She Leaves Legacy to Protect and Inspire

Vashti Cromwell McCollum, 93, In Memoriam

The Freedom From Religion Foundation staff is very sad to report the news that Foundation Honorary Officer, Vashti Cromwell McCollum, 93, died Sunday night, Aug. 20, in a nursing home in Champaign, Ill.

Vashti became “a very unpopular woman,” as she put it, for taking and winning the first case before the U.S. Supreme Court to halt religious instruction in the public schools. McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203 212 (1948) is still the linchpin of Establishment Clause law separating religion from public schools.

Her beautifully-written account of what turned into an ordeal remains one of the most readable testaments to the personal toll exacted when the wall of separation between church and state is violated at the expensive of school children–and their parents. One Woman’s Fight, first published in 1951, has been kept in print by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which published an updated version with family photographs from the era.

Vashti’s idyllic life as part of a faculty family in Champaign, Illinois, changed radically when their oldest boy, Jim, entered the fourth grade, and was pressured to participate in religious instruction. When she withdrew Jim from the class, he was put in what amounted to detention. After filing suit to stop the unconstitutional instruction, Vashti was branded “that awful McCollum woman” and their family became community pariahs. Despite losing at both trial and appellate level, Vashti did not given up. On March 8, 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision delivered by Justice Hugo Black, vindicated Vashti and the constitution in a lovely 8-1 decision that is still precedent.

Vashti went on to serve two terms as president of the American Humanist Association, also receiving its “distinguished service” award. She earned her master’s degree in mass communication as a returning student, and by the late 1950s became a world traveler, often going “surface,” visiting nearly 150 countries and all seven continents, including Antarctica. She was featured in the Foundation’s 1988 film, “Champions of the First Amendment.” She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame as a nonagenarian.

“Of one thing I am sure: I am sure that I fought not only for what I earnestly believed to be right, but for the truest kind of religious freedom intended by the First Amendment, the complete separation of church and state,” Vashti wrote.

“Vashti was a personal friend, a lovely person in every way, with a pixie-like charm and clear-eyed judgment that never diminished. We and the world will miss her vision tremendously. We hope her triumph in the face of a state/church battle that looked hopeless, her courage and her dedication, will inspire the rest of us to do more to protect her legal legacy, and the precious constitutional principle of the separation of church and state,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president.

“We send our condolences to Jim McCollum and other members of her loving family,” added Dan Barker, Foundation co-president.

The October Freethought Today will carry more about Vashti McCollum’s life.

Below is Jim McCollum’s notice:

The Passing of an Era

Vashti Ruth Cromwell McCollum, the gutsy and courageous relator (plaintiff) in the landmark US Supreme Court case, Peo. of the State of Illinois, ex rel McCollum -vs- Board of Education, 333 US 203 (1948), passed into history shortly after 7:00 pm on Sunday, 20 August. With her during her final days were her three sons, James, Dannel and Errol, her two daughters-in-law, three grandchildren and a great grandchild, together with several close friends. She was seven weeks shy of her 94th birthday.

If all that can be said of her was the important contribution she made to US constitutional law, she would still be a shining light in the 20th century; for the decision she won before the high court (8 to 1) set the precedent that applied the strictures of the prohibition of the establishment of religion clause of the first amendment to the US Constitution to the several states by virtue of the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment. Albeit that decision, written by Justice Hugo L. Black, is under intense attack by the radical Christian right, it still stands as a beacon in the annals of constitutional law in the US.

In her later years, Vashti became a world traveler and an accomplished amateur photographer, winning salons at the local Champaign County Camera Club on a regular basis. She was in great demand to present her interesting, informative and entertaining slide shows to all kinds of groups, including at the assisted care facility in Champaign, where she spent her last years. Her travels took her to all seven of the world’s continents. She traveled on whatever conveyance was available, ferries, like the ones we read about in third world countries that turn over and sink, trains and buses filled with peasants and their variety of livestock and puddle jumping airlines. She was even trapped in the Amazon jungle for a period, while pursuing an adventure on an historic railroad that had been discontinued shortly before she arrived. She traveled to places that no longer exist and to others, now too unsafe for tourists to visit. Most of her travels were on a shoestring. The Soviets even gave her bargain cruise for two months just for bringing her slide shows along. Vashti was clearly her mother’s daughter and knew how to divine the bargains and travel on the cheap!

Most important of all, she was the best mother one could have! She and her husband of over fifty years, John Paschal McCollum, managed to raise three boys and put them through college (a lawyer, a historian and a successful businessman), two with advanced degrees and all of whom have made positive contributions to society. A finer tribute cannot be given to anyone!

She will be sorely missed by friends and family, together with those whose lives she has touched in one way or another!

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) that has been working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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