WOO Students Make Civil Rights Journey to Hayneville, Alabama, August 13, 2005
Susan Notes: Let's see, spending Saturday researching history. . . does this sound like "lack of interest" to you? These are the very students excluded from Birmingham schools for "lack of interest."
This story is at once heartbreaking and life affirming. Let us rejoice in the Woo students' commitment, curiosity, and caring. Let us rejoice in one more step in the journey of the Woo's mission as a civil rights and social justice educational and job readiness program, teaching with and learning from the whole person.
Early Saturday morning at the World of Opportunity (WOO), Veronica and DeMarkus were busy making sandwiches and preparing sack lunches which also included an apple, a bag of chips, water and fruit drink. While other students arrived, Johnnie and Jermaine turned on computers and began to surf the web. Jacqueline and Jermaine helped load the lunches. Finally at 8:35AM, with 13 of us (Corey, Angela, Candace, Javon, Jacqueline, Veronica, DeMarkus, Jermaine, Johnny, Ch'tay, Lucille, David & I) in a van and pickup truck, we pulled out of the WOO parking lot to begin our civil rights journey to Hayneville, Alabama, about 120 miles southwest of Birmingham.
When we left the interstate on Exit 151, south of Montgomery, we traveled on County Highway 97 west towards Hayneville. We reviewed the events of 40 years past, when Jonathan Myrick Daniels, an Episcopalian seminarian; Ruby Sales, a sixteen year old Tuskegee student; Phyllis & Joe Bailey, residents of Hayneville; Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Toure), a SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) organizer; Father Richard Morrisroe, and fourteen others were arrested on August 14th 1965 and held for a week in the Lowndes County Jail for registering African-American voters. One week later, without notice, they were released on a hot scorching day. Daniels, Sales, Bailey and Morrisroe headed around the block to Varner's Cash Store to get soda pops.
As Daniels reached to open the screen door to the store, Tom Coleman suddenly appeared at the door with his shotgun. He shouted that the store was closed and or dered them "to get off this property or I'll blow your g-damned heads off, you sons of b@#%&es!"
Coleman aimed his shotgun at Ruby Sales. Without hesitation, Daniels pushed Ruby down and out of the way and sustained Coleman's shotgun blast at point blank range. The buckshot tore a hole in the right side of Jonathan's chest. He died instantly. Coleman fired a second round and the buckshot hit Father Morrisroe in the lower right back and side and felled him (Morrisroe was hospitalized for months recovering from these wounds). Coleman then threatened to shoot other African-Americans who were standing at the corner in the distance. At the Hayneville Courthouse, Coleman was acquitted by an all white jury.
We had been studying and discussing the events in Hayneville of 1965 for several weeks at WOO and we all hoped that we might see or meet Ruby Sales if she was in attendance at the ceremony.
The solemnity of that event 40 years ago crept into all of us in the van as we passed country farms, leaning shacks, rusty signs, quiet pastures, weeping willows draped in Spanish moss, a rebel flag, and other remnants of the old South the closer we came to Hayneville. I urged everyone to stay together once we arrived at Hayneville and keep an eye on each other. "You don't gotta worry about that!" was the refrain.
Highway 97 took us straight into the main street of Hayneville, and a sigh of relief was heard throughout the van as we saw what appeared to be a friendly traffic jam, a bus, and then hundreds of people gathering peacefully in the courthouse square. Nothing was quite as reassuring as seeing a courthouse packed with kindred spirits. I had imagined a much smaller turnout since the tragic Hayneville event and the slaying of Jonathan Daniels are buried deep in civil rights history.
Veronica and Jacqueline were first to point out that we had parked right next to a monument erected to honor the life and legacy of Jonathan Myrick at the southeast corner of the courthouse square.
As the hundreds began to assemble in the square young people stepped to the front of the crowd carrying portraits of some of the other Alabamians slain during the turbulent civil rights movement.
The remembrance ceremony was conducted by the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, the Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, and REACH (Rural Enrichment Accessing Community Hands). The event was called a pilgrimage and procession, a Feast of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Martyr of Hayneville and all Martyrs of Alabama. The sun bore down on our assembly and our skins glistened with sweat.
