People Who Made the Movement
Vol. 19, No. 1, 1997 pp. 5-20
The voices you hear in the radio series, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? are edited and assembled from of a treasure trove of more than 250 interviews conducted by the Southern Regional Council and others with women and men who made one of America’s most powerful social movements. In lengthier form seven of those interviews are excerpted here, stories largely untold about a few of the acts of conscience and courage that were undertaken by many people from many walks of life. Uncharted Trail: Ozell Sutton
Interviewed by Worth Long, September, 1991.
A lifelong activist, Ozell Sutton was director of the Arkansas Council on Human Relations from 1961-1966 and since 1972 has been the regional director of the Community Relations Services of the United States Department of Justice.
I was born about three miles outside of a little town in southeast Arkansas called Gould. That’s in Lincoln County, south of Pine Bluff, about thirty-five miles. That is truly “cotton country,” and I was born on a plantation. We were sharecroppers. My mother was a widow and she had six boys and two girls. Those six boys did most of the field work and the girls pretty well did the cooking and washing and ironing.
From about April until June, if you were a sharecropper, you did what you called “draw.” After I got to Philander Smith College I learned it was a “line of credit.” So, in the spring, you went to the company store to get food and grain and seed for planting.
You had a certain amount that you could obtain based on an agreement with the boss. Then, when you were gathering your cotton in September, October and November, half you made already belonged to The Man. That was number one. And the indebtedness had to be paid out of your half. Which meant that years would pass and you never really got out of debt. And The Man was the only person who knew how much you owed in the first place. Whether he was juggling the figures I’m not prepared to say, but he was doing everything else, so that wouldn’t be beyond him–I can say that. My mama knew how much she owed, and she kept up with what she owed.
One year, according to her figures, mama had paid out of debt, and the last bale of cotton we had ginned was still in the possession of the plantation owner. So she sent my older brother in the town to sell the bale of cotton and the cotton seed.
And when he got there, the plantation owner, Mr. Holthoff, would not let him sell the bale of cotton because he contended that my mama was not out of debt. He came back home and told Mother what Mr. Holthoff said, and Mother struck out to town.
She walked into the store and asked Mr. Holthoff, “What’s this business about my owing you some more money?”
And he said, “You know, Lula Belle, you’re not out of debt.”
She said, “Yes, I am.”
And he said, “No, you’re not.”
Now during that day, and in some situations now, whites would just shut you up if you challenged them by asking whether you were calling them a liar. So he did that. He said, “Lola Belle, are you calling me a liar?”
And my mama, who was a very good sister in the Baptist church, (I had never heard her use a curse word) she said, “Damn right, you’re lying and I want my cotton.”
Wherever my mama went, her eight children were strung out for half a block behind her. From the oldest to the youngest. And we all were it the store when Mama said that And the store was full of black doing their business. Her neighbors started trying to get her out of there before she got in what they called, “trouble.” And after Mother wouldn’t leave, they left.
My mother and the plantation owner stood there, and my mother used some terms I really never knew she knew. Some real ghetto terms, like “Your momma ….” And then she told my two older brothers to go up the street and get her brother Gus Dowthard’s wagon.
And she told my brothers, “Don’t tell Gus about the problem, because I don’t want him to get into this.”
I’ll leave it to you to understand what that meant in terms of a black man. Uncle Gus would have tried to defend his sister, and if he had done that … .
Anyway, my brothers went and obtained Uncle Gus’s wagon, and Mother told them, “Throw that bale of cotton”–which had been ginned–“on the wagon.”
And Holthoff said, “Don’t bother the cotton.”
But if Mother told her boys to throw that cotton on the wagon, on the wagon it was going. And so then we had to move off of the plantation and move into the little town and become clay laborers.
There’s a sequel to that experience.
Years later, when I was Special Assistant to Winthrop Rockefeller, Governor of Arkansas, Mr. Holthoff came to see the governor. By this time he was old and walking on a stick. There had been a tornado–high wind and a lot of water in Lincoln County that destroyed crops, land, houses, and what have you. He came to get Mr. Rockefeller to declare Lincoln County a disaster area so it would qualify for federal assistance. I came out through the reception area and I heard this secretary say, “I’m sorry Mr. Holthoff_” Well. that caught my interest. There are not many names like Holthoff. I looked around and then stood the old man, kind of stooped now, and she said, “I’m sorry, Mr Rockefeller is not in. Would you ilk( to speak to one of his assistants?’ And he said he would.
So I postured myself so she’d have to assign Mr. Holthoff to me And she said, “Oh, there’s Mr. Sutton Mr. Sutton, would you see Mr Holthoff?”
I said, “I will gladly see Holthoff.”
I took Mr. Holthoff in the governor’s office, not in my office. Sal down in the governor’s chair behind the governor’s desk. And I looked around and I said, “Mr. Holthoff, now what may I do for you?”
And he said, “Mr. Sutton, I am from…”
And before he could say it, I said, “You’re from Gould, Arkansas.”
He said, “That’s right. You know me?”
I said, “Yes, Sir–I know you very well.”
He said, “How do you know me?”
I said, “I was born on your place.”
He hesitated for a moment, he said, “You were born on my place?”
I said, “Yes, Sir, Mr. Holthoff. Think back many years when cotton was sure enough king. There was a black widow woman on your place who had a house full of children–mostly boys.”
And he said it immediately: “Lula Belle.”
I said, “Yes, sir. I am Lula Belle’s youngest boy.”
Mr. Holthoff said, “I’ll be damned. I’ll be damned.”
I said, “Mr. Holthoff I know what your problem is: there’s been a great destructive tornado in my home county. I’ve been reading about it. I still have an uncle down there.”
He said, “Yes you do–that’s Winston, isn’t it? I know Winston.”
“Of course you know Winston,” I said. “He used to sharecrop with you, too. But tell me, you want the governor to declare a disaster area?”
He said, “That’s right.”
I said, “Well, Governor Rockefeller is not here. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Tomorrow Ill come down and survey the area for the governor. And then I will return and make a recommendation as to what he should do.”
