The Word Is ‘Nemesis’: The Fight to Integrate the National Spelling Bee

Published June 6, 2017 by kitlat

It’s funny that it wasn’t all that long ago when people of color couldn’t participate in the National Spelling Bee, much less win.

Longreads

Cynthia R. Greenlee | Longreads | June 2017 | 2,900 words ( 12 minutes)

In 1962, teenager George F. Jackson wrote a letter to President John F. Kennedy with an appeal: “I am a thirteen-year-old colored boy and I like to spell. Do you think you could help me and get the Lynchburg bee opened to all children?”

The long road to the National Spelling Bee has always begun with local contests, often sponsored by a local newspaper. Nine publications, organized by the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal, banded together in 1925 to create the first National Bee in Washington, D.C.

Decades later, George Jackson was protesting the policies of the local newspaper that sponsored the Lynchburg, Virginia contest, which excluded black students from participating in the official local competition — the necessary step that might send a lucky, word-loving Lynchburg child to nationals. There was more at stake than a…

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