James (Jimmy) Reynolds
Selma student activist, 1963

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

Yes, we want our freedom
Yes, we want our freedom
We want out freedom
and we want it now!

      — Freedom Song

I first noticed the unfairness of our lives when I was between 8 and 11 years old, when we were going to the Greyhound bus station and seeing all the white and colored signs, and we couldn't eat where the white folks were eating. We couldn't go in the front door at any of the establishments, and that upset me. I kept asking why it was okay for them and not for us, and why my color was the reason for that. My grandparents never gave me an answer; they just gave me all the rules on how to talk to white people, not to look at them directly, and never to talk back to them.

I was raised by my grandparents in Selma, and also by an aunt. They sometimes talked about things that were going on as related to black and white, especially the Ku Klux Klan who came marching through the neighborhood and how they would determine whether a person could even get a job in Selma, depending on whether they were black or white. My grandparents shared these stories as just the way it was, but that was not right. You had to always make sure that you were handling things correctly because you could easily get killed at any time.

My grandmother worked as the help in a white house twice a week, cooking and doing their wash. It was just not good to be a person of color. You couldn't walk into the movie theater, you had to sit upstairs. You couldn't walk in white neighborhoods, sometimes not even on one particular side of the street.

I got involved in the movement in my junior year in high school in 1963. My aunt, Margaret Moore, was actively involved with some civil rights workers and they were staying at her house. Bernard and Colia Lafayette, John Lewis and Rev. Brown were staying with her, they were part of SNCC. I was listening and talking with them, she got me involved, and they convinced me that the movement was important and they thought that nonviolence was the answer. They thought the students would be a greater force than the adults because the adults were working for the white folks and would be cut off from their jobs and had to worry about feeding their families. It was highly interesting to see how committed these people were to bringing change to Selma so that we, as black people, could live a better life.

I started going to mass meetings, and I went to the training meetings in the basement of Tabernacle Baptist Church. At the trainings one of the things we were taught was to be mindful that many people we were going to try to organize to vote felt that it was okay to be where they were in life, even though they weren't considered a full human, they only got a half vote. We were told they might be unwilling to change anything and risk their lives by opposing the whites. They didn't really feel that way, but they couldn't oppose the white people and they justified it by saying that they already had rights. They believed in leaving things alone and didn't want to upend their lives.

I was part of the Strategy Committee with the SNCC group from Selma. The student Strategy Committee consisted of Cleophus Hobbs, Terry Shaw, Charles Bonner, John Smith, Jesse Williams, Evelyn Mann, Bettie Fikes, Bettie Parker, and others. We set up all the demonstrations all over the city. We had already filled all the jails, and the members of the strategy committee were the last ones to be arrested. We were on the sidewalk on Broad Street in front of the Catholic Church.

Sheriff Jim Clark and his posse were the ones who arrested us. Someone said that as long as we stayed on the grass in front of the church and weren't on the concrete sidewalk, they couldn't legally arrest us, and one person stepped on the grass, but Jim Clark took a cattle prod and shocked that person with it. We all saw what that cattle prod did, and so we all stepped back on the concrete and they arrested us.

One of the young ladies who were arrested told them she had something they wanted to know. They wanted to know who was planning and organizing all the demonstrations in town. They had no clue that it was us students, they couldn't believe we were capable of setting all that up. They said they had been looking for us. She told them we were the ones who had set up all the demonstrations. She also told them that they had just arrested the Strategy committee.

They took us to the city jail but there was no room there, then to the county jail, and then they took us to Camp Selma, but there was no room there either, and then ultimately they took us to Camden.

[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 and Camp Camden. During the Freedom Movement era, these "camps" were often used to incarcerate young protesters.]

While they took us from one place to the next, I realized that they wouldn't have any trouble killing people, meaning black people. Sheriff Clark and his men weren't putting down any record that they had us in custody, which meant that they wanted to take us outside of town and kill us, but my neighbor had seen them arrest us, and she told my grandparents, and my grandfather went to Judge Reynolds to see where they were taking us. They all went to the jail, and at the jail they said there was no record of us.

Jim Clark and his men were determined to make us disappear and suppress all records that we had ever been arrested, but my grandfather was a contractor and a carpenter and had done work for a lot of white people. Not all the white folks were racist, and they helped him track us down, finally all the way in Camden. They kept us for 15 days in Camden, about 25 of us. Usually they only kept people for 3-4 days, sometimes a week, but not this long. That was in 1963, in about September.

That was the only time I was arrested and went to jail, but many times after the training meetings the police was outside, intimidating and threatening us. Some of the other students in jail with me were Jerome Fulwider, Cleophus Carstarphen, Charles Bonner, Terry Shaw, Melvin Savage, Cleophus Hobbs, Edward Foster, Jesse Williams.

The students were really very courageous. It was the adults who were fearful. The students knew that they might get hurt or die. They wanted the people coming after them to have a better life without the limitations we had in our lives because of our color. They had a different outlook from the adults. The adults were afraid of the demonstrations. The adults wanted nothing to do with the movement because they were all working for white people and were afraid to lose their jobs and were scared to be beaten or killed or have the Klan burn their homes.

In the city jail they had metal beds, in the county jail, too. We were only in the city jail and the county jail for a few hours each, and they never gave us anything to eat until we got to Camp Selma, we didn't eat for an entire day. In Camp Selma it was set up with bunk beds, like military barracks. That's the first time they gave us something to eat. They wouldn't let you go to the bathroom when you had too, only when they felt like letting you go, and that was really humiliating and dehumanizing. It was really a bad feeling. They had black people cooking the food for us, things like meatloaf and cornbread.

The guards were fully armed and in their police uniforms. Some of the guards we had were trustees, and they informed on us, to make themselves look better. They all primarily worked on intimidating us and making us feel more scared, but it made us more determined to stay the course. Sometimes we sang some of our freedom songs, but a lot of times we just talked quietly about what we would do when we got out and wondering when we would get out.

When we got ready to graduate, it was not good, a very bad situation because we were given demerits when we demonstrated. If you had nine demerits you couldn't stay in school, and if you I had six demerits, you couldn't march with your class, and for one demonstration they gave us three demerits. I graduated but I wasn't I allowed to walk with my class, and that was a huge injustice. Mr. Pickett, the white superintendent, forced Mr. Yelder, the black principal, to impose that penalty on us, perpetuating injustice against us by enforcing these rules. That was the punishment for participating in the demonstrations. It was such an injustice because whoever was the parent or guardian of the student who was graduating, never had the opportunity to see their child in a cap and gown. That took something precious away from them, and that was extreme. Mr. Yelder should have been courageous enough to oppose Mr. Pickett because Mr. Pickett could not have enforced the punishment.

See also:

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

Copyright © ///name & Charles Bonner. ///date

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