Now ordinarily you would do that in a National Guard plane, but I called Winthrop’s personal pilot and said, “Claude, I want you to fly me down to Gould.”
So Claude flew me down in the Governor’s plane. I came back and wrote a report for the governor, asking him to declare the disaster area, which he did. I took great deal of pride in that experience.
A War at the Democrat
I started at the Democrat during my senior year at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas. The more reactionary Democrat came up with this idea of hiring a black staff person to counter the Arkansas Gazette, which had a lock on black circulation.
The Democrat and I had our own war; the did not use courtesy titles for blacks–for black women. Called them “Lula Belle”; “Joanne”–that kind of thing. And I would never write a story using a black woman without calling her “Mrs.” They would go through my copy and cross it out. And then the editor called me one day, and said, “Ozell, you know, we don’t use `Mrs.’ for black women.”
I said, “I know.”
“Well, so that we don’t have to go through your paper and cross it out all the time, uh, couldn’t you just write it according to the policy of the paper?”
I said, “No. According to my own policy, I could not do that. Allen, in all good conscience, it’s bad enough for you to go through there and cut it out, but I could not in all good conscience write it any differently.”
He said, “Well, we’ll just have to keep going through there and cutting it out.”
I said, “I can’t do anything about that, but I can’t write it any other way.”
As you do in a war, you come up with strategies, right? I learned, instead of saying, “Mrs. Joanna Sutton,” to call her “Mrs. Ozell Sutton.” Now, if you’ve cut it out, you’ve identified the wrong person. They did that a couple of times, and then they had some calls and got tired of that. So, the executive editor called me in one day. I thought I was going to get fired. Everyday I came to work at the Democrat expecting to get fired.
So he said, “There seems to have been a little tug-of-war between you and the city editor.”
I said, “Tug-of-war? No war between me and Mr. Tilden. I like Mr. Tilden.”
He said, “That’s not what I’m talking about.” He said, “On this business of courtesy titles for black women.”
I said, “Oh, that’s what you mean. Yes, he did call me in, and asked me to stop writing it as `Mrs.,’ and I told him that in all good conscience I could not do that. If that’s what you’ve called me in for, I want you to know that under the threat of being fired, I cannot do that.”
He looked at me, he says, “No–we’ve changed our policy. We’re going to use `Mrs.’ for black women.”
I said, “That lifts a heavy burden off of my mind. There’s one thing to just insist upon writing it that way, it’s another thing to look at your work appear, and the public sees your work as `Sally Jane.”
He said, “Ozell, I have never met a black person like you.”
I said, “You never met but one black person, really. Now, I’m not talking `bout the ones that work for you–clean your yard, cook your food–that’s a different category. This is the only time that you have been exposed to a professional black, and I hope I represent them well.”
A Panel of Women: Brownie Ledbetter
Interviewed by George King, January 1992
In the later 1950s and 60s, Brownie Williams Ledbetter was a member of the Council on Community Affairs, a group which got blacks and whites registered and out to vote for school board elections; and the Panel of American Women, a interracial and interreligious group which worked toward changing racial attitudes. Since 1981, Ledbetter has been the president of and lobbyist for the Arkansas Fairness Council, twenty organizations representing unions, African Americans, teachers, women, social workers, and environmental groups who coalesce on civil rights tax equity issues and environmental and consumer protection.
I grew up in Little Rock. Until I was nine, we lived in a part of town that was sort of country club-oriented, but my folks had enough sense to move out of that culture, which I’m very grateful for. We moved from what is now “in-town”–but at that time was out of town–to a dairy farm. It was a rural setting then, although it’s not now. Now it’s a suburb, the whole farm. Moving to that setting had a lot to do with my attitude.
I can remember shortly after we moved to the farm, my father came home and slapped his briefcase down on the kitchen table. He had been working with an interracial group, and he was angry because he said that for every five dollars that was spent on a white child in the public schools, only five cents was spent on a colored–he would use the word “colored”–child. That would have been about 1942 or ’43, somewhere in there. My father died in 1950, so all I remember is scattered things as a child. I must have been ten at that time.
Now, my dad worked in insurance–he was a business person–but he was always involved in political stuff. Clear back to when I was ten or eleven, my daddy was in that interracial group, working for equal but separate schools, which was seen as very radical at that time. Nobody else was really trying to get equal schools until about ’54. My father would keep saying, “Isn’t this absurd. People think we want to socialize, and all we’re saying is that colored kids have the right to an equal education.”
My father had very strong values about equality. He
was very contentious, quite a catalyst where ever he went. He was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, the third of eleven children, and they moved to Little Rock when he was three. His mother had some sort of East Tennessee mountain values. My mother’s family was from Arkansas, but they had those same values. Both families were in Presbyterian Churches that stressed the equity and integrity of human beings. Sometimes we would take the bus out to my Aunt and Uncle’s, who lived in town. One such time I was a teenager and it was close to Christmas. The last bus to go west stopped and I had packages. It was real crowded and it was a rainy, rainy, day. We got to the bus stop on Fifth Street. There was a black man standing there, and the bus driver opened the door and shut it.
And the man said “Can’t I get on, boss.”
And he said, “No we’re too full.”
So then he went down to Fourth Street and picked up two white women and it just blew my mind. I was standing right behind him because it was crowded, and I guess he must of felt somewhat guilty because he said, “I wonder what he thought this was.”
Well I just took my little smart ass, and I said, “Perhaps he thought this was public transportation.”
He said, “Maybe you’d like to get off this bus.”
I said, “Stop the bus!” And then they were all yelling stuff, “nigger lover,” and I got off and called my uncle and he just died laughing.
When I grew older and became a housewife and mother, a lot of the activity I got involved with centered around school board issues. That’s what was different about Arkansas. From day one after the Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit, the schools were the focus of civil rights activities in this town. Those of us who worked locally in the movement were thrown immediately into politics, and it was focused on school board elections in Little Rock. A lot of us from Little Rock belonged to the Council on Community Affairs, which would get ready for school board races. We would go get cars from the west end from white folks and then start bringing the cars over. We’d have anywhere between thirty to forty cars to go door to door in the precincts and get blacks out to vote.
