I spent a fair chunk of time in Green County, probably four months, having found my way there following the March from Selma to Montgomery. I had come to Selma from the University of Illinois with a number of other students, including Janet Baker whom I last saw in 1968 in the Haight section of San Francisco where we lived with Charles Adams (Chuck) Bonner, who grew up in Selma. Once I got to Selma I didn't look back; I only returned to Illinois long enough to drop out of school and pack my stuff. After the March, I hung around Selma for a few weeks until I volunteered to work with SCLC's SCOPE project in Green County. There were a couple of other folks from Illinois in Green County, including Tom Logan and a Presbyterian minister and friend named Jim Ray (about 20 years ago a mutual friend, Larry Hill, told me that Jim was living around Pittsburgh). There were also a number of other northern civil rights workers, along with a couple of SNCC workers.
Although I had many experiences in Alabama, experiences that ran the gamut of things that happened to folks who were involved in the Southern Civil Rights Movement, my recollections keep returning to the incredible people I met there. What follows are brief recollections of just a few of the unsung heroes of the movement, local folks who, by their very being, taught me so much:
Joe and Mamie Early were an elderly couple who housed and fed Tommy Logan, Jim Ray and me for a few weeks when we first arrived in Green County. They lived a few miles from Eutaw in a little cinderblock house that had two bedrooms. They had a cow, a bull, some chickens, and a dog named Blue (just like in the song). There was no plumbing; the outhouse was in the back just past where their cow was tied at night. One night I had to pee so bad that I couldn't hold out 'til morning. I could have used the pot that the Early's had left in our room, but I opted to head for the outhouse. I grabbed a flashlight and started walking, ever so slowly, the light pointing down at the ground in front of me. I had forgotten about the cow until I walked into her! I don't know which of us was more startled, but I do remember almost running back inside and using the pot next to the bed. Another memory of the Early's home was the incredible breakfasts that Mrs. Early made for us: fresh eggs cooked to our liking, homemade biscuits, and the best tasting bacon known to man. They did this all for us ("freedom fighters", as we were called). Although they had next to nothing, Joe and Mamie Early gave what they had. Theirs was a life of loving kindness. If there is a heaven, they are up there feeding the angels.
Jim Gilmore, a young, vibrant, articulate minister, was well over 6 feet tall and about as skinny as a human could be. His courage was the equal of his charm. At one point in time a bunch of us SCOPE and SNCC volunteers, along with local activists went over to Greensboro in Hale County to offer support to folks there who were trying to march from an AME church to a burned out church on the other side of town. The local authorities had set up a barricade in an attempt to prevent the march. On the third day there, Sheriff's deputies and state troopers on horseback and wearing gas masks started lobbing tear gas into the crowd. I was standing next to Gilmore at the front of the crowd when the tear-gassing began. It was an ugly, terrifying scene, but Gilmore responded to the assault by turning to the crowd and singing "Wade in the water/Wade in the water, children/Wade in the water/God's gonna trouble the water." As soon as he started singing, there was a cloudburst, and the rains that poured down on us drowned the tear gas. It was biblical! The next day the authorities took a different approach by arresting over 300 of us, ranging in age from 8 to 80, and carted us off to Camp Selma prison farm. We got to take our trip through Greensboro, albeit on busses with barred windows. We spent three days crammed into two 20-by-40 foot rooms/cells, one for the women and one for the men. It was a difficult week, but worth the trip. It certainly broke the monotony of the day-to-day canvassing and voter-registration work that we were doing in Green County.
Ovetta Hall was about as radiant as a human being could be, but made more so by the star carved out of the gold cap covering a front tooth. She lived in a little place on the highway leading from Eutaw to Demopolis. Her father's name was Caesar. When passing her place one day, I asked Ovetta if Caesar was home; her reply: "Well, he is or he isn't. One." On another occasion, we were driving down the highway when we had to slow for a road gang, black men in prison white overalls doing repair work. As we passed, Ovetta stuck her head out the window and yelled, "Hey, Purly!" I said, "Vett, you know that guy? How come he's in jail?" "Hit his pregnant wife in the stomach," she said, "and that just ain't right." Ovetta had an excellent command of the understatement.
Winter Knott and MacArthur Davis were two young guys, twenty years old or so, who provided us with wheels and places to stay. I slept in MacArthur's cotton shed for a couple of nights, but, as comfortable as it was to fall onto a burlap cloth that covered several feet of cotton, by morning my back ached so much that I had to find another sleeping arrangement.
What I have written here barely scratches the surface of my experiences in the Southern Civil Rights Movement, or of the people I've mentioned. Sometime, perhaps in the summer when I'm not locked into my job (I teach secondary school mathematics), I'll change this entry on the Veterans site, and I'll talk some about the day-to-day work we did. There's so much to say, and so little time.
P.S. If anyone knows where I can find Janet Baker or Chuck Bonner, please let me know.