George Davis

Originally published in The Nation's Longest Struggle: Looking Back on the Modern Civil Rights Movement by the D.C. Everest school system of Wisconsin. This interview was conducted and edited by Junior and Senior High School students of the Everest system. For more information, see D.C. Everest Oral History Project.

[When George Davis was a part of the Civil Rights Movement, he was an organizer. He helped to organize youth for marches or sit-ins. He was a key part of the organization, and he and his fellow organizers were targeted on many occasions.]

See 1965: Selma & The March to Montgomery for background & more information.
See also Selma Voting Rights Campaign & March to Montgomery for web links.

Were there any specific events that you participated in that helped further along the Civil Rights Movement?

I was born October 18, 1941. During the civil rights movement, I belonged to the SNCC. Also, I belonged to an organization called CORE. It's not that well known, unless you do some studying from Jim Forman's book, Sammy Younge, Jr.: The First Black College Student to Die in the Black Liberation Movement. But we'll get to that. There are many different organizations that branched off because of the in-fighting with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and SNCC. There were those two and the Black Panther Party.

I was an organizer in Mississippi, working for Fannie Lou Harner. I was one of the organizers for the students when Dr. King had his march from Selma, Alabama.

Could you go over that briefly?

Well what happened was, a young man was killed in [Marion], Alabama. It was a demonstration. The police were beating his mother; he stepped in front, so they killed him. We decided there were too many deaths happening, so we were going to take his body to the Capitol. That was quite a feat. At the start of the march, they called Dr. King, and he wasn't there. We knew if Dr. King wouldn't be there that all craziness would break out. If King was there, there would be a lot of press, right? Well, they told us to start praying. This was called Bloody Sunday. It was shown around the world.

Because of that, people came to Selma to participate in this march. Then, came Turn Around Tuesday. A deal was cut so they really would get to march all the way. They symbolically marched and then they turned around. An injunction was put up. People were saying, "Well, you gotta wait 'til we can figure out what's going on."

While this was all going on, we had our organization in Tuskegee, Alabama, and a lot of the students had relatives in this march. So we had a mass meeting and we raised money. We ended up taking 18 buses, over 1000 students, to Montgomery. They didn't wait for Dr. King. We went and we sat out in front of the statehouse. We sent a petition to George Wallace. The petition asked, why was it that the state troopers, who were supposed to protect, were used to beat? We stayed out there all day and then into the night, which was very, very dangerous.

We made a call, on TV, for people to come. So people from all over came to Alabama. We filled the jails. When the jails were full, then King and his march carne from outside of Montgomery, a place called Saint Jude's. Saint Jude's is a Catholic school in Montgomery. But they did not come in. They didn't want to go against the injunction. George Wallace said that he couldn't guarantee their safety. Well, we went ahead with it anyway. You can look that up in the book, The Death of Sammy Younge, Jr.

I was one of the organizers for that march. We cleared the way for them to have this march. We would go out into the plantations late at night and organize people. Our whole idea was to establish local leaders to get the people organized. It was change coming from the ground up. Dr. King, and other speakers, their speeches were to motivate people. What we did was to find local leaders and establish what we called" direct action". Direct action was when people found an injustice taking place, to go after that injustice. Sometimes, that meant a march. If we had a march, we had to let the authorities know. We had to find ways around the restrictions, only so many people could march, we could only walk on this side. We were well known because we created direct action.

I'd like to explain this a bit, to help you better understand. We were the student movement. Dr. King was a preacher; he worked more with grown folks. But we were students. A lot of the things that we did had not been done before. We marked the beginning of that, on February 7, 1960. Many things were legal issues, being worked through in the courts like Brown vs. Board of Education. It was all legal action.

What happened in 1960 was that four students sat down at a lunch counter. This was happening more and more in the south. We felt it was an example of an unjust law. That's why it was called the Civil Rights Movement. As you may know, the 14th amendment is the Civil Rights Amendment. That's very important. Anyone who is born in the United States should have the same rights and privileges as anyone else. You shouldn't be denied that. What we were doing was simply based on the 14th Amendment. Basically, you cannot say this person can do this, but this person cannot. We did it with direct action. We just hit the streets.

