The summer sun glared down at me as I hurried up Madison Street that morning in 1963, in Albany, Georgia. As usual I arrived at the office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at about 8 am in order to do whatever was needed: Tidy up the office, run off flyers on the mimeograph machine and get my daily assignment for canvassing for prospective voter registrants from Charles Sherrod, director of the Voter Registration Project.
I pushed open the door and saw Sherrod talking to a young man of about 20 years old. I had never seen him in the office or anywhere else before. He was taller than Sherrod and muscular with smooth dark skin. He wore blue jeans, tennis shoes and a tee shirt that was damp with sweat at the armpits. His thumbs were hooked in the back pockets of his jeans and he leaned into Sherrod's space with one foot almost touching Sherrod's shoe. He was listening intently to what he was being told, nodding in agreement and looking Sherrod in the eye. I stood near the door so as not to intrude on what appeared to be a serious conversation, but Sherrod beckoned me forward with a big smile.
"Annette, this is James Daniel, but they call him "Blue", he said.
I walked nearer to them, smiling as I said "Hello."
Blue glanced my way and mumbled something. Then Sherrod told me about Blue. He said that Blue was from C.M.E. and he was working with SNCC in that area of Albany. The smile shrank from my face. I had heard of C.M.E., but I had never been there. None of my friends had been there. The area got its name from a large C.M.E. Church in the vicinity. Located in northwest Albany, C.M.E. had a bad reputation for gang activity. Incidents there were spread by word of mouth.
Some said that in years past, Black residents had been terrorized and harrassed by police. But as time passed, the people rebelled and fought back so that by the early sixties, the police did not patrol the area as they once had done and only went to C.M.E. in case of emergencies. It was reported that police cars would be overturned, set on fire or pelted with rocks. The Albany Herald reported that officers were called to subdue a woman who was disturbing the peace. She resisted attempts by officers to arrest her and more officers were called, five in all. The woman pulled a board from her house and incapacitated all of them. Everything I had ever heard about C.M.E. was bad and Sherrod was saying that Blue lived there. He had not looked dangerous while he listened to Sherrod. He had appeared to respect him like most of us did. He seemed to have been hanging on his every word.
Then Sherrod said to me, "Starting tomorrow, I want you to canvass in C.M.E. for a week. Blue, who is a gang leader there, will accompany you each day. The gangs are territorial and you won't be safe unless you are with a gang member or leader."
I remained silent as I digested the information.
Sherrod wanted me to canvass in a hostile area with a male that I had never seen before who was also the leader of a gang. At the time, I believed the worst about C.M.E....marauding thugs committing robberies, assaults, vandalism and other criminal activities against non-gang members and visitors. Although I later learned from reading The Great Pool Jump, edited by Peter De Lissovoy, that mostly the gangs were not that way, but were groups of young men coming together with common interests, making leaders of those who stood out and were respected; although there were some petty crimes attributed to them.
However, that day in SNCC's office I believed the worst. But deep inside of me, I knew that Sherrod the hard worker who worked in mysterious ways, the wise beyond his years one, the man who had proved his trustworthiness over and over again, the man who was protective of those in his charge, especially the females, would not put me in danger. Although C.M.E. and Blue by definition seemed dangerous, I realized that Sherrod trusted Blue, had been talking with him, had drawn him into SNCC's project and felt I would be safe with him. I trusted Sherrod so without further thought, I agreed to the arrangement. But I must admit that I was still afraid of what I thought of as the other side of Blue, the side he was willing to put aside for Sherrod.
The arrangement was that every morning Sherrod would drive me from SNCC's office to a certain area in C.M.E. where Blue would be waiting. I would canvass until 4:30 pm at which time Blue would take me back to the same area he had met me in the morning and Sherrod would be waiting to drive me to SNCC's office where I would make my daily report. Of course, I did not tell my parents about C.M.E. When I left home, they assumed I would be canvassing in the usual areas.
Things went as planned the next morning and Blue was waiting. It was awkward at first but the pattern was set: Blue opened the car door for me and gave a soft reply to my "good morning" without looking at me. I waved goodbye to Sherrod (and my world) and Blue and I started up the street in my quest for people who wanted to or could be persuaded to register to vote.
Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a plaid shirt, Blue took the position he would keep for the entire week...he walked 4 or 5 paces behind me on the sidewalk near the street while I walked on the side farthest from the street. Looking over my shoulder at him, I tried to make small talk with him to allay my fears, but he remained quiet. I asked questions to see if he would expand on the answers, but got yeah" or "naw" answers.
I zigzagged across the street as I went from house to house. Sometimes I was invited inside or talked with residents on the front porch. I had to write down the names, addresses and days the residents were available to go to the registrar's office. Free transportation was provided by the voter registration carpool. Blue stood quietly on the sidewalk no matter how long it took. If there was a gate, he opened it; if there were rickety stairs, he took my elbow and helped me up and down them. From time to time, he rushed from walking behind me to passing me and tossing aside debris that lay in my path — tree branches, soda bottles, food wrappers and newspapers.
