Three Selma Stories

Bruce Hartford

Like a Runaway Slave
Jim Clark and the Commie Kike
Schooled By a Mound of Dead Roaches

Like a Runaway Slave

One time in Selma, 1965, SCLC Project Director Albert Turner sent on an errand to the First Baptist Church, which was a block down Sylvan Street from Brown Chapel. First Baptist was one of the three main Movement churches and after Bloody Sunday, the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) set up an emergency aid station in its basement staffed with volunteer doctors and nurses.

When they weren't treating injured protesters they offered free care to anyone who needed it — though they had to be careful, since the state medical establishment refused to honor their out-of-state licenses, so they were limited in the services they could legally provide. Nevertheless, Black folk quickly started coming to them for medical problems that Alabama's system of segregated healthcare ignored, refused to address, or priced out of their reach.

While I was down in the basement I noticed a young Black woman creeping down the stairs, cautiously, almost furtively. She was carrying an infant, maybe a week or so old. Even I could see it was sick — bad sick. Clearly frightened, she kept her eyes cast down as she spoke softly to these white strangers. She was a sharecropper living on a rural plantation out in the county somewhere. Her newborn was dying, but the landowner refused to let her bring it to a doctor.

That was no surprise. In Alabama's Black Belt, plantations were still run like it was 1865 not 1965. Dallas County field hands were supposedly paid $1.25 for a 12-hour summer day — sometimes not even in cash but rather in credit at a crooked company commissary. That's about 11 cents an hour for hot, backbreaking labor (equal to 88 cents an hour in 2019). Plantation owners didn't want to pay any medical expenses for their "pickaninnies," and they were not about to risk their "help" being contaminated with the kind of radical ideas they might encounter in a town where "Martin Luther Coon" was preaching sedition against the Southern Way of Life.

But like slavemasters of old, that plantation owner couldn't entirely suppress the grapevine, that secret rumor line that ran like an invisible network beneath the notice of the white power structure. Somehow she heard about doctors at First Baptist who would treat Afro Americans for free. In the dead of night, like a runaway slave, she had snuck off carrying her child all the way to Selma on foot through miles of fields and bogs.

She was clearly frightened of what the owner would do when he discovered her escape. She knew she could never return to what had been her home. The MCHR nurse kept reassuring her that she wouldn't be sent back, but she was terrified. They say on TV that "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." I don't know if that's true, but I do know that what happened on those feudal Alabama plantations in the 1950s and '60s was buried there, never to be spoken of or revealed to outsiders. And I know that Sheriff Clark and his deputies would have dragged her back to that plantation in a heartbeat — no one the wiser and no questions asked. After all, she couldn't vote, she was no one.

I was just there on some errand when she came in. My assignment was elsewhere and I had to leave without knowing what happened to her or her child. I have no doubt that MCHR did what was needed regardless of license technicalities, and they would never have forced her back to the plantation or turned her over to the cops. I don't know what happened to her and her child, over the years and decades since, I've often wondered. Recently, though, I came across the following paragraph in an old letter I had writen a couple of weeks later quoting Dr. Herbert Krohn of the MCHR:

["Most people are malnourished. Especially with vitamin deficiency. I have seen some babies with starvation diarrhea. One baby was brought to me at the point of death. I saw a child with a classical case of malnutrition such as you read about in concentration camps. It is very common to see malnutrition masquerading as obesity because of the high starch and low protein diet."]


Jim Clark and the Commie Kike

One Monday in Selma, Alabama, I was arrested by Sheriff Jim Clark at the country courthouse.

On the previous Saturday, I had been assigned by SCLC to coordinate a day-long series of downtown nonviolent picket lines to publicize the boycott of white merchants that was underway as a protest against segregation and the denial of voting rights. The majority of the picketers were Selma teenagers. Naturally all 60 or so of us were immediately arrested (the First Amendment of the United States Constitution not being considered valid law in Alabama).

On that following Monday, the juveniles under 16 years of age were appearing in court for their arraignment. Since I had sent them out to picket, I thought I should be there to support them. As soon as I entered the courtroom Judge Hare furiously ordered me out and the bailiff shoved me into the hall.

