Lula Belle Williams, Selma student activist I was born in Selma, Alabama. I first became involved in the civil rights movement when I heard that there was going to be a meeting at Tabernacle Church on Broad Street concerning voting rights and our civil rights. So I decided that I was going to go to see what they had to say. When I got there, Bernard LaFayette and several other people were explaining the movement to us, and what we would probably have to go through if we participated.
My friend Jane Emily and I used to go out to make a little money because we were all so poor. We used to go out and babysit for white folks on the other side of town that was strictly white, and we didn't live in that area, of course. We went out to that neighborhood and knocked on doors to ask if we could babysit or clean or do odd jobs. One day Jane and I were walking home, and Jane accidentally bumped into a little white girl. I don't know how they knew where we lived, or rather where Jane lived. The parents of the girl sent a policeman to Jane's house and made Jane's mother beat her in front of the police because they claimed that she had said something to the girl.
At that time a policeman could come to your house and force you to beat — and they really beat us in those days — your child, and there was nothing our parents could say to protest. We and our parents had no rights at all. If a white person told them to do something, of course they had to do it.
And I remember thinking that I am just sick and tired of this. When I went downtown, along Broad Street, we couldn't go into the white bathrooms. If there was somebody in the black bathroom and you urgently had to go and the white bathroom was free, you had to just stand outside and wait. You couldn't drink from the white water fountain which was sparkling clean, and I remember saying "I want some of this too."
These resentments were part of the reason I really got involved in the movement. At that time, the churches were the only places where you could go and feel safe and feel some love. We were not treated the way humans should be treated and that was why I got involved. When I first became involved, I was in the 11th grade.
Our class mainly became involved because of Charles Bonner, Cleophus Hobbs and Terry Shaw. They were the three classmates I was mostly impressed by. They were also the three classmates who convinced us to make the decision to go out there and protest along with them. I think Tomasine Marshall was also involved because she was going out with Terry at the time. Betty Fikes got on board a little later.
I remember that we went to meetings and that our classmates were pumped up by Cleophus Hobbs. He passionately told us "We would have to pay a price for freedom!" We knew this, but we felt that we could make a difference, and that's why we stuck with it. There were a lot of classmates who didn't see it at the time. They were the ones we called the elite. We weren't part of the elite. I guess when you had parents who had "positions" you needed to stay out of the limelight. Our group wanted to be the first to do something for our race and for the people in Selma. Because of the strength of the three or four student leaders, mainly Charles, Cleophus and Terry, I and many others became convinced and involved.
We knew that there were dangers. For example, we were at Brown Chapel because that's where we used to meet in the afternoons after school. Normally there weren't any police cars on this street, but now they were lined up on the street and when we came down the steps to go across the street — I lived right there in the projects — they got out of their cars with their billy clubs. They had these billy clubs and we were totally aware that they weren't just for show. We knew that when we went across the street they were gonna do something to us. We were young adults, 16, not quite 17, so we were still children. And we knew this.
And when we went to jail, that was another thing. We had heard about black women being beaten and raped. We had that fear in our minds because here we were in prison, and our parents did not really know where we were because we had been picked up coming from Tabernacle. The fear was always there because we saw things on the news about the way people were abused and beaten. So we had the fear, but stronger than the fear was our desire to be free, of being able to live the same way white people could live. That desire motivated us to keep going, and we thought maybe our peers, our parents and our kids would have a little better life once we were able to accomplish our goals.
When we were arrested, that was on Broad Street, close to the Catholic Church. We got maybe as far as a block, and they had all the police cars lined up and put us in ten to a car, into quite a few cars because there were a lot of us. They took us to the city jail.
They put us into a small room. It was maybe 8 by 8 or something like that with a bunk bed, one on the bottom and one on the top. And we were in that room like sardines. They didn't book us when we first got there. They just took us all into that tiny room, and some of us had to stand up. Some of us got up on the bed, and some on the floor. But there was no room to even sit on the floor because there was so many of us. We stayed there until late that afternoon, and then they took us to another jail. We went to four jails altogether. I think Charles and the other guys were at the Camp Selma jail.
[During the 1960s, Alabama still used convict "chain gangs" for public works labor such as road-repairs, brush clearance, and drainage ditches. Chain-gang inmates were incarcerated in rural prisons called "camps" such as Camp Selma. During the Freedom Movement era, these "camps" were often used to incarcerate young protesters.]
They took us to four different jails so that Dr. King and his followers would not be able to find us. I think they were trying to get us lost in the system. They took us from the city jail to the county jail, and then to Camp Selma, and then to Camden, four of them.
