Seige at Savannah
by Benjamin Van Clark
(Ben Clark (21) is Chairman of the Youth Division of the
Chatham County Crusade for Voters.)
Originally published in Freedomways, 1st
See Savannah Sit-ins &
Boycott and Savannah GA,
Movement for background & more information.
Savannah, Georgia, a city whose Negro population numbers 70,000, is on
the border of the Savannah River. Today its economic life is at its
lowest ebb; industry just doesn't move into this city as it does into
other cities. However, until 1960, the Negroes and whites had
experienced good working relations. The only difficulty we had in
dealing with the problems of the city was trying to get through to the
However, in 1960, the Movement started that was to change the
historical viewpoints. Some eighty students marched through the
streets of Savannah, on March 16, in the first in a series of
demonstrations in Georgia. The Movement began to pick up momentum
almost immediately because this was new to the Negro's experience
in Savannah and it lasted for about six months. Then it fell
apart after the successful desegregation of the lunch counters.
The Negroes began to drift back into their seemingly nonchalant
Hosea Williams, a leading citizen, said that something should be
done to bring more awareness to the political life of Savannah;
so they organized the Chatham County Crusade for
Voters — the organization that was to deal with
voter registration and political aspects of the movement. This
organization is now three years old with Mr. Williams as its
We had established a fairly good relationship with the city
fathers due to the fact that we endorsed the present city
administration and we are responsible for it being in office.
Savannah does not share the scars of an Albany or a Birmingham
because before the current movement started we said that we
wanted this or that and we got it. But since then the mayor and
the city fathers realized that this movement might be "political
Williams then urged some 8,000 Negroes to march for their freedom
in the streets of Savannah. This was the beginning of a new
movement in that city, a substantial movement for voter
registration in Savannah.
The Negro Vote a Great Potential
We can register up to 30,000 out of a 70,000 Negro population. At
this point, we have some 15,000 Negroes registered and through
the Movement we expect to bring in at least 10,000 more. The
accomplishments in Savannah are encouraging. There is at least
one Negro on every major board and "Authority." We have a
controlling voice in the policies that might shape the city
The Negroes of Savannah have always had political awareness to
some degree. In 1941 a movement was under way to register every
eligible Negro in order that he or she might be able to vote.
During that time ('41 and '42) over 20,000 Negroes were
registered. However, Gene Talmadge, after getting a seat in the
state legislature, had the Negro citizens purged off the books in
Savannah. Thus we lost a vast amount of political power.
Voter registration has always been less publicized and a very
difficult job for many people due to the non-glamorous job of
having to get out into the streets and knock on doors. But
Savannah now is really a politically aware town because, under
the leadership of the Chatham County Crusade for Voters, Negroes
have come to see the reality: the ballot is really the answer to
winning freedom in the south. The 1960 boycott was the action
that gave Negroes of Savannah the determination, courage and
intestinal fortitude to forge on for freedom and to answer the
"tokenism" and the do-nothingism of white people when confronted
with this type of movement.
The boycott developed out of the demonstrations at the lunch
counters downtown when eighty of the students had gone to jail.
The Negro community felt they had to mobilize to aid the
movement. Most of them could not get on the picket line, so the
idea came up to do something else for freedom: boycott. A large
percentage of the total income in the Savannah business district
came from Negroes. We proved this when at least four businesses
that I can think of at this moment, closed down as a result of
the boycott. One large supermarket was closed down less than six
months ago because it refused to hire a Negro cashier. Negroes
boycotted the store for four days and business slacked off. In
less than thirty days, the market was up for sale.
The power of the Negro community in Savannah is far more advanced
than in many other southern communities. A drive is under way now
to increase the voter registration by at least 10,000 which will
give us 25,000 registered voters. With 25,000 registered voters,
we can get a black government.
Role of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
We could never have accomplished what we did without the SCLC.
Without the help of SCLC staff members we could not have come
this far in such a short space of time. Hosea Williams is in jail
as I write and I know how he feels because I was there for
fifteen long days myself with the roaches, the rats and chinches.
The food is horrible; the mattresses, the sheets, everything is
dirty. Everything is — how do I say
this — well, there is an odor one usually
associates with things not being very clean. So I know that Hosea
is undergoing tremendous agony and pain simply because the jail
house is not what some people think it is. The demonstrators are
treated far worse than the criminals.
Now I want to describe the events that led to these jailings. Mr.
Williams had appeared on a TV show on July 8, 1963. He was to
explain the good points of our movement in order to try to win
some of the white moderates over to our side. After the TV show
that Wednesday, he moved into the area of public relations work
for the movement, mainly the publishing of a newspaper called
When I was released from jail, I discussed the movement with Mr.
Williams. At two AM, the Chatham County deputy sheriff walked
into his house and arrested him on a "good behavior" warrant, in
effect, a peace bond taken out by an individual fearful for his
life. Under a "good behavior" bond, one can post bail of two
hundred dollars and get out of jail. But that night the bond was
set at $2500. The warrant was taken out by a white woman who
said she had seen Hosea Williams on TV and heard he was a leader
of the movement and she was "afraid" of what the Negroes might
do. She did not know Mr. Williams personally.