Then we moved from that to developing local leaders. You asked me before, what my part was in this. I'm not sure if this is the right term, but I was an organizer. Now, if you decide to go to the library and check out that book, The Death of Sammy Younge, [I'll probably be mentioned in it somewhere. That is a very good book to read about the movement. Sammy was killed. He came back from working in the Navy and got involved with us. He got killed when he wasn't with us. See, if we worked with big leaders, like Dr. King, we would go by their wishes and what they wanted. But when we were on our own, we weren't as careless. We didn't want to die and just give up our lives. We were also more radical.

We learned about the lunch counters, the sit-ins, and how that was really the start of all that. We found that very interesting how it was the start or the push, that the movement needed to really begin.

That's right, that's absolutely right. However, the main reason why this was such a push, was that before that, all the demonstrations and such were by adults, grown-ups. This time these were students who were doing this, and that really made a difference. They were young and strong. Once they got fired up about something, it was like waking a sleeping giant. There were just so many of them. I forget the exact number, but there were thousands and thousands of students. Many of them would end up going to jail due to that movement. Then we moved to changing, really changing. We didn't want to just be able to use the same restrooms, that wouldn't really make a difference. We found things that were a problem, and we fixed them. We would go into an area, and say that we need to know what you want us to do; we want to know what you need. We became an action based group.

With the sit-ins, didn't it attract a lot more media, due to the fact that it was students doing it, and not adults?

Well, yes and no. This was the age of the television, and it would show the students dressed up real nice and demonstrating. In fact, that's how the group I was a part of got me. I saw them on TV. It was one of the best recruitment ways, being able to see people on TV and wanting to join.

It basically all started with Emmett Till. When they showed Emmett Till and his body. Well, Emmett Till was a young boy of 13. He was in a store and he started to whistle. Now, he wasn't whistling at anybody, he was just whistling. They killed him, because apparently he was whistling at white women. Television made this a major, major thing. When everyone saw that, it got more and more people to join the Movement, and we grew and grew.

The more people we got to join, the more organization we needed. That was one of the most beautiful things. I think you might be old enough to understand how many of us felt back then. We felt like we were alone, and couldn't make a difference. But what happened with the movement? People grouped together, it was a beautiful thing. We would stay up all night debating one thing or another. When I was your age, I was a student-athlete. I would try to talk to other students, but they weren't willing to talk much about it. Coming to the South and meeting others, now that opened a door. There are a lot of things we can learn from each other.

Now, this is a funny story. I remember the first time I went with one of my eagles. That's what I called my students, my eagles. Anyway, we were going up and down to different houses, telling people to come to the chapel and meet Dr. King. Well, I went down one road and Bob went down another. I went and I talked to people and then I sat down to wait for Bob. Well I waited and waited, it took him awhile to come back. The next night at the chapel, none of my people came, but two or three of his came. I wondered, whats going on here? So the next night I went with Bob. I just shadowed him and watched what he did. Well, we came up to a man and Bob talked about crops, and school, and kids, and just everything under the sun except for what we came there for! I thought to myself, now get on with it! Eventually the man asked him, now what exactly did you come here for? And Bob told him about the meeting. Well don't you know it, at the next meeting that man showed up. I learned that day that you need to talk someone in, before you really talk to them.

That's a great concept to understand. I work with youth, troubled youth, robbery and gang members and the such. Well, before I talk to them about what I need to, first I talk to them about other things to form a relationship and trust. It really can help. I wasn't really talking to people; I was just ordering them around. But Bob, he was really talking. He was showing the people that he was willing to talk about the crops and such.

That was an organizer tool we learned. The second organizer tool we learned was asking who were the gatekeepers. If we went to a town, we would ask the people there, if you had a problem who would you go to? They couldn't really ever go to the local sheriffs. So we would ask and find out who was already a local leader. We wanted to build authority from the top down, not ground up. Being an organizer took special skills; it took time to learn them properly.

All these books that you are referring to us sound like really good books and we can't wait to read them ourselves.

There is a book, Malcolm Speaks. That book acknowledges Malcolm X's views. Now we can see why the government would make sure that was taken out. That was the other thing — I got a chance to go to Africa during this time that we're talking about. There was so much that was happening world-wide, that we here had an impact on. A lot of things happened.

Were you ever physically beaten during the movement?