Another group I participated in at the time was the Panel of American Women. Basically, the panel consisted of twenty-five to thirty women organized in groups of four, five, or six. Each group had a black, a Catholic, a White Protestant, a Jew, and sometimes an Asian-American. Our organization had one Japanese-American and one Chinese-American. Eventually it grew to about forty-two states.
We would go where we could get invited and sit down as nice upper-middle-class or middle-class ladies. We were credible and acceptable, and all mothers of children in school. We would talk about why diversity was important to us and why we wanted all kids to be in the same schools. We started that in ’63 and so we got real honest dialogue. People were very open about being segregationist. Nobody bothered us physically in any way because we were all dressed up and looked different from what they expected civil rights workers to look like. And we were all absolutely local.
We just didn’t fit their stereotype, and they didn’t know what to do with us. We were all great friends, and that was communicated to the audience, I think. I often said that we were more visual than anything else. We could go and sit in the local Baptist church and the roof didn’t fall in–that was just something people had never seen.
We got invited to speak regularly, doing about a hundred panels a year. We went to churches and schools. They wouldn’t let us in the white school district because we were too controversial, but other people didn’t really consider us that controversial. We would each talk three to four or five minutes. We didn’t talk about justice and preach about brotherhood. We sure as hell didn’t talk about sisterhood. We just told our stories. I talked about what it was like to explain to my kids as they grew up and asked questions about why black kids were going over there and they were going here. Each of us, particularly the minority panelists, also had to demonstrate why they were proud of being who they were and talk about the kind of discrimination they had faced.
Then we would open up for discussion. We always had very good discussions. We were committed to the principle that people are entitled to their opinions, and if somebody would get up and say something incredibly racist or anti-Semitic, which always happened, and somebody else in the audience would start to object, we’d say, “Now wait a minute, he has a right to his opinion. I don’t agree with him, but…” We required a table cloth that went all the way to the floor because we always had to grab each other and hold on to each other underneath when someone would say something really hostile.
We learned so much about attitudes doing this, and we were forced to deal with our own attitudes and get more realistic than we had been. You had to grow when you were in dialogue, and you begin to see your own attitudes reflected back to you.
It must have been in the ’60s before I even dealt with the fact that I actually had any racism. And I think one of the big problems with racial attitudes today is that we just can’t admit that we are racist, so we can’t cure it. You know, all of us have some of that; you can’t grow tip without it inside you. You have to be conscious of it and recognize it when it comes–that it is wrong. But people are so busy denying it.
I was very naive. Once the nine kids were in the school and it was open, we thought it was over. Well, my God, you never really realize how long these things take.
Out of the Slave Environment: Carrie Young
Interviewed by George King, December, 1991
When Carrie Young was only fourteen years old, the movement came to her small town in eastern Arkansas and she became an active participant. For the last thirty years, Young has lived in Little Rock, working at the state capitol, at Southwestern Bell, and most recently at the Word of Outreach Christian Center.
I was born Carrie Lamar on December 10, 1948 in Barden, Arkansas. Barden is in eastern Arkansas, Phillips County, near the Mississippi River, about two hours from Little Rock.
My folks, Lottie and Lazarus Lamar, chopped cotton, picked cotton. And we sharecropped a little. Basically, we survived off the land–off of all God’s fresh fruits and vegetables, those that grew wild and those we grew ourselves.
My role in the cotton field was to keep count of all the cotton that was weighed and make sure that we received the three dollars we got for every hundred pounds of cotton we picked. I got whippings every day under the scales because I didn’t pick up a hundred pounds.
That was your life, to be able to pick a hundred pounds of cotton to bring in three dollars. And that’s what we lived off of all winter long, other than the peaches and pears and apples and stuff like that that we canned every year. We were “day laborers”, as they called it in the society of the clay. And my little hands wasn’t made for it.
Growing up this way, was just basically waiting to get out of high school so could leave the whole scene–to get out of the slave environment. That’s the only word I have for it because looking at movie on TV and reading history books, the life that I cam( up under was a slave’s life You know, when you get whipped under a weigh scale because you haven’t picked a hundred pounds of cotton, that’s slavery.
People would ask me, “Well, what do you want to be when you graduate from high school?” and I would say, “I don’t care. I just want to leave here.” And if anybody would have told me that I could be content living in Arkansas, I would have told them they was crazy.
So, I was glad to see SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] or anything else that looked like `em when they rolled into town in the early ’60s because that was my ticket out of the cotton field. At that time, people were coming from universities across America just to be in Arkansas. The focus on Arkansas actually came as a result of the Central High School Little Rock Nine, but Little Rock was not to be the focal point because it was not the root of the problem. The activists coming to Arkansas wanted to go to the rural areas where they knew the problems were more grass-roots where lives were threatened and people were killed.
SNCC started in Phillips County by passing out flyers door-to-door and inviting people to a church meeting that they had got together. They started talking to us about the Civil Rights Bill and had what they used to call the Harambee Singers; you may know them as Sweet Honey in the Rock, but they were called the Civil Rights Singers. They told us that our rights were being infringed upon, and that if we knew how to break the Bill of Rights down and take it to court, we didn’t have to live the way we were living. And, you know, people are pretty much content with their lifestyles until someone gives them a revelation on some other choices and opportunities they have.
I guess the calling card at that time was school desegregation with the Freedom of Choice Plan. Also, somebody in the civil rights movement–probably between Stokeley Carmichael and Marion Barry–found a law that said that if you got a petition with so many people, you could put a proposition on the ballot to get the poll tax abolished. So that was my part in the beginning of the civil rights movement. When I was only fourteen, I’d sit on this
storefront in 90-and-100-degree weather, everyday, until I got everybody in Phillips County registered to vote on this petition. That’s how we got the poll tax abolished. And starting that year, we started getting black people voted to public office.