To our knowledge, the last time a "good behavior" warrant was
used in Savannah was just before the Reconstruction period
against some slaves. The law is over one hundred years old and
entirely unknown in the community.
We went down to bail Williams out; we had to see the
Solicitor General but were told to come back the next day. When
we went down the next day we found that the bond had been upped
to $3,000. Each time we got the necessary bail, we found that it
had been upped again. Eighteen days later the bail was $70,000. A
writ of habeas corpus was set on the fourth day and denied by the
judge on the eighth day.
Reverend Wyatt T. Walker of the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference had just arrived in town. We were asking for total
desegregation of everything — jobs, movies,
bowling alleys. Reverend Walker had come at our request. After
speaking before 1,800 Negroes, Reverend Walker and the crowd
started walking toward the City Hall. At City Hall, we called
upon the mayor to arrest us. But Mayor McClain backed up and we
left City Hall and went around to the county jail to see Williams
and we were singing freedom songs and talking to him. One white
fellow ran out of his house with a shotgun and the police got to
him before he could get a good aim. They took the shotgun away
from him and one of the girls in the crowd said that they had
better unload the gun. When they did they found that the gun was
Frequent Police Brutality
We are a large minority in Savannah. Brutality is an everyday
thing and when it happens it is usually so tragic that one cannot
help but remember. If a Negro isn't killed, his head is beaten so
that he might just as well be dead. I knew a young fellow about
23 years old, Artie James. One night a group decided to go down
to a new restaurant that had been opened — the
"Safari." Artie had some car trouble in front of the restaurant
and when Artie went into the restaurant a policeman came up
behind him and shot him. When he was shot, Artie threw up his
hands and said, "Please don't kill me," and those were his
last words. The Justice Department did send down a representative
but we never heard any more about it.
I could cite many other cases of police brutality in recent
months during our demonstrations. At first the police stood by,
supposedly to protect the demonstrators. Then the white
community, the White Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan
elements, demanded that the Negro demonstrators be arrested. The
police began to pick up Negro citizens and beat them on their
heads with gun butts. One lady was hit in the stomach with a tear
gas bomb. All this was done to nonviolent demonstrators. Jail
cells that normally held ten persons were jammed with
seventy-five. Savannah outwardly presents a very beautiful
picture but it is terror and nightmare.
The community's reaction to these events is a very mixed one with
One element saying "be nonviolent" and the other saying "you will
get nothing without violence." We tried to make them demonstrate
nonviolently and we finally convinced them that nonviolence would
get them what they wanted, and they agreed. Two weeks later a
tear gas bomb was thrown into a crowd of 1500 demonstrators. This
was the night Hosea Williams and I were arrested. On the march
from the segregated hotel, another tear gas bomb was thrown at
One business, worth three million dollars, was burned to the
ground during the night. We have been blamed for the violence but
everyone in Savannah knows that every act of violence has been
perpetrated by the riot squad. The riot squad is trained to
use police dogs and riot guns and the dogs are trained to attack
Quite recently the Cavalcade of White America was
organized to try to frighten Negroes so they wouldn't demonstrate
any more. Immediately after that, one of the local white
businessmen and a former city detective came out advocating
violence. The president of the White Citizens Council happens to
be one of Savannah's most prominent attorneys.
The Cavalcade of White America advocates economic reprisals
against the Negro community as a whole. This could not be a very
successful venture because the white business community depends
upon the Negro for its success: food, clothing, household
equipment. Just two years ago Negro street-sweepers were fired
and replaced by white workers. But now even the white street
sweepers are gone, replaced by machines.
Savannah schools always have been segregated and the Negro
schools always have been inferior [a federal court recently
ordered Savannah to begin desegregating its public schools]. In
1961 we led a campaign against a school because Negro students
had to ride eight miles out of town to school and white students
only had to walk four or five blocks to their school. Not only
did we have to ride these eight miles but the books were the old
books from the white school.
Just four years ago, we voted for a bond issue to build the first
air-conditioned school in Savannah and this was supposed to be a
Negro school. After the school was built, however, it was so
beautiful and so well equipped that it was given to the whites.
It was built more or less out in the valley where there was an
equal proportion of Negroes and whites.
The high school students started the Movement and will advance
the Movement. They are deeply involved.
Recently we sent a special telegram to the United Nations asking
for UN observers to come to Savannah. We haven't given up on that
idea. Mr. Williams is in jail on a peace bond, and now a "good
behavior" warrant is out for me also. I do not know who took out
this warrant against me and now the bond is up to about $30,000.
When I first became involved in the movement, I remember the
night we had a "March to Bury Segregation." We had a casket and
we had on our black suits and the police ran up and threw one of
our men in the paddy wagon and began to threaten to shoot some
tear gas. I started to turn the people around and one old lady
said "Uh uh, we ain't going to let them turn us 'round." And that
old lady sang that song "Ain't nobody goin' to turn us 'round,"
and that's been one of our theme songs ever since.
Copyright © Benjamin Van Clark, 1964.