I didn't know what to do. Go back inside as a defiant protest or wait outside in the hallway while the kids who had been arrested on the action I coordinated were berated and, for all I knew, sentenced to juvenile jail? Being young, brash, and not too bright, I went back in. Before I could even sit down, the judge ordered me arrested on charges of contributing to the delinquency of minors — a serious felony.

The courthouse was three blocks from the county jail and Sheriff Clark was pleased to haul me off. As he shoved me into the back seat of his car he called me a "communist."

Still operating in brash and stupid mode, I answered, "Communist? What do you mean? What's a communist?"

He wasn't stumped at all, he knew the answer right off. "A communist is any God Damned New York kike that wants our nigrahs to vote!"

Well, except for the fact that I was from Los Angeles he had me dead to rights. If he wanted to define "communist" as someone who thought that American citizens had a right to vote, who was I to argue?

I admit that I thought he was giving communists more credit than they deserved, since by that time I was pretty down on the Communist Party. I considered them nothing more than a bunch of liberal do-nothings. And I still resented the way they had treated my parents. But even in brash and stupid mode I knew that wasn't a discussion I wanted to have with Sheriff Jim Clark of Selma, Alabama.

I was booked and incarcerated in the Dallas County Jail, which was bigger, brighter, and cleaner than the Selma city jail which had hosted the pickets and I over the weekend. On the downside, though, Clark threw me into a 9x9-foot cell with a white prisoner, saying, "Here's one of them race- mixing nigger-lovers. Why don't you two get acquainted?"

Well, duh! That agenda was clear. The other prisoner was a big husky guy, taller than me and in good physical shape. As soon as Clark strolled off and before I had time to feel much fear, he knocked me down. I curled up in my nonviolent defensive ball, making sure to get my back up against the bars so he couldn't kick me in the kidneys. He proceeded to kick me in the shins and my arms, which were protecting my head, to stomp on my ribs, and to punch me wherever he could reach.

After a while, though, he got tired and stopped. I had never quite realized it before, but beating up on someone is hard work. That's probably why professional boxers only fight for three minutes before they get a rest break. I was hurting and bruised, my ribs were sore, and I had some bloody scrapes on my bare arms, but I wasn't really injured in any serious way.

I remained sitting on the floor with my back against the bars in case he decided to go a second round, but instead he sat down next to me. I offered him a smoke. He was out of cigarettes, so he thanked me and lit up. As it happened, I wasn't a smoker myself — I never cared for it. But like most southern civil rights workers, I was in the habit of always being ready for a surprise arrest, which meant hiding some notepaper and the flexible cartridge of a ballpoint pen in the lining of my jacket, and always carrying a pack of Camels or Lucky Strikes to offer other inmates in case I ended up in the slammer, as had just occurred.

Another reason even us non-smokers carried cigs was that while driving around the rural areas we would often come across chain gangs of Black prisoners doing roadwork. It was considered a mark of activist professionalism to drop a few smokes out the car window as we slowed down to pass them by (out of sight of the white guards lounging by their trucks, of course).

Anyway, there we were, two guys in the same jail cell. He didn't like me or what I stood for — and vice versa — but he'd clearly been in jail for some time and I guess he was lonely. Since we had nothing else to do, we started to talk. He told me his name, which I have long since forgotten and then he asked me was I really a "nigger-lover" and all the usual crap. Though I was circumspect in my answers and careful not to allow any anger-feedback dynamic to get started, I didn't deny who I was, why I was in Selma, or who I worked for.

He asked me if I had marched in Camden and I told him I had. Then out of the blue he asked, "Did you see me?"

"What do you mean?"

"I was in the posse, I was there on my horse." He left unsaid the beating-the-shit-out-of-you-all part, but we both understood his subtext. He went on to explain that he was a member of Clark's posse.

"But Clark's posse is for Dallas County, what were you doing in Wilcox County?"

"Oh, when Sheriff Clark tells you to go, you gotta go."

Yes, I thought to myself — but didn't say — like a feudal baron's armed retainer you're sent to suppress rebellious peons wherever they might be.

"Well, if you're a posseman, why are you in jail?"

So he had this long involved story, the details of which I don't remember. He thought he had been arrested for some crime — burglary or robbery or some such — but he didn't actually know what the charges against him were. He assured me, though, that he hadn't done whatever it was, and that he was being framed.