My parents didn’t try to stop me from getting involved with SNCC, but when they found out I was courting–that I had feelings for–his white man, Howard, they got very scared. My Daddy was just up in air about it. He’d say, “He’s all right with me, but I’m not gon’ have these white folks comin’ up in here killin’ up my family just because one white boy wants to see my daughter.”
Howard came to West Helena to work as part of SNCC. He was a Jewish guy out of Queens, New York, graduated from Hunter College. I guess you could say he was my first real friend. When he met me I was on my knees shooting marbles at age sixteen. Of course, he didn’t realize I was sixteen at the time. He thought I was about twelve, thirteen years old, or something like that, and then he found out I was sixteen.
And after about a year-and-a-half, we had a secret engagement going on as I graduated from high school, and my main focus was to get out of the environment. I graduated on a Friday night, and Saturday morning at 7:15 I was on my way to Washington, DC. Free from the South, I thought.
We left Arkansas for Washington, DC, in May of ’66. We knew we couldn’t get married anywhere until I turned eighteen in December. We got married in New York City in March of ’67. Then, on April 1st,1967, my husband brought me right back to Little Rock, Arkansas! On April Fool’s Day. I never will forget that. I said, “I know I’m crazy for coming back to Arkansas!” But I wound up being here in Little Rock from ’67 until now.
At the time, I think Howard was working for the Arkansas Council on Human Relations with Elijah Coleman. I was a student and housewife, but I never really enjoyed sitting at home and was active working alongside my husband. In April after we moved back here as a couple, I started going to school at the Opportunities Industrialization Center [OIC], because all I had was a high school diploma, and I wanted to work. The OIC had just been organized in March, I believe, of ’67.
I went to the OIC and studied to be a keypunch operator–hey call them data entry operators nowadays. I spent 750 hours in training. I went through all of the testings and all of the qualifications, but nobody wanted to hire me. Finally, I went to the state capitol, and, after giving me the runaround, they let me take a test. They gave me about thirty minutes to finish the test and I finished it in five.
At that time, there were no blacks working at the state capitol except those taking care of the lawn. They didn’t have a cafeteria any longer for blacks to work in because they had closed that down in 1965, after we had marched to the capitol demanding that they let blacks eat there.
I got hired and had been there a week when they realized it was a white man picking me up from work every night. They ran a check on our tags and found out
that we both had the same last name. But what they didn’t know was that the man who was over the computer room was the son of a friend of ours, who couldn’t wait to get off of work so he could come tell us everything that was happening.
The director of the Motor Vehicles Department, Mr. Lazano, got so frustrated that he took a vacation and left word with his supervisor that he wanted me out of that place when he got back. And she came up to announce to me that she was going to have to let me go, because I wasn’t meeting their standards. But I was meeting their error standard. We were only allowed three errors per batch of work, and I never made more than three errors per batch, if that many.
The very next day I proceeded to file a lawsuit against the State of Arkansas. We knew I was let go because I was black and married to a white man. And all of the people around us knew it, too, and said they would testify to it. But it didn’t even get to that, because when the man came back from his vacation, the governor had already received the complaint that I had filed and had a meeting scheduled.
When Mr. Lazano came into the governor’s office for the meeting, the room was set up for ten people–all of my instructors from school, the supervisor, Mr. Lazano, myself, my husband, my attorney, and the governor. On each chair was a folder with my name on it.
And Mr. Lazano came in and saw my name on the folder and said, “When I fire somebody, don’t nobody hire them back, especially when it’s a nigger.”
By that time, Governor Winthrop Rockefeller was coming out of his office, and he said to Lazano, “You can go back to your office and take your stuff, and I don’t want to see you back in there after today.”
I just happened to he coming in the other main door, and I was standing there listening, and so Governor Rockefeller proceeded to apologize. He said, “Young lady, take the rest of the week off and report to the State Financing Administration on Monday.” He said, “We’ll have this meeting without you, and you just go on and do whatever you want to do, but you have a job working for the state capitol from now on.”
So that was the first incident where I just personally knew that I had been discriminated against for racial reasons. At the time I was eighteen years old and it still hadn’t really hit me the degree to which people could really hate somebody because of their color.
A Groundswell of Unrest: Rev. Solomon Seay, Sr.
Interviewed by Worth Long, with Randall Williams August 19, 1983
Rev. Solomon Seay, Sr. served as an active pastoral minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church for sixty-three years. In 1948, Seay came to pastor in Montgomery, where he served on the Negotiating Committee of the Montgomery Improvement Association and, later, as the third President of the MIA and as a member of the Executive Board of SCLC. Seay died in Montgomery in 1988 at the age of 89.
One problem we were facing and one problem we still face here in Montgomery was the conduct of the police force. When I came and took Mount Zion Church on Hope Street as a pastor in 1948, a young woman camp to my door about two o’clock in the morning. Gertrude Perkins was her name. She told me that two policemen
had taken her down on the railroad and had all types of sex relations with her. And when I say all type, then you can imagine what I’m saying.
She told me what had happened to her, and I sat down and wrote what she said word by word. When she had finished I said, “Now, I’m going to have this notarized and send this away under your name, and if you are not telling the truth they are going to get you for perjury. If you are not telling the truth, they’ll put you in jail.”
I had it notarized and sent it to Drew Pearson in Washington at that time. And Drew Pearson went to the air with it. By the time the power structure here in Montgomery knew anything, what happened to Gertrude Perkins was all over the nation. From that there was a committee appointed to investigate, and I was made chairman of the committee.
During the time of the investigation, we had a meeting with the Civic League down on Monroe. When we got through with the meeting we walked out and were standing on the corner with one or two men when all at once two policemen came up and shined their lights in my face.
And of course I threw up my hands and says, “Why in the world you shining lights in my face?”
And they jumped off their motorcycles swearing and cursing and came up to me.
I threw up my hands and said, “Whatever you want to do with me just go on.”
