Today is Wilma Rudolph Day in the state of Tennessee. For those who may not know her name, which is the vast majority of persons reading this article, Wilma was a black, female, champion sprinter. Over half a century ago, she was known as “the Tornado,” the fastest woman on earth after bringing home three gold medals from the 1960 Olympic Games.

A native of Tennessee, Wilma had a great many obstacles to overcome – and being black and female was the least of it. The youngest of twenty-two children, she was born prematurely. At the age of four, she contracted polio. Initial treatments of her leg and foot did more harm than good, causing the limb to become twisted. Throughout most of her childhood, she required ongoing treatments to correct the injury.  As if that were not bad enough, young Wilma suffered periodically from scarlet fever.

Despite all of this, she blossomed into an exceptional athlete in her teens, excelling in basketball as well as track. As a high school freshman, she was spotted by a track coach from Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial University (now TSU), who thought she could add some benefit to his track team. Who could have dreamed she would end up becoming the fastest woman in the world?

If you believe mainstream corporate media, the southeastern region of the U.S. is a seething hotbed of hate-filled racists who can’t get over the defeat their ancestors suffered in a war that ended over 150 years ago. The reality is more complicated than that. While white southern liberals and progressives tend to get overshadowed in the media by their louder, less-enlightened neighbors, they most assuredly do exist (and their numbers are growing).

Furthermore, there are states and communities in the South that continue to honor prominent African-Americans – and many are people you have never heard of. Tennessee has acknowledged Wilma Rudolph in a number of ways. Besides Wilma Rudolph Day, there is a stretch of highway and a building at TSU that bear her name. It addition, a bronze statue of Wilma stands in Clarksville, where she was born 75 years ago.

In a time where racist rhetoric and racial violence gets most of the press, it’s important to know that not everyone – in the South and elsewhere – hold those views. Not even the majority. And the minority that clings to such attitudes is slowly but surely fading.



K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.