Sim Pettway, Student Civil Rights Leader
Camden, Alabama, 1965
Maria Gitin

[As told to the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the student-led sit-ins of 1960, the rise of youth-led activism, and the founding of SNCC. Main library, San Francisco, March 27, 2010.]

It's only a feature of Powerpoint that there's been a long promo for my forthcoming book up there. Sorry about that. They can't turn it off, but I'm not going to talk about me. So that is the cover of the forthcoming book [This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight].

I worked with SCOPE and SNCC in Wilcox County, adjacent to Dallas County, after Selma and before the passage of the Voting Rights Act. And when I arrived in Camden, in Wilcox County, I heard about children who'd been beaten and chased by dogs and tear gassed during their demonstrations. They had been demonstrating in parallel with Selma, and Selma organizers were coming over with SNCC people and helping them.

I was really disturbed by this one article I saw. It was in the Chicago Daily Defender, and I want to make a point that I didn't see it at that time, but I heard the story. The article says, "Camden Mayor" — the Mayor, not the Sheriff, the Mayor — "kicked Negro teenager. The ruthless image of Operation Segregation in Alabama's Black Belt was reflected when a 13-year-old Negro boy charged in a complaint with the Justice Department, that the Mayor of Camden, Alabama threatened his life with a pistol and kicked him for participating in racial demonstrations." And then it goes on to say the victim was Walter Wilson, Jr. who was a seventh grade student at Camden Academy at the time of the incident.

The article ends with mentioning that his parents had moved to Pritchard, Alabama which is outside Mobile. It took me quite awhile to find this family. I went back 40 years later, and I found more than 70 people that I lived and worked, with and as my wonderful photographer/husband knows, we have been living in the Movement pretty much for the last six years, far longer than the three months that I was in Alabama. But I wanted to get the stories from the people there, and this is just one.

It took me a long time to track down the family, because only some of them were named Wilson. Some of the family was named Pettway, which is a very common name in Alabama. When I finally found Sim Pettway, Sr., a man three years younger than me, he told me, "It was me, not Walter, that they were after that day." So all the rest of this story is in Sim's words, they were in many demonstrations like this before I arrived.

I'm the brother of Walter Wilson, the young man mentioned in the article. In 1965, I and another young man, Ralph Eggleston, started a Movement to change things in Camden. We were tired of getting worn out books, broken furniture, everything the white schools were throwing away, that's what they gave us. We were just 16 years old, but we'd had enough of this abusive treatment. We asked for assistance from our teachers, Mr. Albert Gordon, Reverend Threadgill, and others that we could confide in. We were advised that we were too young to take on such a task, but we decided to organize a march anyway. We had some rallies in the old auditorium at the school, and we started a couple of marches. At our first demonstration, we marched up to the Wilcox County Courthourse and Sheriff, Lummie Jenkins.

If any of you did any time in Wilcox, you know he was one of the baddest sheriffs in Alabama.

He met with us, with his deputies, and told us we'd better get our N-tails back to school. He said to me, "Boy, I know your mother and father, and we're gonna see about this." We led a few more marches, but we were turned back by the police each time. So it was suggested to us kids that we needed assistance from other leaders.

SCLC and SNCC had already been in Wilcox, so they invited people to come back and help them.

Before they could arrive, and as we were preparing for another march, Reverend Threadgill came into our classrooms to get my sister, Izora Pettway and me. He told us to get in the car quickly, because our mother and brother were hurt. He took us home, and we found our brother, Walter Wilson. He was only in seventh grade. He'd been beaten, and my mother, Bernice Pettway Wilson, was struck and manhandled because of me leading the marches. Walter had stayed home that day because he had a cold. It was me they were looking for.

After they beat them, they warned her, my mother, that her boy, me, better stop what I was doing. So my mother called my sister in Pritchard, Alabama outside Mobile, and told her that we had to leave Camden immediately, or they'd be coming back that night. My mother was so frightened, so my uncle Bizelle Pettway carried us in a hidden truck to Jackson, Alabama where my sister, Josephine, picked us up at the Alabama bridge.

And the next slide is Sim telling this story at a mass meeting we had four years ago in Camden, Alabama.

But that didn't stop me from working in the Movement. I worked on many voter registration drives at the Nazarene Baptist Church, was President of the SCLC in Pritchard, and I'm active with the NAACP today.

Later, Sim told me a little more of the story.

It was so hard on my mother. A young woman being torn away from her sisters, her only mother, the only life and home she had ever known. I was so angry that they hurt Mother and beat my brother that I wanted to get a gun and go kill those white men. Getting out of town that night probably saved my life. The Department of Justice did an investigation, but the only one outside our family who witnessed the attack was a Black man who was too afraid to testify. Later he worked for the Sheriff's department.

Sim explained that all the students wanted was to get better school supplies and an equal education instead of tattered marked up books and broken desks under falling plaster in segregated schools. They weren't trying to date white girls, but the insane disease of racism infected the white authorities so that they couldn't see that these were just kids who wanted a good education.

In the next slide you can see Dr. King who came periodically, briefly, to Camden because he could do a loop through Montgomery to Selma to Camden. I was giving a talk a couple years after I met Sim at the University of South Alabama last year. And Sim and his wife, Minerva, and other Wilcox County Freedom Fighters were sitting in the front row, and I acknowledged them.

And then I had slides from Bob Adelman that were along with my talk, one of which you're seeing now, and in this photo, you'll see people looking kind of worried. King is speaking from a trailer door rather than the church, because they said they would bomb the church if he went inside. And so when the slide came on the screen in Mobile, his cousin, Rosetta Anderson, shouted out, "That's Sim! That's Sim! Right there!" She pointed up to this young man. Sim told me his life story, and I taped hours of him, and he had never mentioned that. And he just shrugged his shoulders. So I called him several times, and afterwards, he called to tell me the rest of the story.

And then the next slide is the same day, but you'll see Fred Shuttlesworth is doing the talking. So this is Sim again speaking.

Although the Wilson/Pettway family was forced to leave Camden to save our lives, I periodically snuck back into the county to visit my other relatives and to show them they couldn't scare me. So that is me, right in front. I didn't recognize myself at first, because I didn't recall being that good looking. [Laughing]

My sister, Izora, returned to Camden Academy. She was in her senior year. She said, "I don't care if they kill me. I'm going back to graduate with my class." Another sister, Bernice Wilson, was one of the first Black students to attend and graduate from the all-white Wilcox County High School. An uncle was run out of town because his little son used the white-only drinking fountain. Despite all that happened to my family, I never allowed myself to carry the anger. All this mistreatment only increased our commitment to overcoming racism and injustice, not only for ourselves but for all. I passed on to our children what my mother taught me. My mother said, "Son, if you lower yourself to their level, you're just the same as them. You have to rise above their ignorance." And so I did. — Sim Pettway, Sr.

Copyright © Maria Gitin, 2013

Copyright ©
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site.
Copyright to the this story belongs to the story teller.

(Labor donated)