Category Archives: Selma & Civil Rights

John Jeffress Remembrance Day: August 25, 1920

We don’t have a picture of John Jeffress, at least I haven’t found one.  Same for personal background: where he was from, when he was born. We only have a report about his end, which came on this date, august 25,  98 years ago.

This report was published in several papers on August 26, 2018:

Sheriff Storey and Jeffress were in Graham NC, the seat of Alamance County. When they turned toward the courthouse, they passed near this Confederate memorial, 30 feet high including the statue on the top, which had already been standing for six years.

On the monument’s south face: “ON FAME’S ETERNAL CAMPING GROUND, THEIR SILENT TENTS ARE SPREAD, AND GLORY GUARDS, WITH SOLEMN ROUND, THE BIVOUAC OF THE DEAD.”

At this point, the crowd made its move:

In the version of this report published in the Charlotte NC News, additional details were included:

Sheriff Story [sic] and his six assistants started with Jeffress to the courthouse one block away. Arriving at the spot where Ray was killed, a mob formed around the Officers and their prisoner. There was a sudden surge forward and in the twinkling of an eye, according to the sheriff, the prisoner had been taken from the officers and was placed in an automobile and rushed away. There was not a shot fired: not even a gun drawn during the minute scuffle between the mob and officers. 

A photo published in 1964, when Storey died.

Sheriff Story said tonight that resistance would have been folly as the mob was made up of between 25 and 50 determined men. There were at least 150 additional men nearby whose sympathies were with the mob, he stated tonight. Answering a. direct question, Sheriff Story declared that he did not know anyone in the mob. The man who led the mob and took the prisoner away, the sheriff said, must have just moved into the county and was not known to him. 

There were no arrests or prosecutions after this killing. And there is no memorial to John Jeffress in Alamance County. There was none anywhere — until this spring. In Montgomery, Alabama, the Equal Justice Initiative opened what it called the National Memorial for Peace & Justice.

In this unique structure, there are 800 pillars, one for each county where the founders could verify a lynching. Names of the know victims are engraved on the pillars.

That, of course, includes Alamance County, NC. and on the Alamance pillar, there is one name:

The fact that we know this much (or this little) about John Jeffress is because in those years, a century and more ago, the young (and often denounced as “radical”) NAACP was compiling a record. It often hung this flag outside its New York office:

The Equal Justice Initiative, sponsors of the Montgomery Memorial, is encouraging persons elsewhere to remember these “erased” crimes.

The Charlotte News editor, whoever it was, gets a bit of credit with their account:

“The crime for which the young negro was put to death is, alleged to have been committed at 10 o’clock yesterday morning, near the child’s home. Cries of her mother, it is said, caused the negro to run, leaving the little girl without serious injury.”

At least he said “alleged.” This entire affair began about 10 AM, and was over by shortly after 3 PM. Jeffress was on his way to be arraigned, formally charged, when he was snatched and then killed. No arraignment, no trial, no evidence, no defense, nothing.

Is all this far in the past, better left alone? I snapped the photo below outside a McDonalds in Graham a few months ago.

I don’t have a bumpersticker for John Jeffress. But I can contribute this remembrance.

A sculpture at the National Memorial for Peace & Justice, Montgomery, Alabama.

Aretha, Her Father & Her Music: Not Far From The Tree

Where did Aretha Franklin’s unforgettable vocal power come from?
I glimpsed a big part of the answer one summer night in 1968.

It was Friday, June 21, in Washington DC: Leaders of the Poor Peoples Campaign, trying to fulfill Dr. King’s last dream, had built a shantytown, called Resurrection City, on the national mall. But the camp, and the campaign, were mired in various difficulties. Yet on that Friday evening, some participants got a welcome, memorable spell of relief. I was there with a tape recorder, and this is the heart of what I saw and heard:

From Uncertain Resurrection, the Poor Peoples Washington Campaign;

Rev. C. L. Franklin, preaching

Friday night a Campaign mass meeting was held at St. Stephen’s Baptist Church, where the church was full and the crowd unusually boisterous. The featured preacher of the evening was Rev. C. L. Franklin of Detroit. Rev. Franklin is the father of Miss Aretha Franklin, a very successful soul singer, and he was an old friend of Dr. King.