"You don't know the charges against you?"

He didn't. He'd been in jail for more than a week without, he claimed, anyone officially telling him what crimes he was being held for.

"Well, what does your lawyer say?"

He told me he hadn't been allowed to talk a lawyer or, for that matter, to his family, though they knew he was in jail because they had sent him some smokes a few days earlier.

He had a theory though. He had done something that pissed off Clark — he wouldn't tell me what — and that was why he was being held.

What amazed me was that he didn't seem to feel there was anything unusual about his treatment. He took it as the normal course of events — he'd pissed off Clark and Clark had thrown him in jail out of pique. He didn't like being incarcerated, but he didn't seem to resent being held incommunicado without charges and no bail. His attitude was that eventually Clark would get over being mad at him for whatever it was and he'd be let out. Just another aspect of the Southern Way of Life. A classic case of a feudal thinking, I concluded (but didn't say to him).

So we sat there talking until some time in the late afternoon this kid came walking down the aisle between the rows of cells. He was maybe 10 or 11 and obese like Porky Pig. I mean corpulent, his eyes were like raisins set deep in a doughy face. He saw us in the cell and started taunting us. "Nyaaa, nyaaa you're in jail. Jailbirds, jailbirds." And then he began throwing stuff at us, cigarette butts and wadded up toilet paper and whatever he could find. After a minute or two, a pudgy little girl joined him. She was maybe 7 or 8, and they both taunted us.

"Who are they?" I asked posse guy.

"Oh, them's Sheriff Clark's kids. He knows the niggers are out to get him — and his kids too — so they live in a cell down the hall."

I kid you not. Clark was literally raising his kids in the county jail. They had a cell of their own and though their door obviously wasn't locked they were, in a sense, prisoners too. After dinner we could hear them watching TV, squabbling, and playing. Clark was so paranoid he wouldn't let them go outside unless they were accompanied by an armed deputy to guard them at all times. Their playground was the aisle between the cell rows. I don't know where their mother was, I never saw her or heard a woman's voice.

Normally I like kids, but those two were something else. Years later, I read the Harry Potter novels, and the obnoxious cousin he had to live with during the summer brought those two brats back to mind.

Speaking of dinner, the food was utterly vile. Half-cooked lima beans crusted with what seemed to be some kind of chemical, bitter coffee, and slices of white Wonder Bread. I couldn't eat it that first night, nor breakfast the next morning, though eventually hunger compelled me to choke down lunch.

Later, I learned that the common practice in Alabama was for the state and county to provide the sheriff a small amount of money for each inmate's food. He could spend it as he saw fit to feed his prisoners, and whatever was left over went into his pocket — the less he spent on feeding us, the more he made for himself.

And in many counties the sheriff was actually paid like a for-profit business rather than a public office. In addition to any salary he might receive, he was paid a fee for every arrest, for each court document served, each prisoner transferred, and so on. Even better, he was entitled to a share of all criminal and traffic fines. The more people he or his deputies arrested or issued tickets to, the more money he made. Of course, if he was too aggressive he might be voted out of office. But since Afro-Americans weren't allowed to vote, they were easy prey and his personal cash cow. Which just one of the reasons why Clark and other southern sheriffs were so ferociously opposed to Black Americans getting the vote.

Using the pen cartridge and notepaper hidden in my denim jacket, I wrote a note to the SCLC office across the street, letting them know where I was being held. One of the Black prisoners was a trustee allowed to go outside on errands for the guards and deputies. I snuck the note to him when posse guy wasn't looking and he passed it on and relayed a response back for me. For some reason it took SCLC a couple of days to arrange my release. I guess the judge, or maybe Sheriff Clark, were delaying matters. After I was released, I never heard anything more about that arrest, so I suppose charges were eventually dismissed through federal intervention.


Schooled By a Mound of Dead Roaches

[As told to by Freedom Movement veterans and family members at a story-telling session, U.C. Berkeley, September 30, 2018.]

Bruce: People sometimes ask, 'Well, what affected you the most?' And I know that they are expecting me to say, 'Oh, the violence, the Klan, the car chases, or being arrested, or thrown in jail, or tear gassed.' And you know, since I was doing this for years, I have all of those stories. But for me, and I think for a lot of the other Civil Rights workers that came down from the North, what most profoundly affected me was the incredible poverty, the systemic entrenched poverty.

