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 Quarter, 1964

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 city fathers.

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 life.

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 president.

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 suicide."

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 politically.

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 The Crusader.

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 unloaded.

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 us.

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 only Negroes.

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.

Unequal Education

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.

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