“I hope I can get somebody to pray with me tonight,” he began, warming them up, “because you know, I’m a Negro preacher, and I like to talk to people, and have people talk back to me.”  Continue reading Aretha, Her Father & Her Music: Not Far From The Tree

Shooting Holes In Justice: Emmett Till & Jimmie Lee Jackson Memorials

Some Folks aren’t satisfied with killing people of color; they want to kill the memory of these murders too.

Take Emmett Till, Kidnapped & murdered in Mississippi in 1955,  after someone said the 14 year-old may have whistled at a white woman. His tortured and body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River days later; it took a jury one hour to acquit the men charged with the killing.  Outrage generated by the case gave a boost to civil rights struggles.

In 2007, county leaders established the Emmett Till Interpretive Center to memorialize Till and remember the case and what it represented. The center erected a sign in a rural area near the bank of the river where Till’s body was recovered. But that sign was soon stolen and never recovered.

A second sign was put up. before long, it was full of bullet holes.

This sign was eventually moved inside the Center, itself becoming an object for reflection. And not long ago, a new sign was put up.

The new sign is now collecting bullet holes. This image is only a few days old.

Such posthumous assaults are not limited to Mississippi. In February, 1965, Jimmie Lee Jackson of Marion, Alabama, who was unarmed, was shot by a state trooper in an attack on a night march during the  historic voting rights campaign based in nearby Selma,.

Jimmie Lee Jackson’s funeral service, March 3, 1965. His death sparked the Selma-Montgomery march, which helped win the Voting Rights act.

Jackson was buried in a small cemetery near Alabama Highway 14 on the outskirts of Marion. His large headstone is impressively carved with a figure of Jesus keeping vigil.

It too has been hit  by numerous bullets. One knocked a chunk off the top, and seven or eight more are visible on close examination, in this 2015 photo.

Emmett Till’s killers walked completely free. The Alabama trooper who shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Fowler, shot and killed a second unarmed young black man in 1966. But forty-five years later, Fowler was convicted of manslaughter, and served several months in jail, before being released due to ill health.

Jimmie Lee Jackson, left. James Fowler, right.

The Emmett Till Interpretive Center, located in Sumner, Mississippi, has plans to expand its facility and programs, and upgrade security.

Memories aren’t bulletproof. But they don’t die easily.

 

Frederick Douglass on the Fourth of July

This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the Fourth of July. It is the birth day of your National Independence, and of your political freedom.

This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day.

This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. l am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men; but nations number their years by thousands.

According to this fact, you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. Continue reading Frederick Douglass on the Fourth of July

Full-Court Press: Apres Kennedy, Le Deluge?

I won’t try to predict who will be nominated for Anthony Kennedy’s seat. I  only vaguely recall the list of names that was floated before the 2016 election; the ones I recognized ranged from the outrageous to unthinkable.

I didn’t recognize Gorsuch then; but now we know that anything is possible, and lily Tomlin was RIGHT:

So let’s consider some of those legal landmarks that are now in deeper peril. Continue reading Full-Court Press: Apres Kennedy, Le Deluge?

The Red Hen vs the Lunch Counter: Which Values Apply?

 

The Red Hen Restaurant, Lexington Virginia

I can’t deny it: I’m feeling conflicted about the expulsion of Sarah Huckabee Sanders (hereafter SHS) from the Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington Virginia this weekend.

On the one hand, the report of it sets off alarms and bring back vivid memories from my young activist years. Then  most restaurants, especially in the South, were racially segregated. And it took long hard months of protests (that had really started on a small scale years earlier) to begin to break through and open up this part of public space to nonwhite Americans.

Continue reading The Red Hen vs the Lunch Counter: Which Values Apply?

Varieties of Racism: the Carolina Confederate Flag Campaign

Driving up Interstate 95 on the evening of May 19, a few miles north of Fayetteville, North Carolina I spotted this billboard, which I had not seen before. It seemed worth documenting, so I made a U-turn at the next exit and was soon aiming the phone camera at it.

But before I got there I stopped a few miles farther south on 95, where the nearest example of this campaign stands.

Where  did that flag come from?

Continue reading Varieties of Racism: the Carolina Confederate Flag Campaign

Selma, the Day before Memphis

On Wednesday April 4, many eyes will be on Memphis, Tennessee, remembering what happened there 50 years ago,

Room 306, Lorraine Motel, Memphis.

I’ll be among  those. But I’ll be doing it from Alabama, just down the street from the still blindingly all-white state capital in Montgomery. That’s where the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church still stands. There in 1955 Dr. King  began the career which ended, at least in embodied form, with a bullet fired  in Memphis.

