Annie Laura Williams
Selma student activist, 1963-1965

Exerpted from the forthcoming book The Tip of the Arrow, by Charles Bonner.

I grew up in Selma, Alabama. Selma would kill practically any dream a black child had. I grew up wondering what I was going to do when I finished high school. I still remember the first time I felt any real hope of getting anywhere was during the Kennedy Administration, I saw a little glimmer then, and when they killed him, I was back to, now what? In 1963, when we started demonstrating, going to the churches and different meetings, I just felt so fired up, so invulnerable, nobody could hurt me.

When I said that Selma would kill any dream for a black child, I meant that if you did not have anything, you had nowhere to go. In my situation, we were really poor, and brought up by a single mother

I knew very early on that life for us Negro kids was very different from the life white kids had. I was the child who was the mother's helper. I was the one she sent to the store to do the food shopping, and the one she sent downtown to pay bills, and in general to do a lot of things. When I went downtown I had to wait in line to even pay a bill if white people showed up, even though I had gotten there first.

I was so conscious of the things I couldn't do as a black child. Every time I walked past the YMCA, I knew that those white kids could go there and swim and do many activities, and we couldn't even walk into the building.

I first became involved in '63, probably August or so. Then school started in September and I remember at that point I was in 11th grade. I was not a person who ever wanted to skip school, but at that point I didn't care about school or anything else. I just went to the meetings, just went to the church. Even in my little job with Mr. Burson, the owner of the dry cleaners, tried to have a talk with me, "Well, you know, Anna Laurie these things take time y'all need to be patient."

At the time we marched on the courthouse, I knew that one of our classmates had already been hit in the head, and people had already been cattle-prodded and clubbed, but I was still gonna go. We were supposed to walk two by two, and when the sheriff's deputies came with the buses, we were supposed to lie down and not get up, and I tried to do that, but everybody was coming from behind me, getting on the busses, so I had to get up and on one of the busses too.

I remember that we were all at school when we heard that President Kennedy had been killed. Many of the students were crying, and I was always the person who tried to help. I remember being almost like a nurse and standing up, not being the person who fell apart.

Mr. Yelder, our principal, didn't want us to leave school when JFK was killed. But we had some teachers like Ms. Moore and a few others who were encouraging to us. Mr. Yelder and some of the older teachers were so afraid because the superintendent was going to fire them if we left school, but we didn't care. [J.L.] Chestnut said in his book that it was the teenagers and the students and the children of Selma that really accomplished the changes, and looking back I think he was right.

I also remember looking at the pictures of Emmett Till's killing in Jet magazine. I was only about nine years old, so I don't remember it very well. The adults tried to hide stories like that from us, and I was probably in my twenties before the story of Emmett Till really hit home with me. I know my mother was definitely afraid for me because I was always a daredevil. But I didn't care, I went to march anyway, and I was the only one in my family that ever did that.

The first time I went to jail was when we were walking two by two to the courthouse and were supposed to get down, not move and not walk to the buses, but when everybody else did, I did too. They took us downtown to fingerprint and book us in the city jail. When that jail got too full they took us out to Camp Selma, and when that got too full, they took us out to somewhere else, and when that got too full they took us to the Marion, Alabama, Camp.

[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.]

I remember going to three different places. That was in the fall of 1963, I think Freedom Day. I remember the guys, like Charles Bonner and some of the others, being in a barrack across from us, and I remember making a lot of noise all night. When we first got there we had bunk beds, but then they couldn't keep us quiet, so the sheriff came in and took the bunk beds, and after that they had us down on the floor with nothing. No blankets, no nothing.

When they first took us to the city jail, there were about fifty girls all in the same place, and we couldn't see anything and could hardly move. At that point I thought, "Oh my god, what's gonna happen?" I was a little scared. But once the lawyers Dr. King had sent from Atlanta came, I felt okay. At some point I wasn't afraid any longer. I thought, 'let it be whatever it is, let it be.' I remember Camp Selma much better than the city jail. It was horrible. That was the jail where they fed us white bread and syrup. Uh what else? They finally gave us some Pork and Beans. But I remember that was the one where we made such a ruckus that they took everything away.

There were hundreds of us, and there was hardly any room to do anything. It was really hard for young teenage women not to have facilities and provisions for female things. It was really, really, really nasty. There were about 60-70 girls of all ages in the cells of the barracks. All these girls had just one toilet. We all had to use that one toilet. When Camp Selma got too full, the last jail we went to was in Camden [Wilcox County]. I stayed in jail about six days.

I still remember when I was about seven or so there was a Christmas parade and we went into town. There was a white Santa Claus and that Santa gave me a green lollipop and I ate it and got sick. No telling what was on the lollipop but I never took anything from them ever again. I don't eat green candy to this day. I never trusted them.

I don't even know how I was able to go up there to Mr. Burson's place and trust him. He was always kind. They say the Dutch are kind people, so I saw him as a very kind man. I remember when he remodeled the dry cleaners and put a door on the side for coloreds, they [white racists] shot in the window and told him they'd kill him, and he had to close that door down.

In Selma there were a few whites who could be trusted. There were the Catholics; I was always around them at the canteen. As a teenager in Selma there wasn't much to do, and I still even remember being eleven or twelve years old when they used to have that canteen outside behind the Catholic School, and I remember the lights were so bright and the music so loud that I could stand at my back door to listen to it.

We weren't allowed to go there because we were too young. When we got old enough to go to the canteen and dance, I loved it. I used to really love to dance so I would look forward to Saturday nights to go there and dance. We danced to Arthur and the Vandelas, James Brown too, and Otis Redding. Eventually they called it the Hustle, but when I was a girl it was just fast dance. A lot of fast dancing, a lot of slow dancing — what they call grinding. I used to back away when it came to grinding. I really was bashful! I was always saying I'm waiting until I get grown. I'm waiting until I get married to do anything. See also:

Selma — Breaking the Grip of Fear
Freedom Day in Selma
The Selma Injunction
1965: Selma & The March to Montgomery

Copyright © Annie Laura Williams & Charles Bonner. 2016

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