When one of them came close enough to me, I let my hands down. He jumped back and struck me on the arm. I think he thought perhaps I was going to reach for him.
They took me to jail. Some young white men that I had been working with in the Alabama Council on Human Relations heard about it and they came running over. The police let them speak to me. I said to them, “I been waiting for this for twenty years.”
They said, “Now Dr., don’t do anything radical.”
Of course they didn’t know what I was talking about. After they left I could hear the jailer talking to the people downtown. Whoever they were, they were saying, “You all let this man alone. He’s not doing anything but trying to protect this woman.” But they didn’t let me alone.
Pretty soon, somebody came and said, “There is a
bondsman here to get you out.”
And I said, “No. I haven’t done one thing to be in jail and I’m not going to pay one single penny to get out of jail.”
They closed the door and not long after that they came back and ordered me out. I came out, and they put me in the black wagon and went on down the street.
I didn’t know where they were going and what they were going to do. So fear shook me. When I was shaking with fear I said, “Lord, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me but just let it happen, if it’s going to help my people.” And the fear fell off of me. I’ve never been afraid before or since.
They took me down to the police station. I had my hat on, and the first thing they did was ordered my hat off. I took it off, and then the captain said to me, “We run this town.” And with a lot of curse words, he told me what they weren’t going to let me do.
After awhile a black man who was one of the leaders around here came in and they had him sign my bond without my asking him. They took me out and took me on home.
They had a grand jury investigation, and in that investigation they had Gertrude Perkins come down. The county solicitor, who had been here for thirty-odd years I reckon, had a roaring, shaking, loud-toned voice, very heavy. I could here him swearing (I was on the outside) and cursing Gertrude Perkins, telling her what she was, what she was telling her lies, and all that. Every time, he’d ask her, wasn’t she lying?
She’d say, “No, I’m not lying.”
So finally they brought her out, and because I was sitting right by the door, I had heard everything they said in there. Gertrude looked as calm as a person that had never been disturbed. She was an ignorant, almost illiterate black woman, but they didn’t shake her.
On the grand jury there were a number of men from different churches. They published their names. All of them on the jury were stewards and deacons in the different churches. You could see what the point was. So the Grand jury reported that it didn’t find anything.
Black people in Montgomery at that time had no organized force to speak up for them. There was fear among blacks in Montgomery, fear still holding the lid down on a better life. We didn’t have any help. One thing that happened when they put me in jail was that it shook all the ministers. That’s the first time all the ministers in the city were shaken up. When they had my trial, the oldest man I know, Dr. Cleveland, who was the most conservative of Blacks, led the crowd of ministers there to my trial. They couldn’t get in, but they walked the streets with people, trying to see what happened to me.
They dismissed me. They didn’t have any charge against me. Because what they tried then, they still try. They arrest you for one thing and charge you with something else. They knew what they were arresting me for–to break my spirit. And to calm me as a leader among the people. But they charged me with disorderly conduct. That there was their famous means of breaking the spirit of black folks. Disorderly conduct.
I can’t talk now like I used to because my vocabulary is somewhat limited now. But you see what I’m talking about–a groundswell of unrest. They grew more restless every year because of these incidents that increased the resentment of ordinary black people about how they were being treated. Treatment on the buses, treatment by the police. And when Martin Luther King came here those issues were still hanging unsettled.
Taking Jim Crow to Court:
Interviewed by Worth Long with Randall Williams
John Henry McCray was the editor and publisher of the Lighthouse and Informer, South Carolina’s leading black weekly newspaper in the 1940s and early 50s. McCray went on to become director of admissions and recruiter for Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama. He died in September 1987 at the age of 77.
I was born near Youngstown, Florida, on August 25, 1910. My family moved from Youngstown to Charleston, South Carolina, which was the birthplace of my mother. I went through the elementary schools in a little town called Lincolnville, about twenty miles north of Charleston. I then went to Avery Institute in Charleston and Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama.
Upon leaving college, I worked as the city editor of the Charleston Messenger, which was owned by Jenkin’s Orphanage. I was able to run some good stories with the Messenger, but still the management didn’t want certain stories published. So when I went into producing a newspaper of my own, a weekly, which we called the Charleston Lighthouse. Later, in 1940, we combined that newspaper with the People’s Informer out of Sumter, South Carolina, and we started publishing the Lighthouse and Informer out of Columbia, South Carolina in 1941. And we continued to publish until we closed it in 1954.
Why did I go into the newspaper business? I suppose it was to try to take up the cause of a people we felt had
little coverage in the daily newspapers at that time other than crime. There were no Negro newspapers in that community at that time.
I think the most important thing I hoped our newspaper could accomplish was recognition of blacks as a human beings. For example, no newspapers in South Carolina capitalized the word “Negro.” You never saw a picture of a Negro in the daily newspaper unless it was somebody who had been arrested for a crime or something. Every year, the News and Courier published the statistics from the Charleston police department and every year followed this with an editorial calling attention to the fact that the largest number of arrests in Charleston were of blacks (even though the statistics didn’t always bear this out). We undertook in our own way to correct that, and it worked very well.
Waldo Eugene Simmons did a column for us which would emphasize the need for the Negro himself to change. We would say, “Don’t go around making a lot of bad noise, using a lot of bad language, and setting poor examples for your kids. Stop grinning every time you see a white face. Stand up and be a man.” Basically the message people got was “Uncle Toms, Mr. Crook–you gotta go.”
In 1940, I started writing a column called, “The Need For Changing.” We pointed out certain situations, such as the poor academic facilities in the schools and so forth. Back then, lynching and violence were still big issues as well.
We also supported the campaign across the state for equalization of teachers’ salaries. I would say the movement for civil rights–back then we called it the movement for Negro rights–started in South Carolina in 1940, when the man who was to be my associate editor, Osceola McKaine, started trying to organize school teachers so that they might get equal salaries. McKaine was working out of the Sumter branch of the NAACP and some business men there had put up about 8100 a piece for a travelling fund for him. McKaine would travel during the weekends, speaking to small groups of teachers, telling them what it was all about.