At Dexter Street, Alabama State University will conduct a day-long program on the anniversary, and they invited me to join a panel.

The “Queen City” of the Black Belt? If so. It reigns over a crumbling domain.

Continue reading Selma, the Day before Memphis

Selma, Alabama: Protecting King, Protecting Obama

When I look at this photo of President Obama in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 2015, I think I see something different from many.

Standing at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he & his handlers were evoking the marches across it fifty years earlier.

One of those ended in a bloody police attack on unarmed voting rights marchers. Another, two weeks later, opened their momentous  trek to Montgomery to demand full voting rights for people of color. 

That second march, by the way, is still going on.

I was in Selma in 1965. And again, along with Obama in 2015.

But beyond and behind the pageantry, I saw something else: protection; protection that was overwhelming, in all directions, and yet invisible to the public.

Let me explain.

In 1965, I was a rookie civil rights worker in Selma, fresh from college and not a southerner. As such, I had few useful skills. But one thing I could do was walk.

And walking was what I was asked to do, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in town to lead voting rights protests. I was one of several junior staffers assigned to walk close to Dr. King through Selma’s downtown, to the county courthouse. There a white voter registration board had for decades routinely turned away all but a very few black residents.

Selma, 1965, ready to march: Front, left to right: Hosea Williams, John Lewis, Andrew Young. Behind and right of Young, me.

“Why are we doing this?” I asked big James Orange, a movement veteran, as we took our places the first time.

James Orange, at right behind Dr. King.

 “Simple, Chuck,” he answered, and pointed to a nearby building. “Suppose somebody’s up there on the roof with a high-powered rifle. We’re gonna block their aim.”

Orange saw my eyes widen, and grinned. 

“But, uh, Jim,” l sputtered, “what — what if somebody’s up there & they squeeze the trigger and get me instead?”

His grin got wider. He slapped me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Chuck,” he said, “if you get shot, I promise: Dr. King will preach at your funeral.”

“Oh, thanks, Jim,” I said & tried to laugh, but it was a serious matter.

I had already learned that Dr. King got death threats almost every day. And while we were unarmed, our bodyguard duty was not just for show. Selma was a small city, but numerous three-story buildings clustered downtown: many upstairs windows glared blankly down on us, and their nearly flat roofs made good cover.

Jimmie Lee Jackson was the first to die in the Selma campaign, shot by a state trooper in February, 1965 while trying to stop the beating of his grandfather. The shooting hasn’t stopped: his headstone, by a state highway near his hometown of Marion, is pocked and pitted with bullet marks. This photo is from 2014, 49 years later.

Lucky for me, no shots were fired during the marches I was on then. But I was also among the throng that crossed the Pettus bridge several weeks later, after two protesters had been killed and many more injured, headed for the capital in Montgomery, our journey guarded this time by rifle-bearing U.S. army troops. 

The soldiers were busy: long stretches of our route on US Highway 80 were lined by thick woods and swamps. A line of woods also ran along the edge of the Alabama River near the bridge, right across from Selma’s downtown, offering excellent cover for would be snipers.

That march made it to Montgomery safely five days later; but on the way back, Ku Klux Klan assassins shot and killed Viola Liuzzo, who had come from Detroit to join it.

 Several years later, while  doing research for my book, Selma 1965, I came across a report that police believed that on at least one of the marches where James Orange I were beside Dr. King, a rifleman was spotted on a nearby rooftop. By then, of course, one of the daily threats against Dr. King had been fatally carried out, in Memphis. 

All this was on my mind in 2015 when I heard that President Obama was coming to Selma, to mark the Selma movement’s half-century. I was going too, with some friends.

This time I wasn’t worried about my own safety: there would be tens of thousands to shield me, and besides the occasion was rightly viewed as a tourism bonanza by Alabama authorities.

But Obama was another matter. It was no secret that, as the first black president, he too got death threats every day, reportedly many more than his white predecessors. Further, Alabama and the Deep South still harbored extremist groups that regarded his public prominence as a standing offense.

A white supremacy billboard near the Pettus Bridge, celebrating the career of Confederate general Nathan B. Forrest, who later was a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. The motto under Forrest’s image is “Keep The Skeer On ‘Em”

I knew Obama would want to speak in the open air, likely with the Pettus bridge looming above him. And that worried me. Such visibility was risky: on one end of the bridge, downtown was a jumble of three-story buildings.

