It was a hot and humid night in Americus on Thursday, August 8, 1963. Policemen, standing under the open windows of Friendship Baptist Church, had no trouble hearing the over three hundred voices inside singing and talking about "freedom".
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field workers had been here since January, living in the community with people like Mrs. Annie M. Wise, mother of activists Gloria and Jewel Wise. The SNCC workers were assisting the Americus-Sumter County Movement to register voters and organize to desegregate the local Martin Theater on Forsyth Street.
Almost a month earlier on July 12, eleven demonstrators had been arrested for trying to purchase tickets and enter the theater through its front entrance. De facto segregation and discrimination required that African Americans enter the theater at the end of a darkened alley and climb two flights of stairs where they would sit in the balcony. Tonight's meeting of young adults and teenagers, decided once again to march orderly and non-violently from the church to protest racial segregation, and the dehumanization of African Americans on a daily basis.
As the marchers headed downtown on Cotton Avenue, they paused in front of Bryant's Cafi and began singing "We Shall Overcome". As they were singing, 20 heavily armed policemen, city Marshall Halstead, Sheriff Fred Chappell, Georgia state patrolmen and several armed white men, surrounded the protestors in the middle of the street. Suddenly they pulled their weapons, fired into the air and demanded that the group disperse. When they refused and continued singing, the police again began firing over their heads. At that moment the marchers some as young as twelve years old, defiantly answered with the freedom song, "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me round", and still no one moved. The policemen and troopers wielding guns, baseball bats and electric cattle prods, charged and slugged their way into the crowd. When it was over, many lay wounded in the street with open heard wounds and seared flesh burns from the cattle prods. One man suffered a broken leg.
During the melee, police sought out four civil rights workers representing SNCC and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and beat them mercilessly until bloody. They were then arrested along with scores of protestors who were dispersed to separate jail locations. One of those rights workers was John Perdew who had been in Americus less than two months. He and his fellow co-workers were charged with insurrection, a capital offense in Georgia which carried a possible death sentence.
The arrest of Perdew and his fellow activists attracted national and international attention and they became known as the "Americus Four". The trial which lasted several weeks, took place in federal court on the second floor of what is now the Americus Municipal Building on Lamar Street. Several high profile defense attorneys led by the legendary C.B. King of Albany and legal aides Dennis Roberts and Stan Zaks of California, Donald Hollowell of Atlanta, Thomas Jackson of Macon,William Kunstler and Morris Abram of New York and Constance Baker Motley, Associate Council for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, all aided the effort to free the activists. After spending three months in the Sumter County jail, the defense team finally secured their release in November, 1963. There is no doubt that if the state had prevailed on the sedition charges, it would have endangered the lives of civil rights workers all across the south and left them without protection from racist policemen and overzealous prosecutors and court judges.
Born in California, Perdew grew up in Denver, Colorado where as a senior in high school, he was selected to visit Apartheid South Africa. While there he met a black South African who said to him, "please tell America, we are not free". Years later John learned that the same man was reprimanded for his statement which John revealed literally changed his life.
I first met John when he arrived in Southwest Georgia after completing his junior year at Harvard. He had become a SNCC field worker and was assigned to Albany to work with the Albany Civil Rights Movement. When movement activity subsided there, he was assigned to Americus in July, 1963, to help coordinate an intensive voter registration and education campaign. One year later, I graduated from high school and immediately joined the SNCC staff, and moved into one of several "SNCC Houses" with John and several other activists.
With the arduous trial and incarceration behind him, Perdew and fellow SNCC workers began focusing once again on voter registration, picketing and boycotts of local stores and businesses that continued to discriminate in hiring and use of public accommodations throughout the city. The day after President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Bill into law, Perdew suggested that we go out and test the law at one of the local restaurants. Not really thinking of the consequences, six of us piled into John's car, a red 1956 Ford convertible. Joining Perdew and I were SNCC field workers Bob Mants, Willie Ricks, and local activists, Graham Wiggins and Kiddy Newsome.
