Grocers & Groceries; Charlie Ware; and 'Gator Johnson
by Randy Battle

Recorded, transcribed and slightly edited for continuity by Peter de Lissovoy in 2005.

[Randy Battle worked for SNCC throughout the 1960s.]

We didn't always have much good to eat at the SNCC house except what was in them battered cans and so on that Giles sent over from his grocery and others with no labels on them. You know, [Charles] Sherrod peeled the labels off them, first thing, he took and peeled off all the labels off Giles' canned goods that he sent us, otherwise everybody eat the lasagna up first and all, all that's left is the string beans!

Giles was a good old fellow, you know. He always sent the Movement stuff. Giles grocery, when they started saying you better hire you some black cashiers, old Giles got him a black woman and stood her up there. She didn't even know how to ring the cash register up hardly yet and his wife stood there too beside her and stuck her hand through there and rung up the register and let the black woman collect the money and give them the change. Giles was always polite to his customers unlike Bronson, Carl Smith and the other groceries. Giles brought that old bent up canned food and gave it to us in the Movement office.

And that other little old grocery store that stood beside the alley they hired them a black woman too. But Carl Smith wasn't going for that. Nor Bronson. But old Giles, when that came down, he got up there and hired him the best looking black woman he could find, with her fine butt and everything, and stood her right up front. But she didn't know how to punch the stuff in till she learnt how. The wife be standing right round behind her while she did it, but the black woman, fine looking thing, stood in front.

Carl Smith was big volume and he sold for cash, but Giles sold by the week or month, and you might wait to the end of the month when you could pay. He had plenty of meat and everything but he was more of a convenience store just the same, and Smith was a regular volume grocer with everything. So they weren't in competition. Giles more took care of the welfare folk. He helped the Movement too. You know I dealt with Giles a long time and borrowed from him and everything else. I always knowed Giles and he helped the Movement a little bit behind the scenes.

Anyway, Giles saw the handwriting on the wall and he hired a black cashier but Carl Smith and Earl Bronson were redneck crackers connected to them rednecks downtown and if they had accommodated people like that they would have thrown them out of the group. Giles was a Jew and he wasn't connected to none of them and wasn't in the group. He hired him a black woman and had his wife to stand up behind her and punch the keys. But they trained her and she got to be good at it too. I think she is the cashier down in one of them fancy restaurants downtown there right now. That gal ought to be about 50 something years old by now and she is a cashier today. Old Giles had him a good-looking young black gal behind that register.

And you know them old bent-up cans of food in the SNCC kitchen in Albany that we ate and sometimes kept us alive, all the SNCC folks remember them bent up old cans with no labels on them or anything that Sherrod peeled off, all of that food, or a good deal of it, came from Giles. Giles wasn't gonna get put out of business. Eventually you know the Movement did put some of em out of business that wouldn't mend their evil ways. Like Carl Smith, who we picketed, and the Movement got in all that trouble for picketing his grocery when he was on the jury that acquitted Sheriff 'Gator Johnson for trying to kill Charlie Ware. But eventually the Movement put Carl Smith out of business, sure did.

Let me stop an tell that story for a minute. Because back in the fifties I worked in Carl Smith's store, when I was fifteen, sixteen years old. I was a bag boy. Carl Smith was always just as bad as ... a little worse than your average cracker, I would say. Me, old Herbert Phipps — you know he is a judge now — his brother and a lot of us were what you call bag boys. You know, a bag boy, when the people buy their stuff, you bag it up and put it in a bucket. I worked in that son of a bitch. I worked Thursday evening, Friday evening, and all day Saturday, for fifteen dollars. You got your money out of tips if you toted somebody's groceries out for 'em and that. Smith was a cracker. He didn't know what to do when the Movement boycotted him.

But then they got them a brainstorm. At that time Smith happened to be a juror, too, on the grand jury that was called to inquire into 'Gator Johnson trying to kill Charlie Ware and that acquitted him. So they indicted the whole Movement for jury tampering because Carl Smith was a juror on another evil deal altogether. When the Movement was boycotting his grocery store, he got the warrant swore out for them intimidating a grand juror. All the time they demonstrated against Carl Smith they tried to negotiate with him. They tried to negotiate with Carl Smith for a long time to get him to hire some black help like Giles did. To tell the truth I wasn't a part of that and paid it no attention at all. I disappeared and went out of town for a week or two at one point and when I came back he was out of business, and everybody in the Movement had been indicted.

[See Federal "Jury Tampering" Frameup in Albany GA for historical background.]

