Actress, Social Activist Denise Nicholas: ‘These Kids…That’s What Gives Me Hope’

Nicholas tells Detroit Today she sees echos of the mid-60s and social upheaval in today’s social and political discord.

Jake Neher/WDET

Actress Denise Nicholas was 19 in 1964 when she left home here in Michigan to join the Free Southern Theater in Mississippi and Louisiana.

That was Freedom Summer, when voter registration volunteers were beaten, black homes were bombed, and four civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi.

Nicholas joined the theater group to edit plays, and to help use literary arts to start a dialogue among southern African Americans about the struggle for freedom. Soon, she was on stage, playing critical roles in poignant stories about civil rights.

Her career since then has been around stage, television, the big screen – and then a turn toward fiction writing – always focused on pushing the message of equality and justice.

“There was a lot of activity on campus at University of Michigan at that time, a lot of Civil Rights movement people were coming to campus to talk…[and] to convince students to join,” says Nicholas. “I was affected by that.”

She says her desire to marry acting with civil rights led her to the Free Southern Theater, which was affiliated with SNCC — Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She says her parents were worried about her involvement in the Civil Rights movement.

“My mother was terrified… my father was more philosophical about it because he was a race man” and took part in the race riot of 1943 in Detroit, says Nicholas.

Nicholas tells Detroit Today host Stephen Henderson she sees echos of the mid-60s and social upheaval in today’s social and political discord. And she says the conversation about change could be led by youth, as it was when she was a student in the ’60s.

“These kids coming now, particularly during this administration, that’s what gives me hope.”

Nicholas will be honored during the Annual Women’s History Month Leadership in Action Awards Charity Thursday night at the Roostertail Waterfront Entertainment Complex in Detroit, Michigan.

To hear more from Nicholas on Detroit Today, click on the audio player above.


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