When I was in Selma, I was living in the Carver Housing Projects, which is the federal housing project that basically surrounds Brown Chapel which was one of the main Freedom Movement churches. And there's, I think, 35 buildings. Each of these buildings is essentially a two-story apartment block of four to six apartments. And they're spread out. There's bare ground around each of these 35 buildings. And it being the South, once the weather warms up, what comes with the warm weather are the roaches.

You all remember them — you turn on the light at night, and an army of roaches are spreading out across the floor scurrying for a crack or under the stove to hide. And you remember sitting at the table eating, and one is walking up your arm. Or at night. I put the legs of the iron bed in dishes of water, so the roaches wouldn't climb up and skitter on me while I was sleeping. And some of those southern roaches are so big you can hear them clickety-click-click across the floor.

So Carver Project, in total violation of law, was completely segregated. All the tenants were Black, and all of the administrators and functionaries who were paid to run the place were white. And so as soon as the warm weather came, out came the roaches. The administrator of the Carver Projects hired an exterminator company to deal with the roaches. White owned, all white employees. And what they would do is they would go into one of the apartments in one of the brick building and spray just that one apartment rather than the whole building. And then they would go to another building and spray just one apartment. And then to a third and so on.

And a few hours later or the next morning, you could sweep up a mound of roaches that was literally six inches high in that one apartment. But most of the roaches had just ran to the next apartment. So what this meant was that the white-owned roach company had a permanent job. They literally had two or three crews working five days a week because they never eliminated the roaches in any building. They just moved them from one apartment to the next.

So the people who lived at Carver complained. They said, 'Look, spray all of the apartments in a building and kill them all at once, and then they won't come back so quickly.' And the white managers always refused to do that because undoubtedly they had a little financial relationship with the roach company. I'm sure they were getting a kickback. And they had all the power, and the people living there whose rents were paying — I mean, this wasn't free housing; this was a federal housing project. People had to pay rent.

We spoke to reporters covering the Selma marches about the roach scam and I was told that when a white newsman asked a project official about it the answer he got was, "You know how dirty those coloreds are, they don't mind roaches — they like 'em."

So I thought I understood poverty, you know, because I came up from — You know, my parents were union organizers and all that kind of stuff. And I grew up in a working class district of Los Angeles, a district that years later they make movies about. Leimert Park, maybe you [Bob] know it. He's nodding and smiling. [General laughter]

So I had the liberal view. Well, there are two basic views as to poverty in America. This is what I learned in the Civil Rights Movement. The conservative view is that there's a small number of deserving poor. These are people who are crippled or blind or they've had a terrible accident or there's been a fire, and they deserve some charity. They're the deserving poor. All the rest — and they're the majority — are the undeserving poor, who are lazy bums, who don't want to work, who just want a handout, who are parasites on society. And as we all know, recent presidential candidate put their numbers at 47% of the population. As a Social Security recipient, I guess I'm one of them — fair disclosure.

The liberal view was that, yes, there may be a few lazy people, but essentially, the problem of poverty is lack of opportunity, lack of education, lack of transportation to get to jobs, racial discrimination in employment, so even if the job is there, it's not available to you, and so forth. And that was the view that I had when I went to Alabama, and later worked in Mississippi. And what I learned in the Civil Rights Movement is that while the liberal view — lack of opportunity — is an issue, a valid issue, that's not the fundamental root of poverty, of systemic poverty.

Lack of opporutnity may be a cause of individual poverty here and there, but systemic poverty is caused by lack of political power. The residents of the Carver Project did not have the political power to get their building sprayed for roaches in an effective manner. The poverty of the sharecroppers was not that cotton was not selling; it was that they didn't have the political power to end the sharecropper system where they were paid in shares rather than actual money. Today wages are stagnant all over the country because the power of unions has been politically destroyed by congress and the courts. Not being able to prevent good jobs from being shipped out of the area and into slave wage countries is a political problem not a lack of opportunity problem. So what I learned in the Civil Rights Movement is that is the fundamental root of systemic poverty in the United States is lack of political power. And that's what Dr. King was trying to address with the Poor People's Campaign.

Copyright © Bruce. Hartford

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