The eatery we chose was called the "Hasty House" which was very similar to todays' Waffle House. Once parked, we entered the restaurant and took our seats while Kiddie decided to go the restroom located on the side of the building. When he exited the building the rest of us continued to wait for service. As the hostesses ignored us for more than fifteen minutes, we suddenly realized that Kiddy had not returned from the restroom. We all then decided to leave and go outside to look for him. When it was apparent he was no where around, we noticed a group of about a dozen whites armed with tire irons and baseball bats approaching. As we tried to enter the car, we were attacked and beaten, but it was John, the only white person in our group, who suffered the most. Somehow, with Bob behind the wheel, we all managed to get into the car and race away, but John had to be treated for an open head wounds. Days passed before we learned that Kiddy had been attacked behind the restaurant, severely beaten, and chased away.
A student of national and international labor movements, Perdew began to focus on building coalitions in Americus that would concentrate heavily on addressing racist hiring practices that denied blacks decent employment and fair wages. Efforts began immediately to organize maids, many of whom were movement participants like Mrs. Winnie Ragins, an outspoken activist, who became president of the first maids union in Americus. Once organized, they collectively bargained for, and won higher wages from their employers.
Perdew then targeted the largest employer in the city for discrimination in hiring. The Manhattan Shirt Company had an all white work force of over 800 women, but refused to hire African Americans. Two blacks who were employed there were janitors who cleaned up after each shift. Upon learning that over half of the plants employees were represented by the Amalgamated Clothing Union in New York, Perdew, with the aid of local activists, Theresa Wiggins and Mary Kate Fishe, forced the national union to begin negotiations with SNCC and local union representatives, by exposing the Americus factory's discriminatory hiring practices to the nation. Perdew also used the threat of black maids going on strike which would have wreaked havoc on the plant's work force. Many of the Manhattan workers employed black maids to care for their children while they earned extra income. A strike by black domestic workers would have forced them to miss work and care for their own children, while placing the plant's productivity level in jeopardy. The strategy worked and a few weeks later, Manhattan hired the first African Americans in its' history of operation in Americus. One of those women hired was Ms. Fishe, who went on to become the first African American woman to qualify in the Sumter County democratic primary for Justice of the Peace.
As John continued his work in Americus, he proposed marriage to fellow civil rights activist, my friend and classmate, Amanda Bowens. He asked me to be his best man and Amanda chose close friends and activists, Virginia Davis and Jewel Wise as bridesmaids. By law, interracial marriages were not allowed in Georgia, so we all drove out to Denver in John's car, where they were married. After the birth of their first child, Natasha, John returned to Harvard to finish his studies and a second child, Glen, was born. Four years later, the family moved to Atlanta and John became a grant writer for service minded non-profits. In that role, he assisted in securing funds for countless community projects.
Later in life, John married Patricia Perry also a rights worker from Baker County. They were married by their friend and renowned civil rights leader, Rev. Charles Sherrod who was SNCC's Project Director for the Southwest Georgia Project. Together, they wrote a play, "Education of a Harvard Guy" based on John's experiences in Americus and Southwest Georgia. John and Patricia lived in the historic Westview neighborhood in Atlanta where they established a youth group which transformed the lives of countless at risk and underserved youth. John was also part of the task force working to establish the Americus Civil Rights Institute and Interpretive center that will honor the legacy of the Americus Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's.
On June 14, 2014, my friend and comrade, John Perdew passed away in Atlanta but his legacy will live on in the hearts and minds of all whose lives he touched, and there were many. For those of you who knew him, who planned, marched, prayed and laughed with him, but did not get to say goodbyedo not despair, nor be weary, for his footprint will be forever indelibly etched into the memories of all who were touched by his humanity.
Sam Mahone, Chairman
Americus-Sumter County Movement Remembered Committee, Inc.
Copyright © Sam Mahone
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