Around the same time, a statewide NAACP organization–a Federation of NAACP Chapters–was organized. Before then, you had a small NAACP branch in Columbia, a branch in Charleston. You had one in Sumter. I think there were six branches altogether. So these chapters organized and, to me, that was a most significant thing. From 1941 on the NAACP in the statewide organization began to develop. By the late ’40s we had over 110 active branches.
McKaine had raised a little bit of money and put it into the Teachers’ Defense Fund over in Sumter, and that was turned over to the state NAACP. The NAACP got busy and got the State Teachers Association, (then called the Palmetto State Teacher’s Association) involved.
It turned out to be a long fight. The teachers were afraid and the Executive Committee of the Teacher’s Association wasn’t supportive. In 1942, the president of the Teacher’s Association, John P. Burgess of Orangeburg, was telling the teachers “You know these white folks are not going to pay you the same money they make. You’re a fool if you try to get them to. You’re gonna be out of a job,” and so on and so on. The Lighthouse and Informer called the Executive Committee of the Teacher’s Association the fourteen devils. And everybody who was on it was a devil. They were blocking progress.
We got a plaintiff in Charleston in 1944–a young lady named Viola Louise Duvall from Charleston who worked at Birke School. It was her third year as a science
teacher. She was a graduate of Howard University and her salary was $600 a year! There were a lot of ladies who hadn’t even gone to high school who were riveters and so forth working at the Navy Yard there in Charleston making $35 and $40 a week. Hers, when you break it down to a weekly basis, was $12 a week.
The teachers were afraid. I was asked by the president of the state NAACP and the principal of Booker Washington High School in Columbia who had recruited her as the plaintiff, to sort of keep Miss Duvall together. I made several trips–drove 115 miles from Columbia down to Charleston and many a Saturday evening sat down there with her and her mother. Viola told me that her friend at Birke High School who was usually assigned to work with her on yard duty at recess time had stopped having anything to do with her. Most of the teachers were like that publicly. There were some who favored her. I think all of them wanted the money.
Back then, Thurgood Marshall was the chief counsel for the NAACP nationally. When he came into South Carolina to assist in the prosecution of the equal pay case, it was the first case he had had in the state. He was scared to death–first time in South Carolina. He didn’t know what was going to happen.
So he goes into court that morning, a little courthouse in Charleston. The Board had two lawyers: Erlich was one, and I forget the name of the other man. And Thurgood and his associates and the state attorney were sitting at the other table along with Miss Duvall and her mother sitting behind–holding each others’ hands.The place was packed. The Charleston system at that time was running three sessions a day–you had three school days in one, everything abbreviated. So those teachers who were not in class were able to come in when they were free. You could overhear things like, “God, I sho’ feel sorry for her” and “I sho’ don’t wan’ to see that chile hurt, but she shudda known that” and that type of thing.
The judge came in and sat down in his swivel chair. He liked to put his hands together and rest his chin right on the tip of them. He smiled, and then he turned his back to Marshall’s table.
“Mr. Erlich,” he said, “when was that case decided in Maryland, the Donald Murray case?”
And Marshall jumped up behind the judge. He says, “Your honor?”
And without looking around, the judge said, “I didn’t ask you Mr. Marshall.”
And boy, there was this buzz. I heard this woman say distinctly: “See that chile, he won’t even let her lawyer talk. Poor thing. Poor thing. Poor thing.”
Well, Mr. Erlich found whatever it was. He had it in some records there, and he gave it to the judge. Still smiling, the judge asked Mr. Erlich when another case was decided, and Mr. Marshall jumped up again. The judge, without looking, said: “Mr. Marshall, I didn’t ask you.”
Boy, you didn’t know what was going on. I looked at Thurgood. I was sitting at the press table. They were bewildered. But the judge asked about four questions of that type, and then he swung his chair around to face the plaintiffs, his hands still up and his chin resting on them.
He said, “Now Mr. Marshall I don’t want you to think I was being rude by not letting you give me the answers. I know you know the answers to those cases because you were the chief counsel for them. This is a very simple case, but I wanted to find out from the School Board was how long it knew it was supposed to pay Negro teachers equal salaries and hadn’t paid it. There’s no need to take the court’s time on this. Now, what I want to know from you is how do you want me to prepare this order? Do you want immediate equalization of salaries? Do you want to give the School Board some time in which to get ready for equalization? Or do you want a retroactive order which would make the School Board go back and pay these poor teachers what it has denied them for so many years?”
And that was Mr. Thurgood Marshall’s argument. He just stood there and looked at the other side, and asked that they be permitted to get together. The judge fixed the time for that, stood, said “Court’s adjourned,” and walked on out. The whole thing didn’t take ten minutes.
In South Carolina, the legal approach was the way to go. It worked. As long as Reverend James Hinton was president of the state NAACP and as long as we ran The Lighthouse, we didn’t have street demonstrations, although they had been done by the NAACP for years. Not that we were against them, but that wasn’t the way it was done then. And as we look back on those years, we have to concede that when you get through marching in the street, and you’re bailed out of jail, you still have got to settle these things in court.
Interviewed by George King, May 1992
A student activist at Tougaloo and Ole Miss Law School in the 1960s, a civil rights attorney in the 1970s, and the Assistant Secretary of State for Elections and General Counsel for the State of Mississippi from 1984-1996, Constance Iona Slaughter-Harvey is presently engaged in the private practice of law in her hometown of Forest, Mississippi.
I was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1946. There were six girls and no boys in our family. My parents were students at Tougaloo College. My father’s mother graduated from high school at Tougaloo and her mother graduated from Daniel Hand School at Tougaloo. So Tougaloo was a part of our family. We moved to Meridian, where my father was a football, basketball, and track coach as well as a math instructor.
Our parents sheltered us quite a bit. They were very concerned about us not having to pick cotton or work for whites. We were taught to work for ourselves, and when we left Meridian and moved to Forest in ’54, we had a garden or farm and we raised sugar cane and vegetables. We were taught to be independent at a very early age. We were also taught not to ask for trouble, but not to run from trouble.