About 500 of us left the courthouse square and marched a few blocks back down Hgiway 97, and then turned right one block to the Lowndes County Jail. A service and recounting of the events was held at the front door to the jail. The jail is not used today, but held prisoners up until about five years ago. The building was open and our students and others walked up the outside hot metal stairs and into the dark, barren, stinking, small jail cells which held Daniels, Carmichael, Morrisroe, and the men. It was a sad sight to watch Jermaine, Johnny, Ch'tay, and Corey walk into the cells, first making sure that the door was wide open and would not shut, and inspect the harsh metal and concrete interior. Then, we walked downstairs where the women were crammed like sardines into the first floor cells. The meanness of this small, thick metal, jailhouse which was once packed with civil rights freedom workers hung in the air 40 years later.
From the jailhouse, the procession walked back down to the main street and turned right one block to the site of the old cash store. Today, a brick insurance company building sits on that spot. Again, a brief service and historical account of the events was shared with the marchers. It was in front of that building that we first saw Ruby Sales. A young man sang a beautiful gospel spiritual and then Ruby came to the microphone. She spoke calmly and with conviction, standing on this very site where her life almost came to an end forty years ago. "This is the place where a tremendous event took place involving ordinary people in Lowndes County, Alabama. We were just standing up for our rights. Jonathan Daniels was a good man and I am thankful for him."
It was quite remarkable to see and listen to Ruby Sales. Ruby was born the same year as five of the six youth who were killed in the bomb blast and its aftermath at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963, just two years before the Hayneville event. So, to look at Ruby Sales physically, was to imagine what Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Roberston, Cynthia Wesley, Virgil Ware, and Johnny Robinson might have looked like...how they might have aged, had they been able to live out these past forty years, more than 15,000 sunrises and sunsets, stolen from their lives; how the passage of time might have been reflected in the palms of their hands, the burdens etched into their faces, or the saltiness spreading throughout their hairlines.
More importantly, to look at Ruby Sales was to imagine what Birmingham's martyred youth might have been had they had the chance to live, learn, explore, and discover. As the life of Jonathan Daniels was stolen, the life of Ruby Sales was reaffirmed. Ruby Sales has undertaken tremendous work in the field of exploring the legacy of American violence, national oppression, and sexism. She has continued to fight the good fight. Embodied in Ruby, one can imagine the possibilities and contributions which Birmingham's six youngsters might have made as teachers, mechanics, or doctors, nurses, scientists, authors, or political leaders. As an instructor, I pause with the realization that the students in our program might very well be Dr. Martin Luther Kings, Malcolm Xs (El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), or Zora Neale Hurstons.
This is why it was very inspiring to see a number of youth actively participating in the pilgrimage march: the spirited youth from WOO, the local gospel choir from Lowndes County, African-American, white, Palestinian, & Episcopalian youth from different walks of life.
From the cash store site, we proceeded back to the courthouse, stopping for a brief moment in front of the memorial monument to Jonathan Daniels. Then we slowly negotiated the long flight of concrete stairs leading to the second floor of the building at the edge of the courthouse. We were greeted by the youth gospel choir wearing yellow shirts from Lowndes County. Radiantly, they sang "I saw the light" with beautiful organ accompaniment. The Episcopal officials stood at the front of the room which was packed beyond capacity. It dawned on me that this was an awfully large church for such a small town,
The guest speaker was Dr. Vincent Harding, a beloved colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. Harding is a very engaging speaker who quickly makes eye contact and heart-filled connections with the audience. He heightened our awareness of the importance of this moment, "This gathering in this courthouse has been paid for dearly. We are not here for free. The dues have been paid. Forty years ago, if we imagined a gathering like this, we would have been called ‘crazy dreamers.' We need more crazy dreamers now." He looked behind him, at the large black and white portraits of other martyrs which were held prominently by today's youth. "These are the pictures of people who were shot, and bombed, and beaten. Terrorism did not begin in America in 2001." He spoke of the courage of Jonathan Daniels and "the freedom workers who had to make conscious decisions if they would continue going on in the struggle despite the terror which was going on all around them."
It was during Dr. Harding's remarks that I suddenly realized that we were not in a church at all. We were in the Hayneville courthouse, the very courtroom where Daniels and Sales were charged when they were arrested. We were sitting in the same benches and standing in the same aisles and on the same tongue and grooved hardwood floors where Ruby Sales was in 1966, six months after the slaying of Daniels, defying death threats, to testify against Tom Coleman. Dr. Harding explained, "This Hayneville courthouse has historically been a place of injustice. This afternoon it is a place where we come seeking justice."
