How Octavius Catto is keeping up the fight for Black voting rights | Michael Coard

A century-and-a-half after his death, the Philadelphia icon’s inheritors are continuing his fight

October 4, 2022 6:30 am

Top left, Institute for Colored Youth bylaws (1865); top right, students gather outside Humphreys Hall (undated, circa 1906); bottom left, Institute for Colored Youth baseball team (undated, pre-1924); bottom right, letter by Octavius V. Catto dated 10/2/1870 (Photo collage via the Cheyney University archives/The Philadelphia Tribune).

This Oct. 10, the O.V. Catto Voter Empowerment Initiative and the Philadelphia City Commissioners will commemorate Octavius Valentine Catto: the historic voting rights crusader; civil rights activist; Institute for Colored Youth (now Cheyney University of Pennsylvania) administrator and educator; and Negro Leagues Baseball organizing forerunner.

They selected that date because it was precisely 151 years ago on Election Day, Oct. 10, 1871, that this great Philadelphia hero gave his life in the battle for Black voting rights.

In this 2017 photo, Michael Coard’s three godsons, Tyray, from left, Zyon and Jah wear Cheyney University baseball caps and Cheyney University buttons as they surround the O.V. Catto Memorial outside City Hall ( Photo courtesy of Michael Coard/The Philadelphia Tribune).

But Catto’s battle continues in the persons of modern-day pro-democracy voting rights advocates, who have accepted the baton from him and are running speedily to victory with it.

Some of the modern-day pro-democracy voting rights advocates here in the City of Brotherly Love include the likes of O.V. Catto Initiative Chair Joe “Jemadari” Certaine; Catto Voter Education Ministry Co-chair and African Episcopal Church of Saint Thomas Representative Dr. Gregory J. Allen; City Commissioners Lisa M. Deeley, Omar Sabir and Seth Bluestein; Mayor Jim Kenney; Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity President Dr. Robert Collier, NAACP Philadelphia chapter President Catherine Hicks, Cheyney University President Aaron Walton, National Association of Kawaida Organizations President Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza, and several others.

Jemadari (which, by the way, is a Kwaida/Swahili word referencing a top military rank in the nationalist Black liberation movement) explains his involvement in celebrating Catto as follows:

“Until now, the mainstream historians would have us believe that Catto’s advocacy and activism died when he was murdered. We say that Catto initiated a voting and civil rights movement that includes Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Viola Liuzzo, Malcolm X and many other activists who have made the ultimate sacrifice,” Jemadari  said. “Contrary to the mission of the mainstream authors and historians, the ‘Spirit of Catto’ motivates and inspires all of us who continue his work. He leads us forward, like the pillar of fire through the darkness of fear and intimidation that would serve to keep us as lesser than who we truly are.”

And Jemadari made it clear that the struggle didn’t end with Martin, Malcolm and the other ancestors. In fact, he passionately pointed out that the ongoing struggle shouldn’t be commandeered by the elder activists.

Catto’s light in 2022 continues to shine and shine brightly in the increasingly victorious struggles for voting rights, educational rights, and professional sports rights.

Instead, as he stated, “Today’s young activists have got to be buttressed by a knowledge that their ideas and work aren’t being ignored by the ‘Old Guard’ civil rights leadership who we all have been raised to venerate. Were it not been for young men like Catto [who was only 32-years-old when he was assassinated], there wouldn’t be a ‘movement’ of the type we subscribe to. The Catto spirit energized the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense that evolved from the Catto spirit that existed in Lowndes County, Miss. and was organized because of the racist political suppression that was unchecked until the emergence of the Panthers.

“The Catto spirit infused the Black men in Louisiana who formed the Deacons for Defense and Justice who took a stand against intimidation and suppression by the same type of people we have had to fight since the founding of the country,” he continued. “Those folks are at work right now. We know it! We all know it!

“Our enemies are demonstrating the same type of provocation that engendered the Panthers and the Deacons. The Spirit of Minister Louis Farrakhan’s 1995 Million Man March is still strong among us and we must rely upon it to maintain the light that remains Octavius Valentine Catto,” he concluded.

150 years after his murder, the resurrection of Octavius Catto continues | Michael Coard

Here’s the background 151 years ago that brings us to the upcoming Oct. 10, 2022 event that proves Catto’s light continues to shine. On that Oct. 10, 1871 Election Day – a block from Catto’s home at Eighth and South Streets, a white man, angered by Catto’s relentless and courageous rallying cries to Black men to fearlessly exercise their 1870 Fifteenth Amendment right to vote – brutally and cowardly murdered him with two shots to the body.

The man then fled to Chicago but was extradited six years later. Despite having been identified by six eyewitnesses during the 1877 trial, an all-white jury acquitted him on all charges after a white cop testified on the white murderer’s behalf.

But that didn’t dim Catto’s light.

In addition to being a fearless voting rights and civil rights activist as well as a math professor, an English professor and principal of male students at the Institute for Colored Youth, which eventually became Cheyney University, Catto was also a star Black baseball player, strategic Black baseball manager, and tactical Black baseball organizer whose vision helped lay the foundation for the establishment of Negro Leagues Baseball in 1920.

Catto’s light in 2022 continues to shine and shine brightly in the increasingly victorious struggles for voting rights, educational rights, and professional sports rights.

Join Jemadari, me and hundreds of others as we proudly celebrate the life and legacy of Catto on Oct. 10 at 10:00 a.m. at the Octavius Catto statue on the south side of City Hall. For more information, call (215) 510-9928 or email [email protected].

Also, tune in to the “Radio Courtroom” show, hosted by yours truly, on WURD96.1FM and at at 2:35 p.m. on  Oct. 8 when I interview Jemadari about the Oct. 10 tribute.

And as I consistently say in regard to all of our great Black heroes of the past, “Never forget. Always avenge.”

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Michael Coard
Michael Coard

Opinion contributor Michael Coard, an attorney and radio host, is a columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @michaelcoard.