Orange was born in Birmingham, Alabama, but moved to Atlanta, Georgia in the early 1960s. Orange, at over 6'3" tall and over 300 pounds, was physically impressive but deeply committed to non-violence. In his attempts to convert gang members in Chicago to adopt non-violent principles, he endured nine beatings without resistance. He was also known for preaching and singing in a strong baritone voice.
Orange had a large family, several of whom were active in the civil rights movement. He was the third of his parents' seven children. His father worked in the large ACIPCO foundry in Birmingham, but was fired in 1957 for union activity. Orange's mother was very active in the civil rights movement and also attended the Monday night mass meetings at the Sixteenth Street church. Still, he told an interviewer on January 15, 2000, "I was afraid to go home and tell my mamma that her daughters, one 17 and the other 14, were in jail. But that's the way it was in those days, as we waged — and won — a non-violent campaign against police clubs and police dogs."
At the time of his death in February, 2008, at Atlanta's Crawford Long Hospital, Orange was recovering from gallbladder surgery. Orange had had a triple heart bypass operation about six years before his death, and his health had declined over the years, despite his robust physique.
Orange's wife of 39 years, Cleophas, known as Cleo, survived him, as did three daughters and a son. His youngest daughter, Pamela Aquica Orange, died on March 11, 2007. His daughter Jamida Orange spoke to the press on behalf of the family at the time of his death.
Civil rights era
Speaking 1993, Andrew Young called Orange one of the "real soldiers of the movement ... a gentle giant." Quoted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at Orange's death, Young said that when Orange was hired as a field organizer in the early 1960s, "He couldn't afford to go to college and was working as a chef. He quit his job and started going with us, although we were only paying $10 a week. And he never left."
In 1962, when Orange was only a year out of high school, he attended one of the weekly Monday night mass meetings at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and was transfixed by a speech on equality by Reverend Ralph Abernathy. In a meeting in the church basement later that night, he volunteered to risk arrest picketing a local store the next day. He was arrested, the first of at least 104 arrests for picketing or acts of civil disobedience.
As part of his civil rights work for the SCLC in Alabama, he was arrested and jailed prior to conviction in 1965 for contributing to the delinquency of minors by enlisting them to work in voter registration drives. His detention in Perry County, Alabama, sparked fears that he would be lynched, and a protest march was organized to support him.
During that march on February 18, 1965, an Alabama state trooper fatally shot a young man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, in the stomach. In 2007, a former trooper named James B. Fowler, 74, was indicted for the death of Jackson. Living witnesses and tapes of the day of the killing were expected to be used at his trial.
The 1965 uproar over Jackson's shooting during Orange's incarceration soon led to the famed Selma to Montgomery marches, including the infamous police brutality on "Bloody Sunday", and the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.
Orange was a project coordinator at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from 1965 to 1970, then later became a regional coordinator with the AFL-CIO in Atlanta, Georgia. He worked on at least 300 labor-organizing campaigns in that role.
In 1977, Orange worked on the organizing campaign of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union and won union representation and benefits for the workers at J.P. Stevens textile and clothing factories. After that success, Orange was assigned to the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Department until 1996, when he joined their Atlanta field office.
Since 1995, Orange had served as the founder and general coordinator for the Martin Luther King, Jr. March Committee-Africa/African American Renaissance Committee, Inc., which coordinated commemorative events honoring King and promoted commercial ties between Atlanta and other United States locations and South Africa.
In 2004, Orange protested the interruption of Atlanta's King commemorations due to an uninvited appearance by George W. Bush. Secret Service agents had initially planned to force organizers to cut their agenda short to accommodate Bush, whose plans included a photo opportunity of laying a wreath in honor of King before attending a major Republican Party fundraiser. After black leaders threatened to lock themselves into the site in question, an historic black church, the Secret Service permitted their symposium to go on, but with limited public access.
I feel disrespected by the administration and the Secret Service. On Dr. King's birthday last year, his administration initiated plans to gut affirmative action. Here we are a year later, and the same person who tried to turn back the clock on me wants to use Dr. King's birthday because it's an election year.
— Rev. James Orange, New York Times, January 15, 2005
According to a fellow activist speaking shortly after his death, "He stayed active right up until the end... The Martin Luther King celebration this year fell on the 21st [of January, 2008]. He was still conducting it from his hospital bed. If you wanted something... he was still calling the shots."
- Rev James Orange Founder and Chairman, MLK March website biography. Accessed 2008-02-17.
- Civil Rights Leader Who Marched With King Dies, 2008-02-17, Reuters newswire story.
- The Rev. James Orange, 65, 'gentle giant' civil rights activist, 2008-02-17, Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
- The Rev. James Orange, Civil Rights Activist, Dies at 65, February 17, 2008, Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
- An interview with Rev. James Orange, by Fred Gaboury, 2000, People's Weekly World (newspaper). Accessed 2008-02-17.
- Activist, Rev. James Orange, 1943-2008 2008-02-17, Atlanta Progressive News. Accessed 2008-02-17.
- Civil Rights Figure James Orange Dies, 2008-02-17, Associated Press report in the New York Times.
- James Orange, civil rights activist, dies at 65, February 17, 2008, CNN News.
- Bush Plan to Honor Dr. King Stirs Criticism, January 15, 2004, New York Times. Accessed 2008-02-18.