Fighting the Devil in Dixie
How Civil Rights Activists Took on the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama
By Wayne Greenhaw
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2011 Wayne Greenhaw
All rights reserved.
WILLIE'S FIRST DAY
On the morning of January 23, 1957, Willie Edwards Jr. and his family had many reasons to be happy. He had worked hard and gotten a raise. Today he would make his first trip as a truck driver for Hudson-Thompson, delivering supplies to Winn-Dixie, the largest supermarket chain in the Southeast. Edwards would drive from the warehouse in north Montgomery to Talladega in east-central Alabama, stopping along the way at every little town on his route.
Willie Edwards Jr., known affectionately to his family as Mookie, had witnessed many changes taking place in his world over the past year.
More than a year earlier, on Thursday night, December 1, 1955, a small-built black seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus to a white man. Parks was arrested and charged with violating the city's ordinance requiring segregated seating on buses. Bailing Parks out of jail that night was Edgar Daniel Nixon, a Pullman car porter who had been leading voter registration drives in Alabama's capital city for decades and who had served as state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It had been Nixon's dream that a courageous and steadfast black person would refuse to sit in the back of the bus, be arrested, and challenge the segregation law.
On Sunday morning following Parks's arrest, black preachers told their congregations that there would be a boycott of the buses. On Monday morning, the buses were empty. Later that morning Parks was found guilty in city court. Representing her was attorney Fred D. Gray. Standing by her side was Nixon. She appealed the ruling.
On Monday afternoon a meeting of local black leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and elected the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the twenty-six-year-old minister at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, its president.
That night a mass meeting was held at the Holt Street Baptist Church, where Reverend King spoke for the first time as the leader of the new movement, telling more than a thousand people that it was time to use "the tools of justice" to bring about a "day of freedom, justice, and equality." His voice rose to the rafters as he challenged: "We must stick together and work together if we are to win — and we will win by standing up for our rights as Americans."
That was the first of many mass meetings throughout a year when a legal battle in U.S. District Court filed by Gray, Browder v. Gayle, ended in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the local ordinance requiring segregation was unconstitutional.
In December 1956, little more than a month later, the town's black leaders — Reverend King, Parks, Nixon, Reverend Ralph David Abernathy, and a few out-of-town white ministers — stepped onto a legally integrated Montgomery City Lines bus for the first time.
During the yearlong boycott there had been a distinct change in the manner in which black people carried themselves in Montgomery. They no longer walked on city sidewalks with their heads hanging, gazing downward, afraid to look into a white person's face, dragging their feet as though they were plowing a field behind a tired mule. They held their heads high, squared their shoulders, picked up their feet and put them down in a cadence, like they knew exactly where they were going and what they were going to do when they got there.
* * *
Although he was far from a leader of his people, Willie Edwards Jr. felt like he was moving up in his world. For the past few months, Edwards had worked in the yard of Hudson-Thompson's wholesale warehouse on Jackson Ferry Road in north Montgomery. If he worked hard and tended to the customers on his route, soon he would be making enough to move his family out of the dirt-poor section of west Montgomery where they lived in a four-room, unpainted clapboard with no underpinning. They would find a place far from Rice Street, where the shacks were built forty years ago by the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad for its workers. He told it all to his daddy, Willie Edwards Sr., who expressed pride in his son.
As he prepared to leave, Willie Jr. told Sarah Jean, pregnant with their third child, that he would be late coming home that day. The dispatcher had warned that his first day would be a long one.
As Edwards stepped into the cold outdoors, pulling his heavy green jacket around his body and his old gray felt hat down to his ears, he took his new cigarette lighter from his work pants. He was proud of the lighter that Sarah Jean had given him on Christmas morning. As the door closed behind him, he lighted an unfiltered cigarette.
* * *
In a pocket of low-lying land between downtown and the Alabama River known as Ward Five, the Little Kitchen on Jefferson Street was the regular meeting place for a group of white men.
Raymond C. Britt Jr. was a twenty-seven-year-old salesman for a flooring store. Britt sat at the large round table in the Little Kitchen every morning, talking with his fellow members of the secret society of the Ku Klux Klan about what they would be doing and where they would be going that night. Here, they felt their importance, believing the white community of Montgomery depended on the Klan to keep the black revolutionists, the Communist intruders, the Jewish hordes, and any other ethnic outsiders from taking over the world as they knew it. Their duty, they believed, was to protect the "Southern way of life."
James D. "Jimmy" York was a veteran of World War II. He worked for Montgomery's street department, drove a city truck and heavy road-building equipment, and took time off for a coffee break every morning. In Europe, he had fought under the command of general George S. "Ol' Blood and Guts" Patton, and he bragged that he had killed more Italians than Germans in the war.
