This is one of a series of letters I wrote to friends, family and supporters while doing field work for Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Wilcox County Alabama as a college student volunteer. How have things changed? How have they stayed the same?
June 30, 1965 Camden, Alabama
Dear Family and Friends,
On Monday, June 28,1965 at 11:00 a.m., I was at the residence of Charles Nettles. I looked out the window and saw a Lane Butane truck [KKK] parked by Antioch Baptist Church. There was a white man by the truck holding a large stick in his hand. There were a large number of Negro* children in front of the church, so I ran across the road to see what was happening. Some of the little girls threw their arms around me and I hugged them and told them to go on home.
Then I went on into the church. Most of the SCOPE staff was sitting in the font pews. Mayor Albritton was there with several policemen and posse men with guns. I sat down with the others and they asked me my name, age and whether or not I was a paid staff member. I replied no to the last question.
Then they asked us to get in the police cars. Eighteen arrests were made at this time. When we arrived [at the jail] they asked us to line up. The boys were asked, one by one, to put their hands against the wall while a policeman frisked them for concealed weapons. One Negro boy [Don Green, SCOPE worker], who was standing right in front of me, had a small pocket knife in his stocking. The policeman jerked it out, handed it to another man and pushed the boy into the hallway so forcefully that he hit the wall. Then policemen said to book him on a concealed weapons charge. When it came time for the girls to be frisked the policeman took great delight in running his hands up and down as he told us we had nothing to fear. One by one they checked our names off and sent us upstairs to a small cell.
For a short time we all stayed in one cell. There were five white girls [me, Connie Turner and Ann Nesbitt of SCOPE, Judy and Sheri of SNCC], one white man and fourteen Negro men. I had to go to the bathroom so they turned their heads, but it was embarrassing for all of us.
After a while they asked all the ‘colored’ men to step out. They put them in a large cell across the hall from us. Then they took Mike Farley, the one white man, into a cell one away from us girls, on the same side.
We sat on the two bunks and talked. A little before 1:30 we heard some commotion in Mike’s cell. I heard loud noises like someone was being punched and falling against the cell wall. Mike was yelling. This continued for a short time – maybe 3 or 4 minutes. I was sick with fear and revulsion at what I could imagine happened to him. We joined hands and I prayed very hard.
After a long time Mike yelled down to us. He said that the guard had made Crow, his white southern cell mate, beat him. He said he felt like his head was broken and that he needed a doctor badly. We tried to offer encouragements but there wasn’t much we could say.
A few minutes after the beating the jailer came and took Connie Turner out. Shortly after [without returning her] he came and got me. He said “I wish I wasn’t taking you to the firehouse” He followed me down the stairs [with a gun in my back]. and I didn’t say anything more to him. I went into the firehouse and sat down next to Connie. There were several posse men and policemen standing around. John Worcester [one of the white seminarians]and we discussed possibilities of bail. There weren’t any funds for our county at that time. One of the posse men had a jar with some clear liquid in it [Wilcox was a dry county]. He asked both Connie and I to smell it. It was sweet and alcoholic. We said we hadn’t smelled anything like that before and they all laughed. Connie and I returned to our cell together under the supervision of the policemen.
Around 4:30 they [black inmate trustees] brought us five plates of beans and cornbread. We ate some of it then most of us passed the remainder of our food to O.T , a psychotic man in the cell next to us. I couldn’t eat anything.
We tried to lie on the bunks with two on one and three on the other but it was hot and sticky. The toilet didn’t work and urine overflowed onto the floor. The cell was filthy dirty. The water in the sink didn’t work so our only access to water was the hot shower. When we finally decided to try to sleep we dragged one mattress onto the floor. Two of us lay on the floor, one on the top bunk, and two on the bottom. They didn’t turn out the lights so we had to unscrew the light bulb.
Around 11 o’clock Mike yelled to us that he thought Crow was going to beat him again. He asked us to arouse the guard. We thought perhaps there was some way to talk Crow out of it so we hesitated. But as Mike’s voice grew more urgent and we heard a few sound slaps, we began pounding on the cell wall with our fists and shoes. Mike yelled, “Guard, guard.” It took several minutes before the jailer arrived. We couldn’t hear what happened after that – we could only hear loud voices.
I was numb with anxiety and pain from an old back injury. My main concern was for Mike and the people on the outside…who could know what kind of harassment the local folk were getting, with all their leaders in jail? I finally fell asleep from exhaustion around 3 a.m. At 5 a.m I awoke to find a black hand stroking my hair and my face. It was O.T. in the cell next door. I tried to move my head further away from the bars but there wasn’t room enough so I got up again and paced the floor.
At 5:30 a.m. they brought us breakfast. It consisted of 3 biscuits, a strip of bologna, and some imitation syrup. None of us had much stomach for it. The trustees kept coming round behind our cell and looking through the bars and reaching their hands in. It made it rather difficult to go to the bathroom or take a shower. I was so revolted that I couldn’t even speak to them.
By 11:30 they took Connie, Anne and myself out of our cell. We were then driven by Officer Sanders over to Mayor Albritten’s gas station. We three girls went in and talked with the Mayor. He then asked us our names and ages and where we went to school. Then he gave us a fatherly lecture on how we shouldn’t hand out boycott handbills [because it is a felony in Alabama and will ruin your chances to go back to school]. We, in fact, had not been handing out anything at all [although a boycott was in progress]. We were released. Anne returned to the church immediately [to begin typing up affidavits for the FBI and incident reports for SCLC]. Connie and I first took showers at the Academy and then returned to the Church. I immediately went down to the Wilsons Quarter when I am in charge of the voter registration program. I went from house to house telling people of my experience [and urging them to register to vote].
*Negro was the preferred term of respect by African Americans at that time.
For more about my experience and that of my coworkers read: “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight.” www.thisbrightlightofours.com