One of the most emotional moments weaving together the sacrifice and sorrow of the civil rights struggle came when a roll was read including the names of many of the Alabama martyrs. A woman read aloud, "Willie Edwards Jr." Then, a youngster at the front of the courthouse, where the judge would normally sit stood up and testified, "Present." and held Edward's portrait above her head. The reader continued, "January 23, 1957, martyred in Montgomery."
"William Lewis Moore."
Another young person testified, "Present," and his portrait was hoisted high next to Willie Edwards.
"April 23, 1963, martyred in Attalla, Alabama.
"Addie Mae Collins"
"Present," and the large portraits of the four little girls were raised by four youth and stood next to Edwards and Moore.
"September 15, 1963, martyred in Birmingham, Alabama."
And this stunning roll call continued with youth raising each martyrs large portrait.
September 15, 1963 martyred in Birmingham, Alabama."
"Jimmie Lee Jackson."
"February 26, 1965, martyred in Marion, Alabama."
"The Reverend James Reeb."
"March, 1965, martyred in Selma, Alabama."
"March 25, 1965, martyred near Lowndesboro, Alabama."
"September 18, 1965, martyred in Anniston, Alabama."
"Jonathan Myrick Daniels."
"August 20, 1965, martyred in Hayneville, Alabama."
"Samuel Leamon Younge, Jr."
"January 3, 1966, martyred in Tuskegee, Alabama."
"And all others known to God."
The words I have at my disposal in this chronicle cannot recreate the significance of that moment of silent reflection, seeing these thirteen larger-than-life portraits, along with Dr. Harding and Ruby Sales gathered together at the front of the courtroom, filled with hundreds of people, of many nationalities, youngsters and old, restless children and the tired and frail, all under this old roof of oppression, now seeking peace, justice, and reconciliation. I will always remember this precious moment.
As we left the courthouse, Veronica and Jacqueline met Joe Bailey who was sitting on a park bench. Mr. Bailey told us about his recollections of that fateful August 20th day forty years ago, and what he witnessed at the cash store when he was released from jail. Mr. Bailey accepted our invitation to share his history with students at WOO. We exchanged contact information. Ms. Sales also said that she would get in touch with WOO to explore ways in which we can collaborate on peacebuilding projects in the future. We documented our journey with group photos of WOO at the Daniels monument, with Ms. Sales, and Mr. Bailey.
We headed back home and listened to each person's reflections of the significance of the day's events. Since our contingent is intergenerational, we had a wide range of reactions to this journey. Veronica, Jacqueline, and Candace were so honored to meet Joe Bailey and they are looking forward to hosting him at WOO. For Candace's son, six-month old Javon, this was his first civil rights march. Candace's first hand experiences in Hayneville might be the basis for her English composition classes which she begins next week at UAB. Our teenage students were glad to once again see their Palestinian counterparts whom they met at WOO for a peacebuilders lunch one week earlier. Corey and Veronica was horrified by the jail which was nearly in the same condition today as it was in 1965. Lucille said that she met a number of people in the courthouse square. She and her husband, David, are veterans of the Money, Mississippi civil rights activities where Emmett Till was lynched on August, 1955. David walked home with young Emmett that August 28th evening, just hours before 14 year old Till was kidnapped. Angela recruited one possible volunteer English tutor for WOO. Ch'tay was impressed that Dr. Harding knew Dr. King. And our minds are still sorting all of this information out.
After day full of civil rights fuel for the heart and soul, we stopped at Golden Coral buffet, fueled and soothed our stomachs, breaking bread together and sharing more reflections.
This is how we practice our WOO mission as a civil rights and social justice educational and job readiness program, teaching with and learning from the whole person. The trip was even more poignant and joyful for us because so many students at WOO have been slandered by school administrators who claimed they possess a "lack of interest" and used this designation to justify pushing them out of school. Here we were on an early Saturday morning, and our students are so vibrant with a "lack of interest" that they walked and caught rides to the WOO to travel some 250 miles in the scorching son to learn about our history and experience crazy dreams about a better future.
Our next civil rights journey will be next month when we close on Thursday, September 15, 1963, and gather inside 16th Street Baptist Church at 10:22 in the morning (and then later in the evening), to pause and reflect upon the bombing by the Klan and the loss of life and injury 42 years ago.
Through these activities we reaffirm that freedom is a constant struggle, as we pass along the baton of peacebuilding and justice to our amazing students.
Many of the details of August 14-20, 1965 were pieced together relying on excerpts from "Outside Agitator," a chronicle written by Charles W. Eagles, and distributed at the pilgrimage.
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