gender and ability. She is a spiritual care coordinator at Heritage Christian Services, where every day she brings love and positivity to those with developmental disabilities.
"It has a huge impact on the way I look at life and the way I look at people ... I work with people with all type of abilities and I look at them as people -- not judging them," she said. "Red, yellow, black or white, they all are precious in (God's) sight."