Charles Sherrod — The Gentle Giant
Annette Jones White 2017

On the day that I met Rev. Charles in Albany, Georgia in 1961, I felt that there was more to him than met the eye. As time passed my feelings were proven to be true. Although his work in human and civil rights is documented factually on the internet, there is little information about the man himself — the human side of the man who spearheaded efforts that changed the face of Southwest Georgia.

From 1961 through 1963, I saw a man of average physical stature become a GIANT who left huge and deep footprints as he strode along the dusty roads, back roads and trails of segregated cities in Southwest Georgia. Although he was a minister, he introduced himself as just "Sherrod" to all he met. That name became legend as he moved from place to place. He never sought the spotlight or personal recognition for the success he had already achieved and would continue to achieve in in his work for human and civil rights. He was a field secretary for SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC decided to conduct voter registration drives throughout Southwest Georgia, and Sherrod was chosen to be the Director of SNCC's Southwest Georgia Voter Registration Project. As such he oversaw the work of other SNCC members who participated in the project.

A highly intelligent man,his knowledge, ideas and thoughts all appeared to be centered around his philosophy that all citizens should have equal human and civil rights. He felt strongly that one of the first steps towards reaching that goal was to use the power of the ballot. He was a fervent believer that segregation laws and practices infringed upon human and civil rights and had to be eliminated. Although a soft-spoken man, his message of using the ballot, a nonviolent tactic, as a precursor to this elimination resonated like thunder as it rumbled across the land. That message became larger than life as he traveled from county to county and from city to city giving hope to the deeply oppressed Black citizens who had not been allowed to register to vote, to hold public offices or to take part in other activities that affected their lives. In fact, they were afforded few, if any, human or civil rights in their status as second class citizens.

Sherrod, in his own words,"cut through the fear" that most of them experienced daily while trying not to "offend" White citizens. Such offenses included Black men looking White citizens in the eye and not removing their hats when being talked to by White citizens, Black men and women not saying "ma'am" or "sir" to White citizens and Black citizens contradicting or correcting White citizens. This offense was interpreted by White citizens as being called a liar by a Black citizen, an intolerable offense. These offenses could often result in being shoved, hit with a blackjack, losing a job or some other form of harassment. An offense that could be charged against Black men only was called "reckless eyeballing," looking at White women. That offense was grounds for a beating or jail or both. Such was the climate in Southwest Georgia when Sherrod arrived. Black citizens lived on tiptoe stance ready to pivot in whatever direction they had to in order not to "offend" White citizens. Black citizens feared for themselves, their families and their communities.

Sherrod had to convince Black citizens to come to meetings he arranged just to discuss registering to vote — people who had been afraid to mention registering to vote to those in authority, people who faced reprisals if they did anything to question or disturb the segregated status quo. As he walked from house to house, Sherrod's message reached far beyond the houses to which he carried it. Inhabitants of those houses spread the word of the never before heard of meetings like a contagion. His far-reaching and seemingly extra-sensory vision focused on and magnified the future he foresaw — a future of justice and equality for all. His adversaries, afflicted with tunnel vision,only saw and wanted a life-style where Black citizens continued to live under the thumbs of White citizens and continued to have no voice in civic matters. These adversaries saw the gentle giant as a monumental threat to their well being and were as one in their goal to thwart his intentions.

In harm's way, Sherrod took huge leaps and bounds all over Southwest Georgia. He conducted meetings, organized communities and attempted to register Black citizens. He was arrested and abused in jail by police officers. He met violence with nonviolence, prayer, songs and reason. His poise and common sense towered above their Lilliputian crudeness and ignorance.

Later, along with Cordell Reagon, a young SNCC field secretary, Sherrod strode into segregated Albany, Georgia, my hometown, in October, 1961. He went about his unassuming way, walking tall, far and heavy in our lives — changing them forever for the better. The two met resistance from the power structure, of course, and from some Black citizens at first, but Sherrod's gargantuan patience and persistence eventually won over many of the fearful and the doubtful. Growing and spreading like kudzu, the reach of his message found and engulfed most of us. He seemed to be everywhere at once, spreading his message throughout all sections of Albany faster than the latest gossip. He talked with Black students at their schools, Black ministers, members of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the NAACP Youth Council, the Criterion Club and the Federated Women's Club. He became a familiar face to many as he earned their trust and respect.

He made almost daily visits to the all-Black Albany State College (now University) where I was enrolled to talk with and organize as many students as possible. Although he was only two or three years older than we were, he seemed much older because he spoke with such wisdom and insight about many of society's problems. He already had several experiences to his credit in the struggle to register Black citizens to vote. We were impressed and excited by the things he said about nonviolent tactics and how they could be used to eliminate certain human and civil rights injustices.

He organized high school and college students who soon were attending small group meetings where he gave instructions on how to recruit people to register to vote. Meetings were held in private homes and in some churches whose congregations opened their doors to us. Sherrod also taught us how to protect ourselves, using nonviolent techniques — rolling into a ball and covering the head and vital organs — if we were physically attacked by police or irate White citizens. The attendance at these meetings grew as his ideas and message of nonviolence as appropriate behavior in almost all walks of life touched the hearts and minds of more and more students. Soon we had spread all over Albany canvassing for people who wanted to register to vote. From his massive information sources, Sherrod found that while a few Black citizens were registered to vote, they were often in danger of losing that right by chicanery from the registrar's office. The office would try to purge Black voters from the list by requiring them to come into the office to sign a form. They were told that if they did not come, then they would no longer be able to vote. The time to go and sign the form was scheduled in the morning hours when most people were working. Some Black citizens did not go because they would lose a day's pay.

Sherrod also found that some White citizens were telling their Black employees, especially the maids, that they had registered and voted for them so they did not have to bother about it. While the employees did not believe this, they feared for their jobs and did not register. However, the Southwest Georgia Voter Registration Project continued and Black citizens were registering to vote in large numbers all over Georgia. Later, members of SCLC — Southern Christian Leadership Conference — became affiliated with the project, but it was Rev. Charles Sherrod, the gentle giant, who spearheaded the project and set everything in motion.

The Voter Registration Project was successful and resulted in Black citizens voting and electing Black citizens to public office for the first time. In Albany, Georgia, where he had eventually taken up permanent residence, Sherrod was pleased to see a Black woman, Mary Young, elected to the City Commission. He later ran for City Commissioner and won the election, serving from 1976 to 1990. Prior to that, he became instrumental in the formation of the nonviolent Albany Civil Rights Movement in which hundreds of Black citizens and many SNCC workers, including Sherrod, were jailed for participating in nonviolent marches and protests to end segregation — but that is another story.

Copyright © Annette Jones White. 2017

See Albany GA, Movement for background & more information.
See also Albany, Americus, & SW Georgia Freedom Movements 1961-1964 for web links.

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