As they sat together, they waited for another Klansman, Henry Alexander, who had called ahead that he had "some important news."
Above the table, an image of Jesus hung on the yellowed wall next to a framed notice: WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE — THE MANAGEMENT.
Ray Harrelson had operated the Little Kitchen since the end of the war. He lived next door on the corner of Jefferson and Hull, where he ran an on-again, off-again, all-night poker game upstairs.
The Little Kitchen was a half-dozen blocks from the center of town near the Court Square fountain at the western end of six-lane Dexter Avenue. Six blocks to the east, sitting high on Goat Hill, was the state capitol, with its snow-white dome and its bronze star, where nearly one hundred years earlier Jefferson Davis took the oath of office as president of the Confederate States of America.
The Little Kitchen sat in the middle of Ward Five, within shouting distance of the two-story frame house where singer-songwriter Hank Williams lived as a teenager before he became a world-famous troubadour. Two blocks to the north was the notorious Pollard Street, where, until the end of World War II, African American prostitutes catered to white clientele in houses of ill repute.
Montgomery was a proud old historic town. It was called the River City, located on a wide bend of the Alabama River that carried cotton grown on the area's plantations to the Gulf of Mexico. From the city's beginning, adventurous roughneck frontiersmen worked hard by day. At night, they drank and fought in the taverns that outnumbered churches ten-to-one in Montgomery's first decade.
In the early 1880s, African American slaves were brought into the region to work the vast plantations that surrounded the town up and down the river. Soon the black population outnumbered the whites two-to-one. But by the mid-twentieth century, blacks were in a slight minority. A significant number who had been born and raised in south Alabama had migrated north after World War II. Very few who remained could vote, and none held public office. The men who gathered at the Little Kitchen wanted to keep them powerless.
Since its incorporation in 1819, the same year Alabama became a state, this section of Montgomery had flooded seasonally after heavy rains in the spring and the fall. Oftentimes the river flooded its banks, and when the water receded it left knee-deep puddles of mud. When cotton wagons lined up along Commerce Street, waiting their turn to be loaded onto the steamboats after the fall harvest, boles and hulls blew off and settled in the puddles. The waste rotted and stank, and by the late 1820s the town lost half its population to what an early inhabitant, M. P. Blue, described as "a most malignant type of bilious remittent and intermittent fever." As a result, white residents moved up the hill to the south.
African American slaves stayed in the area north of Ward Five known as Newtown, where they lived next to stables in which they tended livestock for their white owners. As late as the 1860s, Thomas Calhearne, a journalist with the Charleston Mercury who had been sent to Montgomery to cover the beginnings of the Confederate government, described the town as "a pig sty, if there ever was one. Very few self-respecting swine in this day and time live under the conditions of our Confederate capital after a downpour. When the streets of the downtown outside the hotel where I am lodged become soaked with rain, it is a shame the conditions of travel. Large puddles stand like lakes and backwaters of the Carolina Low Country. But Charleston and its environs have never seen the size of mosquitoes like the ones that swarm around the poor livestock that try to traverse these streets. Commerce Street on which I stay — only a short walk to the Executive Offices of the Confederacy, or a short wade through mud and debris, for the menace of the filth is beyond compare — is like a dump outside Poor Town or the stench outside privies of most towns' slave sections."
By the mid-1950s, the area in and around Ward Five had been filled with gravel and covered with dirt. It still flooded when the river's banks overflowed, but it drained relatively quickly and did not smell as it had in the nineteenth century.
On the block west of the Little Kitchen was Tom Suitt's barber shop and the place where W. E. Robinson once sold groceries before he sold out to Tine Davis, a short, fat man with a high-pitched, squeaky voice who founded the Winn-Dixie supermarket chain that later covered the South and made Davis a multimillionaire. Halfway down the block, Ralph "Coots" McGehee, who claimed to be a full-blooded Creek Indian, kept a shaggy hound in the front yard. Few black people ever walked through Ward Five. If they did, McGehee's dog growled and howled and strained against its chains.
In mid-twentieth-century Montgomery, it was no secret that these so-called good old boys were members of the local klavern of the Ku Klux Klan. In the Little Kitchen, people talked openly about being card-carrying members. In 1957, numerous white Montgomerians even bragged about being members of the White Citizens Council, the States Rights Party, and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Each member of the KKK was required to fill out a membership application stating "I believe in the ideals of Western, Christian Civilization and Culture and in the great people that created them, and in the Constitution of the United States. I am a White person of gentile descent. I believe in the aims and objectives of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. I swear that I will keep secret and confidential any information I receive in quest of membership." The application was always signed and dated and included the applicant's address, phone number, birth date, and occupation, along with his photograph.