In Camp Selma there were about thirty of us to a cell. The first night that we were there, we arrived at night or late in the afternoon, they took all the beds. We had no beds and they took all the mattresses. We had no cover. We had nothing. We only had our coats. We sat on our coats and started scheming that one of the girls was sick. She pretended that she was sick, so they called the doctor, and she said her stomach was hurting and she was feeling sick. After that they gave us a mattress. We had no covers, just the mattress. I don't know how many of us slept on that one mattress, but we did.
We had a bathroom in the corner with no doors, just a bathroom in the corner. I do remember that before we got to the county jail, because they still hadn't fed us, Dr. King sent some food and they let it come through, like pies, meat, sausages, and peanut butter crackers. We divided that between all of us, it wasn't a lot. When we got to the last jail, Camp Camden, it was a men's prison. They cooked some black-eyed peas and biscuits for us, and the guys [Black male prisoners] were really nice to us. I guess they didn't want to see young girls in there. We stayed there for about five days or so.
I remember we had to go before Judge Reynolds. He had each one of us to come before him and asked why we were marching. I told him that I would like to be able to go into a restaurant if I choose to do so or to go anyplace that I really want to go as a human being. He answered, "Everybody can't go wherever he wants; even I can't go where I want to." But for him the only reason not to be able to go somewhere would be if he couldn't afford it financially, not ever because somebody forbid him to go somewhere. And I told him, "Well, we just want freedom. We just want to be free and to be treated as an equal."
Then he asked, " f I let you go this time, are you going to march again?" I said no, but I knew that I was going to march again as soon as he let me out. Later that night we walked home from the courthouse. I never got arrested again, but I still attended all the meetings and we sang, and we marched. " e shall overcome." That song has always been my inspiration, and there's a special place in my heart for what we did and for the students who put their lives on.the line. We really did that; we were in a war and didn't even know it.
I remember that James Baldwin came and he spoke about about civil rights and freedom. I also attended a lot of the meetings with Dick Gregory and his wife Lillian. I met them in the meetings, but before it all started, Bernard LaFayette and Stokely Carmichael were there.
When we went to the meetings, they were really about voting rights, even though we were not really old enough to vote. They wanted us to pave the way for our parents to vote and to participate. My mother never did go out there and march, but when the Freedom Fighters came to Selma, my mother allowed them to stay at our house. The police was watching our house. And I remember one nun who stayed at my mother's house. Amazingly, I worked at a hospital for 40 years and the director was talking, Sister Catherine. I asked her if she ever went to Selma, and she answered, "Yes, I stayed in the projects with a lady..." It turns out that was my mother. I cried when that happened.
We had just had enough of the unfairness. I first realized things were wrong when I was about eight years old. We lived on Lane Street in Selma at that time. There was a white guy who lived two doors away from us. I don't know how that happened, but it did, and this man was in the service and came over to have a drink with my mom and my stepfather and talk with us. He was the only white person I knew then. And we were able to play with some of the children of the poor white folks.
But when Jane and I were about 11 or 12, we began to go into the neighborhood to do some jobs. And so, we went to the white people's houses and we had to wait until they had eaten before we were allowed to eat. I couldn't understand why we had to wait, and why we couldn't eat together.
When I was about 14 or 15, my cousin and I went to the Gulf Shores with white families. She went with one, and I was going to go with the other. My mother had my hair all pressed, and I had little curls. This woman pulled my cousin aside who had just washed her hair and had big braids, she hadn't done her hair yet, and said, "Have your cousin to fix her hair like yours when we get ready to go on a trip." And it was then that I realized they wanted us to look worse than they did and talk worse than they did. My hair was pressed, and she wanted it to look nappy like my cousin's, so we would look like in the old movies, with big braids all over our heads. The woman wanted us to look like the little maid in the kitchen.
Leroy Molton, one of our fellow students, who was in the car with Viola Liuzzo when she was killed, couldn't even come back to the funeral when his mother died. It was amazing for the young people to find something that moved them to the extreme of going out and putting themselves in danger to help our race. We could have turned our back on this. We were in school. We didn't know if we were going to graduate. We weren't doing our schoolwork because we were missing school. We did all of this.
I cannot ever forget the impact the class of' 64 had on the movement. And I cannot forget Charles Bonner and Cleophus Hobbs and Terry Shaw, the courageous young people who didn't think about partying and other kid stuff. They thought about what they could do for their race. I will go to my grave being so grateful. I tell my children, especially my daughter, about our black history. See also:
Selma — Breaking the Grip of Fear
Freedom Day in Selma
The Selma Injunction
1965: Selma & The March to Montgomery
Copyright © Lula King & Charles Bonner. 2016
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