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October 12, 2021 HUMAN RIGHTS

Human Rights Hero: Billie Holiday

An Uncommon Heroine (April 7, 1915–July 17, 1959)

by Hon. Ernestine Steward Gray (Ret.)

Generally, when we think of a heroine, someone like Billie Holiday doesn’t usually come to mind. This article is written to show why that is a mistake and to highlight what we (old and young alike) can learn from Holiday, who was a strong woman who embodied the fight for racial justice.

Born Eleanora Fagan and later nicknamed Lady Day, Holiday’s commitment to fighting racial injustice arose from personal tragedies and multiple traumas she experienced in her life, which included her father’s death when he was denied medical treatment because of racial prejudice. At age nine, she was brought before the juvenile court for truancy (skipping school), removed from her mother’s care, and sent to a Catholic reform school as the disposition in her case. At age 11, she dropped out of school and was the victim of attempted rape. In order to “protect her as a state witness,” she was sent again to the Catholic boarding school. After her release, she worked in a brothel alongside her mother. Before she even turned 14, she experienced child commercial sexual exploitation (commonly referred to as sex trafficking). Violence and abuse would follow her throughout her life.

Holiday’s career in showbusiness started at age 14, and she signed her first recording contract at 20 years old. But alongside the promise of her musical career, Billie Holiday lived and saw firsthand the active enforcement of Jim Crow laws, ongoing lynchings in the South, and discrimination in northern cities. During her years performing, she was frequently required to use segregated entrances separate from other band members; she was not allowed to use public accommodations; and she was forced to use a bus to travel to many engagements, unlike her white counterparts. 

Born Eleanora Fagan and later nicknamed Lady Day, Holiday’s commitment to fighting racial injustice arose from personal tragedies.

Born Eleanora Fagan and later nicknamed Lady Day, Holiday’s commitment to fighting racial injustice arose from personal tragedies.


At some point in her career, she became addicted to drugs. In 1939, at the age of 23, her struggle with addiction was compounded by racist policing of Black jazz artists, and she became the target of harassment by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. In 1947, she was arrested on drug charges and had to defend herself in court pro se because no public defender would represent her. Rather than receive the treatment she needed, she was incarcerated for a year.

Author Neil Postman, in his book The Disappearance of Childhood, said that “children are the living messages that we send to a future that we will never see.” Reflecting on this, what then is Billie Holiday’s message and why should she be called a civil rights heroine?

During her lifetime, Billie Holiday battled internal and external demons, yet rather than give in to the pain and hardships she experienced, she used her voice to sing about and bring attention to racial injustices that she had witnessed. Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit” in 1939 at the age of 24, performing it as a part of her show at Café Society, a New York City Greenwich Village Cabaret Club. Strange Fruit was first written as a poem by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher in the Bronx in 1937 and put to music in 1939. The poem was inspired by a well-known photograph of two Black teenagers who had been lynched in the town of Marion, Indiana, in 1930. They were being held in jail for allegedly murdering a white factory worker and raping his female companion. “A mob dragged the boys from the jail, killed them and hung them from a tree for all to see.”

“Strange Fruit” became Holiday’s battle cry. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics, allegedly believing that the song would incite riots, forbade Holiday from singing the song at her performances. However, Holiday would not comply and usually closed all of her engagements with the singing of “Strange Fruit.”

Billie Holiday’s message to us is that even those who’ve been impacted by hardships and injustices can be some of the greatest champions for change. By all accounts, Billie Holiday’s life was filled with many challenges and difficulties. It would have been easier if she had just given in to the demons or passively accepted the role of singer and entertainer. But she did not. Her message also teaches us that we should be passionate about our beliefs and that we should not be forced to emulate someone else. She is reported to have said, when suggested that she should be more like Ella Fitzgerald, “If I’m going to sing like anyone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.” From Billie Holiday, we want to give our young people messages of determination, truth, peace, and hope, and, as singer Janet Jackson said, “a belief in our right and our responsibility to be equal members of society.”

The “living message” that Billie Holiday sends with the story of her life is to use our voice to call out injustice wherever we see it and to be consistent and steadfast in delivering the message, including rising up against injustice, sometimes at great costs to our own freedom.

This systems-involved young Black girl went on to change the world. While not recognized or honored in her lifetime, she inspired multiple future generations of singers, both Black and white, including Frank Sinatra, Etta James, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Tracy Chapman, Erykah Badu, Norah Jones, and countless others. Her legacy as a fighter against injustice has also lasted well beyond her lifetime. In fact, “Strange Fruit” became an anthem in the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, and her original version from 1939 has been streamed more than 10 million times.

Today, we still see too many children and youth facing similar injustices. These hardships have real impacts on their physical and mental health. But by fighting against injustice and sharing their truths, those with lived experience can help to make the world a better place not only for ourselves but also for the children who we send to a time we will never see.

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Hon. Ernestine Gray (Ret.)

Judge, Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Bench, New Orleans, LA

Hon. Ernestine Steward Gray retired on December 31, 2020, after more than 36 years as a judge on the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Bench, New Orleans, Louisiana. For more than 21 of those years, she handled primarily a dependency docket, managing cases from the initial custody proceeding through permanency. Giving youth space and voice in the proceedings was an important component of her process.