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In 1965, Albert Turner was the Alabama state-director for SCLC and one of the finest men I've ever known. Unlike most SCLC leaders, he wasn't a minister, he was a farmer from Perry county. He was the kind of person for whom the phrase "Salt of the Earth" was coined.
I was an SCLC field-secretary, and in the summer of 1965 he assigned me to direct the SCLC/SCOPE project in Crenshaw County. Due south of Montgomery, Crenshaw was deep in Klan country and a century from "... with liberty and justice from all." It was about as rural as a county could be. The county seat was the tiny town of Luverne, population 2,500, with one stop-light that they didn't need but were right proud of. The local Black leader was Havard Richburg, a barber and shop-keeper. At that time, not a single Crenshaw County church dared open its doors to Freedom Movement activity — a Klan mob had recently attacked a church in adjacent "Bloody" Lowndes County on the mere rumor that someone was going to talk about voter registration. So we made the local pool hall our headquarters.
Our main job was voter-registration. But along about mid-July, some of the local kids who were helping us canvas — college kids home for summer and high school kids — decided that they wanted to integrate the coffee shops. They wanted to integrate Luverne. Now this was a full year after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but as the saying went, "That law ain't come to here yet."
Luverne had a grand total of three eating establishments, two in-store lunch counters and a coffee shop. When they heard we were going to test compliance with the Civil Rights Act, the two stores closed down their counters and removed the stools rather than serve Blacks, but food was the cafe's only business so they had no choice, they had to stay open. So they served us our cup of coffee.
When we left the coffee shop, we stepped out into an ambush. A mob of fifty or so Klansmen had assembled and were waiting for us. They beat us down in the street with fists, boots, and sticks. But we had carefully and thoroughly trained everyone in the tactics of nonviolent resistance, so none of us were seriously injured. Battered and bruised, we returned to our pool-hall headquarters — bloody, but unbowed. And elated with victory. We had forced the segregationists to either serve Blacks or shut down. Luverne's Black community was bursting with pride, for years they had watched sit-ins and protests on TV, and now their children were civil-rights heroes, their children had defied the Klan, their children had stood up against segregation, their children had taken their licks with steadfast courage and emerged victorious.
In the midst of our celebration the phone rang. It was Mr. Green, the Black leader of Brantley, Crenshaw County's second town. Brantley was half the size of Luverne and didn't rate a traffic light, only a Stop sign. The first time Mr. Richburg drove me through Brantley, I saw that many of the white men on the street were wearing pistols strapped to their hips. I asked him if they were sheriff's possemen, but he told me no, white folk in Brantley just wanted to be ready in case they had to shoot someone.
Mr. Green told us that the Black kids in Brantley had heard about what heppened in Luverne — Crenshaw's rural grapevine was way faster than today's internet — and they wanted to integrate Brantley. Would we come down and train them? Without really giving it much thought, I carelessly agreed, and told him we'd be there on Saturday. Since none of Brantley's Black churches were ready to be involved in Movement activity, we arranged to hold the training session on the neighborhood sandlot softball field. What I didn't know — because I failed to do my homework — was that Brantley's Black softball team was scheduled to play a team over in adjacent Butler County at that time. Which meant that most of Brantley's Black men would be elsewhere.
We arrived in Brantley at the appointed time and had barely begun meeting folk when about 10 cars and pickup trucks filled with KKK came roaring across the field. Armed with clubs and chains, the Klansmen leapt out after us, the local kids scattered, and we ducked through a house. An old woman held them off with a broom, giving us a few seconds to reach our car, a reliable — but hardly speedy — VW bug.
The KKK piled back into their vehicles to give chase, and as we escaped Brantley with the Klan hot on our tail, we passed three autos by the side of the road next to the Stop sign — the Mayor's Cadillac, the Sheriff's cruiser, and the county's Highway Patrol car. Sitting on the hood of each were the respective owners. The three of them waved and gave us big, good-'ole-boy, shit-eating grins as we fled past. No need to wonder who called up the mob.
The Klan thugs chased us across half the county. But fortunately, with dare-devil driving, hair-raising escapes, and a last-minute rescue by armed Black men we managed to make it back to Luverne. Naturally, we called Al Turner as soon as reached the pool hall.
It took him a couple of hours to drive over from Perry County, and we were telling him what happened when the phone rang. It was Mr. Green calling from Brantley. And was he hot! He and the other Black men had come roaring back from Butler when they heard what happened. He was angry at the Klan for attacking us, and he was pissed at us for fleeing. So Al talked to him, and Mr. Green asked, "Are you going to come back? And if you come back, are you gonna stay or are you gonna be run out again?"
"Oh yes, Al told him, we're comin' back, and we're not gonna get run out." He looked at us. We swallowed hard, and slowly nodded our heads in frightened agreement. The next day was Sunday — which, of course, was church day — so Monday was set for our return to Brantley.
Monday morning, Al drove us down to Brantley's densly-packed Black community. We were tense and quite. Mr. Green and his two teenage sons met us on his front porch where we sat down facing the road. Al had the place of honor, an old rocking chair. Every other day, there would have been other folk going about their business on the street or sitting on their porches shelling peas and gossiping with neighbors and passers-by. But on this day there was no one — no one at all — to be seen. It was eerie. But here and there we spotted some slight motion as someone peeked out a window from behind a curtin, and up on the knoll there was a rustling in the grass and bushes.
Al rocked slowly back and forth as we chatted with Mr. Green, a Korean War veteran. Of course, as field-secretaries and volunteers with Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference we were not armed. But Mr. Green and his two boys were. Nothing was showing, nothing was provactive, but their weapons were close to hand.
Not long after we arrived, a fast-moving car skidded to a halt in front of the house. As the cloud of dust settled, a Black woman jumped out — the Mayor's maid. She had a message from the man, "Oh! The Mayor says you got to get out of town. If you don't, he'll call out his mob."
Al kept rocking slowly back and forth. "Well, you can tell the Mayor we're not leaving."
"No, no, he's serious! He's gonna call up the mob. He told me to warn you off.
"We have a right to be here." Al told her, calmly rocking back and forth. "We're guests of Mr. Green. Black folk have a right to vote, and we're going to help them get registered."
They went back and forth several times, and then she drove off to carry Al's reply to the Mayor.
The minutes ticked by, they seemed to take hours, but it probably was no more than 15 or 20 minutes before a carload of hard-faced white men drove ever so slowly past Mr. Green's house. We recognized it as one of the cars that had chased us. They stared at us with stony eyes. We stared right back at them. No one said anything, no one moved. Al kept rocking back and forth, calm as calm could be. Another car, and then a third, packed with white men drove slowly by. A fourth car, a fifth, then the first one circled back again. Then the others. Al kept on slolwly rocking back and forth.
After awhile — it seemed like years — we realized that they had stopped driving by. We had stared them down.
Suddenly Black folk were coming out of their homes and down from the knoll, all smiles and grins. As if by magic, food and drink appeared and a small, impromptu celebration broke out. The next voter registration day, they chartered a run-down, cotton-picker bus and 25-30 tried to register. Since the Voting Rights Act was still hung up in the Senate, they were denied, of course. But for two-dozen Brantley Blacks to defy the Sheriff and Mayor — that was a social revolution. And once the bill became law, they were among the first Crenshaw County Blacks to add their names to the voting rolls.
Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2010
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