... Hallelujah! We just witnessed the signing of the federal voting rights act! However, it is so late that it has definitely limited the effectiveness of our work to get Negroes registered during the SCOPE Project.
We got our excitement here, in case you haven't read about it in the press. Last week, Hosea Williams, director of the SCOPE Project, issued an order for general demonstrations to get the voting rights bill speeded through final passage.
We scheduled a demonstration about that and about the fact that the registrars had not notified us about who had passed the literacy test. We requested a permit; it was denied; we marched anyway. We went about two blocks down South Park Street from the chinaberry tree, our "church," where mass meetings were held. The police had blocked the street with their cars and were armed with clubs and tear gas. The chief announced that he would not tolerate a violation of the law. So we sat down in the middle of the street — about 150 people. We remained seated in the street from 11:00 a.m. until 6:15 p.m., singing songs, hearing speeches and saying prayers.
About 3:00 p.m. the police erected a wooden barricade across the street. At 6:15, R.B. Cottonreader, leader of the SCOPE Project, decided to try to move. He knocked over the barricade and we stood in a column. The police gave us no warning but started throwing tear gas bombs. As agreed beforehand, we hit the ground with towels over our faces. Some ran; I felt three or four step over me. We retreated slowly to water hoses set up behind us by the doctor — the best treatment for tear gas is water.
The police used strong gas — it usually does not harm people but a number received first and second degree burns. One girl was hit by a billy club. The police jerked towels off of some in the front row, even little children! They then sprayed gast right in their faces.
We regrouped under the chinaberry tree and held the largest mass meeting of the summer! Now we have a movement. Mothers don't sit and watch their children take tear gas and clubs without getting involved in the movement.
Since we often sing, "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me round," we decided to return to the barricade Wednesday. We left the chinaberry tree at 1:00 p.m. and sat in the street, about 30 feet behind the barricade, until 6:15. At that time we became a little disorganized; too many people were wandering around behind us. Also a large group of white hecklers had collected about a half block behind the police. (All this was in the colored section.)
We were in the process of regrouping. Suddenly, Elijah Poole, the nervous city attorney, and the police marched through the barrier toward us. We were singing "We Shall Overcome." Poole announced on his portable loudspeaker, "I am giving you one minute to disperse. Anybody that isn't part of this garbage had better get out." We lay down in the street, faces covered. Because there were only about 50 people left, they worked over nearly everybody.
One tear gas canister went off very near my left ear and I couldn't hear the order by R.B. Cottonreader to leave. I remained lying down, for five minutes, a reporter told me. A policeman jerked at my towel and sprayed gas in my face and all over my purse and clothes. I got the towel away from him, without hitting him. I threw the purse in the bushes. He hit me on the arm with a billy club. When I finally stood up there was nobody but police left in the area. I walked behind a house and into another where I washed.
Stuckey, the worst cop, beat on Cottonreader. His knee is sprained. Several people got worse burns this time.
Direct confrontation is what brings out the love and hate in people. We had sung "I Love Everybody," changed 1 Corinthians 13 as a group, etc., and still the hate and confusion came back at us across the barricade. Sometimes it looked as though we were getting through to them. In fact, we bothered Elijah Poole's conscience so much that he set up a loudspeaker playing "Waltzing Matilda" and "Brahms' Lullaby" to try to drown us out.
The meaning of faith becomes much clearer under a situation of suffering for a cause by a large group. We all feel closer to one another and most of us do not bear hate toward the police. Mrs. Lula Robinson, the 72 year old woman with whom Pam and I stay, the one who wears the white "prophet's robe" when she goes out, stood right of the middle of the gas in her robe both days. Several other older people were there also. We were able to keep down serious violence on the part of the Negroes. It takes real strength to avoid being violent when one's own are being punished. Most people can take the punishment for themselves but it is harder to let others take it also. Charles Cheatham, a young man who worked with us, had a real struggle to avoid going after Stuckey because he had sprayed gas in the faces of his little sister and brother and mother.
Yesterday we planned to march again, as we had still not reached our objective, the courthouse, and we wished to protest the treatment we had received the day before. This time the mayor sent one of his "Toms" to find out what we wanted. We said we wanted to go to the courthouse. This time he issued a permit. We had a silent march to the courthouse, this time with police escort, and held a 20 minute meeting of prayer and singing on the steps. The white folks were peeking out of windows all along. In the business district we saw a few obscene gestures, but the overall effect in the white community was one of shock at the orderly procession, two by two, of 205 Negroes to the courthouse. Even Elijah Poole took off his green helmet during the prayer. No other whites did, however.
... We are through demonstrating for now. Our point was proved, the Negro community is much more united in the struggle, Negroes have faced whites with the strength of love, and Elijah Poole is beginning to learn that the world marched over him. There will be much more work here: jobs, schools, library, public accommodations, and continued voter registration. We will need hundreds of people at the courthouse Monday, August 16, to prove that we need a federal registrar to run this county fairly. The local registrars flunked nearly everybody under the Alabama law but the literacy test is now abolished.
We will leave here after voter registration. I have to be in San Francisco August 23 to begin seminary. I hope to get back here several more times to work. It is a tremendous experience which I highly recommend.
P.S., 2014: As I recall, we had a huge turnout for voter registration, something like 200. To make us as uncomfortable as possible, the officials turned off the air conditioner in the courthouse and the heat and humidity were about 95 degrees. The wait was very long. According to the SCOPE report, some 1,000 tried to register during our project, and 325 were able to do so.
Copyright © Janet Wolfe, 1965
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