You know, C.B. [King] had that angle covered. That was C.B's business to beat that whole scam they had. That was his game to spring the Movement leadership out of that jam, which the crackers in the Ware case had seen the light where they could charge the Movement that was boycotting the grocery store of Carl Smith with intimidating a grand juror. Nobody ever saw that coming I can tell you. First they try to kill Charlie Ware and then they indict the Movement for jury tampering on account of a boycott of a grocery business of a juror on the trial that acquitted 'Gator Johnson the would-be killer of Charlie Ware.

It was the same old story, in the South, you know, a white guy wanted this black woman, and anybody didn't like it, look out! Including the woman's boy friend, they just kill him. I mean, you know, we in the South know what is going on. There wasn't no mystery in it. That cracker tried to kill Charlie Ware because he was fond of Charlie Ware's old lady and then they charged Charlie Ware with attempted murder for not being quite killed and wanted to hang him since they hadn't quite managed to murder him. Then by coincidence one of the jurors on the grand jury looking into whether 'Gator tried to kill Charlie was Carl Smith the grocery man, so they figure they could break our boycott saying the boycott was trying to intimidate the grand jury, which had no connection to none of it.

But let me tell you the Charlie Ware story. He was going with a fine-looking black woman. Charlie Ware was a little five foot four inch man but he was rugged. The white sheriff was going with the same woman now. In 1963 the sheriff, 'Gator Johnson, caught him coming from the woman's house. He was casing the road. In Baker County that was no big thing, you didn't have to have no reason to stop a black man. He handcuffed him to the doorpost of the police car and called in for help. On the way in he shot him twice in the head an say Charlie Ware had tried to choke him. The black deputy rushed over and they pronounced him dead. Baker County had a black deputy, they always had one or two Toms who would tell Warren 'Gator Johnson what the niggers were doing. They called an ambulance from the funeral home in Camilla and they took off the body.

But when they got him out he started twitching. The folks at the black funeral home called C.B. They noticed Charlie still alive! Barely. They brought him to Phoebe Putnam Hospital. C.B. met him out there and they operated on him. He sued Baker County and Charlie Ware bought him a house in Albany. He ran that Shell station on Newton Road.

The man that nearly killed him, 'Gator Johnson, got off scot free from a jury that had Carl Smith on it, whose grocery the Movement was picketing and before they knew it they — the whole damn Albany Movement — was indicted for tampering with the grand jury that was rigged to let that killer free.

That was Carl Smith's grocery, where I worked when I was fifteen, and when I was older I worked at Earl Bronson's. Bronson's grocery was where I worked at when I jumped in the Tift Park pool. I was a bag boy and a stock boy, you know — that little career of mine came to an abrupt end the day we jumped in the pool.

I'll tell another story about 'Gator Johnson. Once a month my whole family would go to our church over in Elmerdale. Sanctified church. We were sanctified people — except me of course. To get to Elmerdale shortest way was through Newton — in Bad Baker County, you know. But Warren Johnson was sheriff over there and we knew better than to go through Newton.

Warren Johnson, that was who they call 'Gator' Johnson, was a real big cracker, about six-six, 250 pounds — hell I seen him when he was up to 300 pounds or more. His brother Ben was in the army. Back then, when you went in the army you went for two years, you didn't go for a little while and come home for a leave. So while Ben was in the army old Warren Johnson brought his wife over to stay with him. I mean he had his brother's wife living with him and he had a baby by her — that was "Screws" Johnson was who that baby was.

Old Ben he eventually became a drunk. He would sit over in that Coca-Cola stand in Newton and during the Movement days if we wanted to know what the white folks were thinking or planning, we would buy Ben Johnson a pint of wine and he would tell us everything he knew, all the low-down gossip and what they had up their sleeve next for the Movement.

But anyway when I was a little kid and we used to go to church in Elmerdale we would drive around a whole extra thirty miles to avoid Newton because Newton had a sign on the main drag that said 15 miles per hour, and old Warren Johnson sat right outside town, and if you did 14 miles per hour he gave you a ticket for driving too slow and if you did 16 miles per hour you got one for speeding. Matter of fact you could be dead on 15 as far as your speedometer went and he would say you was going 35, and that was the fine too, $35 dollars. And back then, for poor black folks anyway, $35 dollars you might as well be talking $350 dollars or $3500 dollars, they didn't have it. So we took the long way around Warren Johnson. He made his living off them $35 dollar speeding fines.

But now them boys just back from the army, they would say hell with it, lemme just drive straight through Newton, I don't have time to be taking no back roads. And sure enough here they come and Warren Johnson be waitin on em, and they might have three dollars in their pocket, and he take that, and they have a nice ring, or a wristwatch. And he would keep that till they come back with their $35 dollars for the fine. Or he just take their car. And they have to walk or hitch-hike back to Albany. ...

Copyright © Randy Battle

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