A neo-Confederate supporter’s car, in Selma, 2014. At the right, below the confederate flag, reads the motto: “In the coming civil war, be a man among men.”

On the other end, the woods were still there on the high bank of the Alabama river. How would the Secret Service cover it all—and make it all appear “normal,” a peaceful celebration, not a military occupation?

The passage quoted by this U.S. Senator from Georgia, republican David Perdue, was typical doublespeak dog-whistle hate: “Let his days be few, and another take his place of leadership” the quote from Psalm 109 begins. And then it adds: “9 May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. 10 May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes. 11 May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor. 12 May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children. 13 May his descendants be cut off, their names blotted out from the next generation. . . . “(and on it goes).

Maybe it was just my own mild case of PTSD, but it worried me. But after much mulling, I thought I knew how it could be done.

When I saw this picture of Obama, alone on the bridge behind a compact lectern, I felt like I guessed right. Here’s how it went down:

On the city side, early that morning the Secret Service cordoned off several square blocks with metal barriers, set up airport-type metal detector entrances, where they looked in all bags & wanded each of the tens of thousands of those lined up; it took hours.

A busy office building in 1965, stands empty in downtown Selma, in late 2014; one of many.

 At the same time, they quietly, unobtrusively occupied and no doubt searched the buildings along and near the riverfront. Few structures had changed in fifty years, and for that matter, many were empty; Selma and the whole region around it was still dogged by poverty and decay.

Beyond the other end of the bridge, traffic was diverted to other routes. While I don’t know for sure, I’m convinced that special teams combed through the nearby line of woods to be sure they stayed clear.

One other precaution might also have been in play: for most of March 7, when the Obamas & George W. and Laura Bush were in town, the internet went down in Selma. This gummed up many journalists; I know, because a few had interviewed me, but then had to pack up and leave town to get their footage uploaded to their home networks. For that matter, I had planned to blog during the day myself; after a few futile tries, I gave up.

There were two theories on the street about this outage: one, the Secret Service (or maybe NSA) had jammed it, so no insurgents could coordinate attack plans, or remotely set off explosives; the other, more plausible but less exciting, was that all 50,000 of us tried to send our snapshots to Facebook & Instagram at the same time, and simply crashed all the local servers and such. (It didn’t occur to me  that maybe Russian hackers were involved; but it certainly would today.)

Obama stood & spoke almost exactly where I had imagined: note that the bridge behind him makes an arc, one actually much higher than it seems in the camera’s perspective.  Where Obama is standing, the bridge itself would block the aim of anyone who evaded pursuit and tried to take aim from those woods.

The result was a successful combination of security and stagecraft. The scene eased my anxiety then and after: it meant somebody knew what they were doing, and did it right.

President Barack Obama hugs Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. after his introduction during the event to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., March 7, 2015. Lewis helped lead the original Selma march on March 7, 1965 which was attacked by police, deputies and state troopers, leaving him with a fractured skull.

The Secret Service has to secure similar events every week, sometimes every day. So maybe this was a piece of cake for them. Compared to their skill, our mornings walks near Dr. King now seem utterly, almost comically amateurish.

But even so, somehow we came through it. Dr. King wasn’t called on to preach at our funerals. Instead, we lasted long enough to hear others preaching at his.

Hope won’t stay behind the barriers.

 

More about my time in the movement is in this book, available here.

The Deaths Of Racism, And Racism In Deaths

Charlottesville VA – I came here for a panel on Dr. King’s Ill-fated Poor Peoples Campaign of 1968, 50 years past and now aiming to be re-launched.

Charlottesville’s Lee, the (somewhat) hidden monument.

I did my part in the event (having written a book about the 1968 campaign); but I want to admit here that my mind frequently wandered, hankering to head downtown to visit some of Charlottesville’s new & newly-more historic sites while I was nearby.

Two in particular: the shrouded statue of Robert E. Lee, awaiting its fate, and a few blocks away the graffiti wall on the stretch of 4th Street now rechristened “Heather Heyer Way.”

Late that rainy afternoon, the panel finished, and the chance came. My activist photographer friend Laura from Toronto, also a panelist, felt a similar urge, and soon we were in “Emancipation (neé Lee) Park” clicking away.  Continue reading The Deaths Of Racism, And Racism In Deaths