My father was extremely outspoken but he never asked for a fight. When we moved to Forest, it was unusual for a black man to vote. But Daddy voted and it was no big deal. It was just something he took for granted. We had that kind of pride.
I remember when Gladys Noel Bates filed a lawsuit for equalization of teachers’ salaries around 1960, Daddy was the happiest person in the world. He sent money to her, made contributions. Quite a few black folks had that kind of pride. We just didn’t go around and say, “Okay, to hell with the system.” There are ways of fighting a system without anybody knowing how you’re fighting it.
We were always taught that we were as good as anyone. Race, we were taught, was no barrier. Your worth was determined by the contributions you made to others. That has stuck with me.
We did not go to movies where we had to sit in the balcony. We didn’t ride the bus. Our parents took us where we needed to go. They didn’t want us to sit in the back of the bus. We were aware of the political realities and the realities of racism and injustice, but our parents tried to keep us from actually having confrontations.
Of course, I do remember some confrontations.
I do recall my father stopping at a vegetable stand and the guy calling him “boy” and telling him not to touch the tomatoes. I remember my father squeezing the tomatoes until one broke in his hand and telling us to get back in the car. We never stopped there anymore.
I recall going to California in our car. My father was going to UCLA to work on his masters degree. we got to Flagstaff, Arizona, and my father stopped so we could get a room. The guy told my father there were no vacancies and Daddy said, “Why is there a sign that says vacancies?”
He said, “Well, there are vacancies, but they’re not for y’all.”
And I remember my father using profanity and getting very angry. I remember us having to sleep in the car that night.
It was incidents like that, before I went to Tougaloo, that produced the need to hold somebody accountable and responsible for making certain that we all were treated fairly.
I was in high school when the first student sit-ins began. I recall the pride I had in their the courage to stand up to the system. And I recall a cousin of mine, Memphis Norman, and another Tougaloo student, Ethel Sawyer, on television with people pouring ketchup on them and pouring sugar on top of the ketchup when they were sitting-in I always had a problem with permitting anybody to misuse my body, but for those who were able to do it, I had the utmost respect.
I came to Tougaloo in the summer of ’63 for a premed program. It was at that time that I met Medgar Evers. I met him, got to know him in the first week of June, and he was killed June 12. Because of his death, I became involved then in marches and protests. I was away from home, and I didn’t have to worry about my parents being protective.
Next to my father, I thought Medgar Evers was the greatest man in the world. He was the packaged deal. He was good looking. His eyes were so bright. He was
extremely articulate. He was committed. He believed in doing what was right. When I first met him, he was organizing students for voter registration drives on campus. I could see marching with him and working with him the rest of my life.
Now I had really looked forward to the pre-science program at Tougaloo because I wanted to be a doctor, but then I met Medgar. I think I came of age after he was killed. Because of Medgar’s death, I made a promise to myself to bring about changes in Mississippi.
From the NAACP, my involvement led, in 1963, to working with a sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, on voter registration–something I’m still committed today. We came into Jackson and registered people instead of doing foolish things. We went into housing projects where nobody dared tread. I think I came up with 700-800 new voters.
At Tougaloo at that time there were quite a few students involved in SNCC. Stokely Carmichael. Rap Brown, Hollis Watkins, and Bob Moses, all of them came down. Tougaloo became important to the movement. At Tougaloo, academia and the world of social change came together. We had an integrated faculty with whites who were sympathetic to our cause. You dealt with the realities and you also dealt with what should be. You learned about the Constitution and then you saw the application of the First and Fifth Amendments. The movement folks were there but you also had to be accountable for your academic performance. That’s why I was able to go to Ole Miss and challenge the system from a social perspective in an academic setting.
In 1970, when I graduated from law school. I represented the families of two students–James Earl Green and Philip Gibbs–who were killed at Jackson State. In June of 1970, I filed a lawsuit against the highway patrol, which had never had a black patrolman. In August of 1970, I filed a lawsuit against the state prison system, bringing about a change in the living conditions there.
I represented Tougaloo students who were stopped by highway patrolmen and beaten and had their Afros cut. I represented people who were stopped by highway patrolmen at roadblocks and beaten. I represented prisoners who were beaten in jail. Seeing Rodney King beaten on television was nothing compared to some of those who walked into my office when I was practicing law. One man walked in with an eye hanging out of the socket. Another walked in bleeding so bad I couldn’t tell his face. Both had just been released from jail. I think if you put yourself in a position to be contacted when such things happen, you’ll be surprised at the prevalence of brutality.
I have prepared pre-law students at Tougaloo who are now doing important work as lawyers and judges. So I feel that the seed that Medgar planted has grown and is
now fielding and bearing its fruits. I’m now ready to pass the baton on. I encourage young people to challenge the system. The judicial system needs to be challenged annually, yearly, daily. If the system doesn’t work, challenge it and change it. Hold it accountable. Because we have not overcome. We’ve made a significant difference. We’ve encouraged and caused significant changes, but we have a long, long way to go. The system that we fought in the 60’s and 70’s took a rest. It hid and got a reprieve, got a continuance. Now that very system, because it was never destroyed, is raising its head again, and we need to be prepared to deal with it accordingly.
Interviewed by George King, January 1992
An active participant in Atlanta’s student movement while at Morehouse College in the early 1960s, Charles Black now works as an equal employment opportunity investigator for the federal government and as a stage, television, and movie actor.
I was born in Miami, Florida. I came to Morehouse College in Atlanta in September of ’58. I was not aware of a lot of civil rights activism when I first got there. Campus life was pretty isolated and insular. You were there to study and you dated girls and you participated in various social and extracurricular activities. And that was pretty much it, from my perspective anyhow.
It was the lunch counter sit-ins that took place in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February of 1960, that united the minds of a few people like Lonnie King, Sam Pierce, and Julian Bond. These people had a conversation about our needing to do some such thing here, and that little group expanded quite rapidly.