The men at the round table wondered if anyone had heard from Birmingham. During the first three weeks of January, Birmingham Klansman Robert Chambliss, known as Dynamite Bob, made periodic deliveries of explosives to the capital city. Chambliss knew explosives. He had explained that the twelve-inch brown sticks of wood pulp soaked in nitroglycerine packed a powerful blast when detonated. Included with each bundle of four sticks held together by tape was a detonator designed by Chambliss and made in his backyard shop. Britt, York, and their fellow Klansmen used the explosives to blow up several black churches and the front porch of at least one black parsonage.
After the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the city law requiring separate seating of the races on public transportation, the imperial wizard of the United Klans of America, Robert M. "Bobby" Shelton, ordered Klansmen throughout the United States — and particularly in the South and Alabama — to "turn up the heat against the lily-livered nigger-loving whites who aid and abet them and the blackhearted nigger leaders who are controlling them."
* * *
On Christmas Eve night in 1956, a young black woman boarded a city bus and took one of the front seats. When the bus stopped downtown at the corner of Dexter Avenue and Perry Street, a block east of the Court Square fountain, the woman stepped down onto the pavement. As she walked down the sidewalk, two cars pulled to a stop. Raymond Britt, Jimmy York, and three of their friends surrounded her and began beating her with their belts and homemade clubs. The woman fell to her knees, raised her arms, and screamed. A fifteen-year-old African American, Ollie Mae Collins, reported seeing the incident to police officers D. W. Mixon and F. B. Day. An unidentified white rider on the bus said that he witnessed the attack but could not identify the attackers. When police questioned the victim at the emergency room, she became hysterical and said she could not identify her assailants. Subsequently, no arrests were made.
One week after the first integrated bus ride, three nights after the beating incident, an unidentified white man fired a gun through the window of a bus being driven by W. H. Fullilove. The bullet pierced the window, ricocheted, and then struck twenty-two-year-old Rosa Jordan, going through her left leg and lodging in her right calf. After the shot, Fullilove did not realize anyone had been injured until other passengers shouted, "Stop the bus! A woman's been shot!" He then drove the bus to Oak Street General Hospital, where Jordan was treated. The bus, continuing on its route, was hit by another bullet. Passengers huddled on the floor while Fullilove drove to police headquarters downtown.
The following night, a bullet was fired into a side window of another city bus, frightening the riders. Later the white bus driver told a reporter from the Montgomery Advertiser that he saw a black man hiding in shrubs and suspected that he was the shooter. After all, he said, the incident occurred in a black neighborhood. A subsequent ballistic test showed that that bullet, as well as the second bullet fired into Fullilove's bus, was fired from the same .22-caliber gun that police investigator Jack Shows found in Jimmy York's car.
* * *
Henry Alexander, operator of a plumbing business on the Lower Wetumpka Road in north Montgomery, entered the Little Kitchen. Sitting down at the round table, he told the group about an African American "who thinks he's hot shit." Alexander said that a black man named Eddie or Edward Wells "made a pass at a white woman up in Sylacauga, where he delivers goods to Winn-Dixie from the Hudson-Thompson warehouse."
Shortly after nightfall, the men — Britt, Alexander, and York — met at Alexander's house at 1940 Yarbrough Street in Boylston, a section of north Montgomery carved from the land of Camp Sheridan at the end of World War I. Driving Alexander's two-year-old Chevrolet, they moved through a familiar maze of streets to the Hudson-Thompson terminal on Jackson Ferry Road, where trucks were loaded in the mornings to deliver groceries to Winn-Dixie supermarkets throughout central Alabama. Seeing no empty trucks parked in the lot, Alexander drove to the Lower Wetumpka Road and turned north into the rural countryside.
Alexander slowed. About a half mile from the turnoff, they approached the small frame house where the Klan periodically met to plan something big. Out front, a big round metal sign showed a hooded rider on horseback. Around the circle were the words: "Ku Klux Klan of Alabama." Britt suggested they pull in and wait in the dark. When the truck passed, they could run it down.
Alexander said he would rather keep moving. Traveling very slowly through the darkness, he glanced into the rearview mirror. They were surrounded by darkness. With thick brush growing on both sides of the narrow pavement and tree limbs hanging over the road, it was impossible to see the full moon. About a mile farther, they passed Hit-son's A&H Grocery in the Flatwood community. Several naked exterior bulbs burned in the empty gravel parking area. They kept moving south. Finally, Alexander turned again, creeping along at a snail's pace.
As they passed the quiet rural store again, a truck sat under an outside light. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Fighting the Devil in Dixie by Wayne Greenhaw. Copyright © 2011 Wayne Greenhaw. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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