Bernice Savage Mutuku
Selma student activist, 1963-1965

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

When we first started being involved in the movement, we started meeting at Tabernacle church, in the basement. My mother didn't want us to get too involved in the cause because she was afraid for her job. She worked at All Lock and told us not to go to the meetings because she could have gotten fired from her job. But we went anyway, first to Tabernacle, and then to Brown Chapel and First Baptist. They had a lot of people come in to speak, for example John Lewis, and these people talked to us about getting voting rights for our parents. Somehow I avoided going to jail.

I was somewhat protected from discrimination. We lived in th George Washington Carver Projects. My Mom told us what to do, and I had an older sister who told us we could do so much, and we could only stay within the projects. Everything was fine there,but as far as going downtown by ourselves, we didn't do too much of that.

If we went downtown, for example on Sundays, we sometimes went to the movies. Miss Anna Lee Smith worked at the movies and told us we could go upstairs and watch the movie.We couldn't go downstairs. And she gave us popcorn and snacks.But we couldn't go downtown just roaming around because it just wasn't allowed. If we did, it was a group of us going. There was a fear about going downtown. It was like an unknown. People didn't talk, they didn't explain what the fear was. We just knew that white people were in control, and I felt that there was a fear that they would do something g to hurt us. And if they did, there wouldn't be anything done about it.

Our class of 1964 took a leadership role. Cleophus Hobbs and Charles Bonner and a few of the other guys really got involved, and that brought in a lot of the girls, and then they tried to get the teachers involved. When these few guys were so vocal about it, we all started to think it was the right thing to do, and we all needed to participate.

At some point, we got a little angry with the teachers because they were telling us to stay in class, don't do this, don't get involved because I think they were afraid that we would get hurt. Eventually Hobbs and Bonner and the other kids convinced the teachers to act. Mr. Pickett, the Superintendent, was focusing on our principal, thinking that he could control us that way. That made us angrier because this white man was telling our teachers and principal what they could and could not do. At that point, the students had no fear.

Cleophus Hobbs spent his whole life focusing on the movement, human rights and our rights as a class. He was always thinking of those things, even when he went to Viet Nam and when he came back. He tried to organize the community where he lived,and it was always something on his mind, what he had done and what he wanted to do as far as our rights were concerned. I don't think he ever gave that up, whereas most people moved on and did other things. It was always on his mind to get us organized to be the best we can be, and to stand up for our rights.

Cleophus Hobbs, and Charles Bonner, and Terry Shaw always told us that our parents had a right to vote, and we had a right to drink out of any fountain that we wanted to drink out of.They told us that the segregated school was wrong, and that we shouldn't have to go to the back of the bus when you rode the bus.We shouldn't have to cross the street when we saw white people walking down the street. We just shouldn't have to live in fear.They told us to focus on the basic human rights we should have had.

I remember always looking in the drugstore at the white people sitting down and eating, and we didn't have a right to go in there and sit down to eat. That did something to you when you were a child. It had a big effect on all of us. We didn't talk about it,but we had this fear of white people and the feeling that we weren't equal to them. It made us feel inferior. And it was always yes ma'm, yes sir, it was a forced thing and felt horrible.

When I was a child I first noticed that our parents were treated unfairly, not so much us kids. There was a store that was close to the projects. Most blacks during that time had a field account there. The man let you have so much on there, and then my mother had to pay at the end of the week or when she got paid.But if she ran over, then she couldn't get anything. It always made us feel so bad. Sometimes we had to wait it out until Friday or until my mother had the fee.

We were poor. We stayed out in the country, in Menner ,Alabama, when my mother came to Selma, and she boarded with a lady until she got a job. She was one of the first black women they hired at the All Lock. After that she brought us up from the country .We were one of the first families to move into the projects. It felt a different to live in the projects because we had an indoor bathroom and we had heat. We weren't cold like we had been cold out in the country.

We were poor, but then when she had a permanent job,things got better. Things got better, but at first, while she worked at the locker plant, she sometimes she went home and then went to clean the white ladies' homes too, so there were part-time jobs to help out. My parents were separated, so she took care of us on her own. My father lived in Pensacola, Florida, and we went there every summer. He spent a lot of time with us during the summertime so we felt love, even though they were separated.

When I came to Selma, my brother Melvin was still out in the country. He stayed out in the country maybe a year or two after I came to the city. And when he came the city, then they put him back, so he was in the same class even though he was a year older. I think the students in our class didn't ever get any recognition for what their contribution to the civil rights movement. The focus was on the adults, some of the teachers like Reverend Reese, Mr. Huggins. Mr. Perkins. We did have some very good teachers when we were in school. My favorite at R.B.Hudson was Miss Gardner, but I also liked Mr. Young and Miss Maddox.

But there was no credit given to the students who were the ones to get it all started. And they were left out of the official history. But I think they played a very important role and they stayed with it, even into adulthood. It didn't ever leave them. They stayed committed to human rights and civil rights.

Even though I never went to jail, I was right in the midst of the movement. We lived right across from Brown Chapel and my mother put up some of the civil rights workers when they came to Selma; that was her way of helping the movement.

See also:

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

Copyright © Bernice Savage Mutuku & Charles Bonner. 2015

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