Yes, I got hit on the side of my head, but it isn't a big deal. Some had way worse injuries than me. I was put in jail most of the time. Some of it was scary, because you never knew. One time they took us out of the city jail at 2 or 3 in the morning and put us in the back of a truck and closed the door. We didn't know where we were going. Now you know what's going through our minds, they were going to take us somewhere and put us in the swamps. When we saw the light when they opened the truck, you have no idea how glad we were. They could have easily just taken us out of the jail and just got rid of us.

The worst thing that happened was at [Jackson State College] at a mass meeting. I was one of the organizers. After the meeting we usually get together and have a lot of conversations. At that meeting two men were killed. We have pretty solid information that it was government agents. You know, there's no membership card or anything when you're in one of these organizations; nobody really checks. The two people that were killed I was with the night before, organizing and stuff. I was late coming to the meeting that day. As I was walking to the meeting, people were running across the campus. I had just missed the shooting. I have no doubt that if I was there I would have also been killed. I was one of those people who were on the list.

I went to a high school reunion in Massachusetts. There was a classmate who was in intelligence and he knew who I was. As I was travelling in and out of the country they let me know that I was being watched. I think that I'm really lucky to be here. I didn't go to Canada; I went to South America. I got out of here because there was too much stuff. We had the meeting in my trailer and I knew I was on the watch list. How far they were going to go, I didn't know.

In the late 60's, about 71 or 72 people were killed. It started a little bit earlier than at [South] Carolina State and Jackson State — these are schools in the South — students were getting killed. The whole movement thing changed. That's what we had a big argument with Dr. King about. People weren't being killed during the march; it was after the march. Our fight was that nonviolence is not a way of life, it's a tactic and we had a right to protect ourselves. A lot of people were killed including one of my best friends. They killed Sammy; he was one of the organizers. It's a sad story. I had walked to campus from a bus station after I heard he was killed. I saw the chalk line and didn't think anything of it. We were considered a danger.

The interesting part about this is we were persuaded to do this by their own personal reasoning. Kennedy wanted to stop doing direct action and go into voter registration. However, when we did voter registration, they became more violent. They were violent with the Freedom Rides. After we went with voter registration there were people that held their seats legally. Registered people lost their lives.

Since the whole movement, how do you feel about radical groups like the KKK?

Well, like I said, they killed my best friend Sammy. That is a hard question, because that didn't bother me as much as folks that wore one face but really were another face. In 1964 when the [Mississippi Freedom] Democratic Party challenged the Dixiecrats, there were some people who showed their true face. They tried to get people not to challenge them, because they were federal senators and representatives. We had people that showed their true stuff, and at least I knew who those people were.

Everybody loved JFK, but in reality he was a cruel politician. Dr. King's father had to deal with him and had him use his resources so he could get King out of jail in Atlanta. Dr. King called him "Daddy King." He went with some of our students to something we were doing and we were all arrested. He spoke to Kennedy and promised him he would bring the vote to that election. This happened in 1960 also.

Registered black folks in the South, what party do you think they belonged to? Black folks were preachers, school teachers, etc. They were the ones that were registered voters and they voted Republican. If you follow the history book, Republican was the party of Lincoln. So what Kennedy did when he saw that, was put up some money to help voter registration.

It looks like we've covered all of our questions, do you have anything you'd like to add about your experiences?

Yes, I'd like to say that you can remember that no matter what our age, we are all teachers and students. There are things you can teach others and things that others can teach you. We are all teachers and students, which means we can always learn things. That's why it was called the students' movement. If you look around you today it's basically a repeat. People had been quiet for a long time because they didn't want to wake up the giant, but when they realized how much trouble they were in, they had no choice. If you think about it, it was basically a student movement to stop the war. And if there was some injustice, like in school or whatever, then they would all come together and organize. The key to that is what is called a shared agenda. I mean, what's one thing we all would like? Very simple, a better world. That's a shared agenda.

[Now Davis works with youth at a youth correctional facility. He is helping the people there do something worthwhile in their lives and get back on the right track. He helps them get away from drugs and from bad pasts. He uses many of the tricks he learned in the past to help him work with the kids today.]

Interviewed and Transcribed by: Taylor Rowerdink & Cheyenne Antell.

Copyright © D.C. Everest Area Schools, 2013

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