Like a Runaway Slave ~ a Selma Story

Bruce Hartford, 2019

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."]

Copyright © Bruce Hartford. 2019

See Selma Voting Rights Campaign for background & more information.

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