There may have been as many as two dozen of us at the most discussing the actions that came to be a rather massive demonstration carried out with military precision.
The presidents of the black colleges–the Atlanta University Center–had been advised of our intention. Some of the presidents were quite reluctant and opposed us taking these steps. But in the end, they were all supportive and advised us.
Their advice to us was to give the white community an opportunity to correct these ills before taking this step. We should at least make it clear to the public why we were doing what we were doing, they argued, to increase the prospect of support in the general community.
A group of us sat down to put a document together. We reviewed it with the presidents of the University schools, and they made some suggestions for changes and improvements in various ways, but the original draft remained pretty much intact. The statement was then published in local newspapers, as well as The New York Times and, I believe, maybe L. A.
The first sit-ins that we had in Atlanta involved about two-hundred students and, as I recall, eleven locations, all of which were visited at exactly eleven o’clock in the morning. We had sat down and spent a lot of time planning every step. We had people who were assigned to drive cars to take people to these locations. We had other people assigned to stand at telephones, who could see the action and report any problems. We had adults who had committed to get people out of jail with bonding if we were arrested. It took a goodly bit of planning, but it all came off at exactly the same time and to the surprise of everybody.
The city leadership was taken quite by surprise. They didn’t know what to do. There were lots of reports of policemen turning around in the middle of the street in their cars just spinning around, not knowing what to do. We got a big kick out of that, of course.
When they arrived on the scene, they didn’t know what to do either. They had to wait for instructions from back at headquarters. Essentially what was decided
was that they would give us fair opportunity to leave without being arrested, and those who did not leave, of course, would be arrested.
The group that I led went to the Terminal Train Station, which no longer exists now. In that group was Martin Luther King’s brother, A.D. King. There were two different entrances to the white lunch counter there, so King took half the group into one entrance and I took the other half into the other.
We simply went to seats that were available and sat down, or stood when there weren’t enough seats. Nobody asked us, “May I help you?” So we didn’t have a chance to order a hamburger or anything. There were people telling us, “You can’t eat in here. The colored room is ’round that way,” and that sort of thing.
The clerks, customers, everybody was totally surprised. Nobody really knew what to do, so everybody was looking to somebody else for an answer. But, of course, phone calls were made immediately to the police by the operators of all these establishments. And eventually the police did show up. But I don’t recall that anybody was assaulted in any way during the sit-ins mostly because it was a total surprise and there was nobody there with intent in their minds to do harm to anybody. They were just having their lunch.
We were quite anxious because it was entirely new. But nobody anticipated anything more negative than an arrest occurring, even though we knew there was the possibility of violence. We had discussed non-violent tactics in the event anyone struck or mistreated us. We were anxious, but we felt that what we were doing was very important. It felt good to be involved.
After the sit-ins, the city officials and the business owners still thought there was no real reason for them to have to change their ways. That led to boycotts of the downtown facilities like Woolworth’s and Rich’s and Davison’s (now Mary’s) and Sears, which had lunch counters in their department stores. Rich’s was the main target because that was where everybody shopped and it was the store most beloved of everybody in the Atlanta community, blacks and whites. But they were all targeted, and after along and arduous boycott, they did have to give in. We had been told, of course, by the white business community that our boycott was having no impact on them. And it just happens that somebody saw reports in The New York Times that said sales were down substantially and so that gave us the will to continue.
There was some divisiveness, too, about continuing the boycott as Easter approached. Folks wanted to buy their Easter outfits and everything. The boycott had been dragging on for a long time and it seemed like there was gonna be no end to it; it seemed we were not going to get any results from doing it. People were talking about breaking ranks and the older black leadership was, in some instances, opposed to these actions in the first place because they had had more or less a privileged position with the white establishment. They could sit down and kind of negotiate out things with the mayor, and the Chamber of Commerce, and Robert Woodruff of Coca Cola and Richard Rich of Rich’s, and they got personal regard and got things done for the community.
We were threatening all that, because when they were asked to do so, they couldn’t keep “those kids” in line. Their influence lessened immediately when it was apparent to the white establishment that they could not control the events of the times–that they were, in fact, at our mercy, because the masses of people were responding to what we were doing.
In many instances they sought to dissuade us. We formed an organization that was called the Adult-Student Liaison Committee early on in all of these undertakings, and we would meet on a regular basis with the adult leadership, which included Daddy King, Rev. William Holmes Borders, C.A. Scott, A.T. Walden, and Warren Cochran. We were challenging them constantly in these meetings. And we won more often than not.
They couldn’t tell us not to do things. We would discuss things with them, but we didn’t ask them whether we could do them. I think in many instances, they simply went back and told the white establishment that we were going to do these things.
But traditionally, we would call the mayor, anyhow, and let him know if we had a protest planned–partly because we wanted police protection and partly because it was just kind of an accommodation we had reached.
But, at a point, when the boycotts had continued for quite a while, we found ourselves really fighting with these guys quite a bit about continuing to support our efforts. And it all came to a head on one evening when we had a mass meeting around the question of continuing the boycotts, which was held, I believe, in the Warren Memorial Church over on Ashby Street. The church was filled to the rafters, and the issue was put to these masses of people as to whether we’d continue the boycott or not.
And I distinctly recall one lady in a white nurses uniform coming down the middle aisle, and shaking her fingers up at Reverend Borders–or maybe it was Daddy King–saying, “I’m a member of your church, and I want you to tell me to go back to shop at Rich’s.” Which he, of course, could not find it in himself to do, before this mass crowd, although he was trying to persuade everybody that it was time to call off the boycott.
The situation was so tense that we decided that we needed somebody to help us out on this. Lonnie placed a call to Martin, Jr., at home and asked him to come over and speak to the crowd, which he did. He made one of his most moving and compelling speeches I suppose I’d ever heard him make. He didn’t really take any side in the matter, but his fervor kind of continued the spirit in the people, and the boycott continued until they were willing to sit down and negotiate a settlement.