Born in the southern United States, Nell Braxton Gibson is the elder of two daughters of professional educators. She and her sister grew up as faculty brats on Black College campuses in Texas, Florida and Mississippi.
In Florida Mrs. Gibson and her sister, Rosemary became close friends of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, their mentor and teacher. In Mississippi, in the 1950s their parents, lifetime members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), worked with Civil Rights Leader, Medgar Evers, on increasing membership in the Mississippi NAACP. In the early 1960s, Mrs. Gibson, who lost a friend to murder and lived less than sixty miles from Money, Mississippi where fourteen-year-old, Emmett Till was lynched, became inspired by the stand of Rosa Parks and that of Autherine Lucy in the neighboring state of Alabama. Their bravery began to pull her into a commitment to the struggle for Civil Rights, undergirded by annual trips to New York where she and her sister attended an integrated camp in the Catskill Mountains and saw the possibilities integration offered.
In 1962 Nell Braxton became part of the country's growing civil rights effort known as the Student Movement. She was attending Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia when she and fellow students began walking on picket lines, participating in mass demonstrations, registering first-time Black voters, and were subsequently arrested for protesting segregated hearings at the Georgia State Capitol. They chose to spend time in the Fulton County jail rather than plead guilty to the charges.
At the end of that school year, the Braxton family left the south and moved to Sacramento, California. There they toured the northern region of the state speaking out against the racial injustices taking place in the southern United States, especially in the state of Mississippi. A year later, their close friend, Medgar Evers, was assassinated in his front yard in Jackson, Mississippi. His was a murder that strengthened their resolve to work for the eradication of injustice wherever it existed.
Mrs. Gibson's personal commitment to justice led her to the international stage and support for newly independent African nations. In 1964 she worked in a summer program in the newly freed country of what was then called Tanganika. Upon her return from East Africa she began challenging the Episcopal Church in which she grew up, calling upon it to live up to its promise of full acceptance for all people and urging it to be a voice for the powerless.
Two years after her return from Tanganika (now Tanzania) Nell Braxton married Bert Gibson and moved to New York City. The couple's commitment to social justice, led them to join their local church's Black and Brown Caucus where they demanded reparations from the Episcopal Church for past injustices against people of color. Based on a confrontation between the Caucus and her local parish, Mrs. Gibson came to the attention of Bishop Paul Moore, Jr., who appointed her to his Committee on Minority Unrest. She later spent six and a half years as his Executive Assistant. While engaged in social justice work Nell Gibson joined members of the Interfaith Council for Corporate Responsibility in its work to dismantle apartheid in southern Africa. She was among the protesters arrested outside the South African Consulate in New York City for demonstrating against South Africa's apartheid regime. For two years following that arrest, she was denied entrance into southern Africa but in 1987, was granted documents which allowed her to take the first of many trips to that part of the continent. Because of her work, Archbishop Desmond Tutu appointed her a member of his steering committee of international religious leaders, who helped design a five-year plan to dismantle apartheid.
Back at home, Nell Gibson and her family befriended and took in members of the exiled South African community. During that time she published articles supporting their cause and spoke out against the atrocities she had witnessed there and in the neighboring country of Namibia. Her teenage children also got involved in the struggle as members of Youth Against Apartheid and Racism. From 1995 to 2000 Mrs. Gibson served as the Associate General Secretary for Inclusiveness and Justice at the National Council of Churches, supporting the search for the murderers of Vernon Dahmer, a civil rights worker who was killed by a fire bomb in Mississippi in 1966, and working with a southern coalition of religious leaders to rebuild black churches that were torched in the 1980s and 90s. She is a past Coordinator for the Episcopal Urban Caucus, a social justice organization whose mission is to stand in solidarity with poor and oppressed people. She and her husband, Bert, are the parents of a daughter, Erika, the first African-American Board-Certified veterinary neurosurgeon. Their son, Bert Gibson, III was the victim of a fatal accident at Barnard College in 1992.
Dr. Gibson was the first woman to serve on the Board of Trustees at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University and, in 1985, was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree for her work in bringing more women and people of color onto the Board. She holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English and is listed in Who's Who Among African Americans. In 1991 she was presentd with the National Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE) President's Award for alleviating oppression throughout the African Diaspora. In 2007 she was awarded a Trinity Transformational Fellowship for her social justice work. The fellowship allowed her to spend a month in South Africa and Namibia gathering information on the bloodless transition of both countries from apartheid to independence. In February of 2009, Dr. Gibson received the New York Chapter of the UBE's Absalom Jones Award for leadership within the Episcopal Church; in May of 2009 the Manhattan Country School honored her with a Living the Dream Mentor Award. In February 2012, the president of the Episcopal Church's House of Deputies honored her with the Medallion for Exemplary Service, and in July 2014, the National Union of Black Episcopalians awarded her the Dr. Verna Josephine Dozier Honor Award. In May of 2016 she was honored as a Distinguished Alumna by Empire State College. Dr. Gibson is the former Chair of the New York Diocesan Committee on Reparations for Slavery. Dr. Gibson received the Bishop's Cross from the Episcopal Diocese of New York on November 4, 2016 for her social justice work. She was highlighted in a 2016 New York Daily News article on Unsung Heroes of Civil Rights and in February 2017 was shown with fellow civil rights activists on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.
TOO PROUD TO BEND: Journey of a Civil Rights Foot Soldier