After several hours of canvassing, I saw a group of males about Blue's age standing on the corner. Since Blue was not beside me and was not close to me, I assumed that they thought we were not together because they started to yell at me and make rude comments.
"Wait a minute," Blue said. I stopped quickly startled by his voice. I stood glued to the spot as he walked quickly to where the group stood. The group looked directly at him as he spoke, nodding rapidly. I could not hear what he told them, but they said no more as he came back to where I stood and said "Let's go." He let me go first so he could resume his position behind me. There was silence as we approached and walked away from the group.
However, for the rest of the week, there was a group of young men at every corner we approached; they said nothing, just stood watching. Word had spread, I assumed, that I was to be left alone. I tried to figure out why they watched.
From time to time when we approached a group, I would look back at Blue who appeared disturbed by their presence but said nothing. His aloof attitude seemed to have changed slightly. He still followed the same routine when I was talking to residents, but while we were walking, he appeared not to know what to do with his hands. I would stop and so would he. I would look back at him and he would jam his hands in his pockets or clench his fists. One day, he hooked his thumbs in the front of his jeans. Another day, he kept rubbing both hands up and down the sides of his jeans.
I felt something was bothering him. I tried to say something funny. Maybe I could get him to laugh. It was then that I realized that I had never seen him smile or laugh. Whenever I meet someone for the first time, I always look at their mouths, their smiles and their teeth. I like good teeth and good smiles. I learned later from reading The Great Pool Jump that Blue had a hearty laugh and a great smile, neither of which I ever witnessed.
I watched Blue over my shoulder more and more. I wondered about him. I tried to imagine him in my world of lectures, tests and lyceum presentations such as Shakespearean plays and operas. I tried to imagine myself in his world of — what? Gang meetings, petty thefts, violence? I recognized that we were products of the same segregated world of Albany, Georgia, but he was a Black male with the reputation of being an outspoken gang leader in C.M.E. and presented a far greater threat to the power structure than I did. His chances of being arrested, beaten or shot by the police just for being himself were far greater than mine. I thought that perhaps the power, recognition and security that he found in a gang substituted for the lack of those things in society.
When the week was up, Sherrod came for me as usual. Blue opened the car door, but I did not get in. I turned and stood facing him until he looked at me, straight in the eye. Then I said "Thank you, Blue." It was the first time I had called him that or anything. I hoped he knew that I was not thanking him for opening the car door, but for all that I had come to feel that he suffered or lost by walking with me in front of his gang members. They saw everything that he did for me — they saw him waiting patiently for me outside the houses; they saw him stoop and remove debris from my path. They saw him open gates for me and help me up steps. I felt that he sacrificed some of his dignity in order to do what he had promised Sherrod he would do — keep a 98 pound sheltered college girl safe in his territory. Although we never really talked, he treated me like a lady in his own way and I appreciated that and all that he did for me.
The week was over, and the next day I had a new assignment. There was no time to write or even think about Blue and C.M.E. Then I went back to finish college, got married and moved to Baltimore, but over the years, Blue and that week stayed in the back of my mind. Decades passed and I knew that I had to write it down. Then I had the dream. He and I were at a party in a restaurant with a bar. I saw him and he looked just like I remembered him. I called out to him, but he did not hear me over the noise of the crowd and the music. I tried to get to him, but people kept coming between us.
Once, I got close to him, but he glanced at me and kept walking. I followed him as he walked pass the bar. I walked to the bar and saw myself in the big mirror behind it. Then I understood. In real life, neither one of us had seen each other in more than fifty years. We had not seen each other age. In the dream, I remembered him as he was the last time I saw him, twenty years old. Therefore, I knew him. Any memory Blue had of me would have been that of a petite young girl of that same age. As I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw an overweight 77 year old woman. Blue saw me, but he did not recognize me.
I awakened and felt a sense of loss. I wondered if we would recognize each other in real life after so many years. After the dream, I decided to write about that week in my life. I called everybody I knew who might be able to give me information about Blue. Several said he was dead and several said he got married and moved away but they did not know where he moved. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I always thought we would meet again with Sherrod and talk about our adventure. That never happened. But I did find out more about the things he did with SNCC in 1963.
I found it surprising and gratifying that he was so involved in SNCC's projects. Besides assisting with voter registration, he organized the young people in C.M.E. for protest marches against segregation of public facilities, especially Tift Park. Albany sold the public park to James Gray, editor of the Albany Herald, to prevent it from being integrated. Blue was in the group arrested in a protest march against the privatizing of the park. Later, he was among the group that desegregated the Tift Park swimming pool by jumping into it over the fence. Afterwards, it was reported that the pool was drained and scrubbed down to make it fit for Whites only again. That was a long time ago, but I hold those memories dear.
I have exhausted my sources trying to find Blue. I hope he is well. I hope he reads this and remembers the week we spent together with an understanding and wisdom that only the passage of time can bring. I hope he knows that I am grateful for what he did for me and for the struggle for voting rights.
See Albany GA, Movement
for background & more information.
See also Albany, Americus, & SW Georgia Freedom Movements 1961-1964 for web links.
Copyright © Annette Jones White. 2017
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