Remembering Kate Charley 1934-2013

For many years I spoke with Kate Charley, retired school teacher and community leader in Coy, AL at least once a month. She was beloved by many former students who visited often and was a forceful booster for projects to benefit the community such as the Bessie W. Munden Playground, the Camden Christian Academy and most of all, Little Zion #1 Missionary Baptist Church. In January 2013 at age 79,she passed of natural causes and was laid to rest in the church cemetery after a large, loving service. When I miss her voice, sharp insights and friendship, I re-read some of what she shared for “This Bright Light of Ours,” my book about Wilcox County voting rights in which her family was deeply involved.

Miss Kate Charley celebrated her African heritage

Miss Kate Charley celebrated her African heritage

Kate on Race Relations in Camden

“A bit of progress has been made, but schools are still segregated, housing is segregated. There’s been a little bit of progress in job opportunities in banks and government. But the white and Black employees don’t eat lunch together, and don’t get together outside of work. If we go in the bank now, they (whites) will treat us alright. They act polite enough in public, but don’t mix outside of work.

The KKK, segregationists are now lower key now. If they want something done – violence or whatever, they get a Black man to do it, give them money or drink or buy them a car. They get them to go agitate against the others who are trying to accomplish something, like our little school, the Camden Christian Academy. But they, the KKK, didn’t go away, they are just out in their hunting clubs, probably cryin’ in their beer.”

Kate on Loyalty

“ You are probably not a Dodgers fan because you live closer to San Francisco (Giants) but once I am loyal to something or someone, I stay loyal. I always liked the Dodgers. I had to get a new truck so when I was picking it out I said I believe I’ll take the blue one, you know “Dodger Blue”; that’s the truck I drive. I am loyal that way.”

Kate Charley, Maria Gitin, Iris Judson join in prayer for Wilcox County civil rights martyrs March 1, 2010

Kate Charley, Maria Gitin, Iris Judson join in prayer for Wilcox County civil rights martyrs March 1, 2010

Please share your remembrances of Kate and read more about this remarkable woman in “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight”

In Memory of W. Kate Charley – Community Leader, Coy AL

Kate (right) marches with  Iris Judson in high spirits, March 1, 2010, Camden, AL

Kate Charley (right) marches with Iris Judson in high spirits, during the Martin Luther King Jr Commemorative March and Mass Meeting Camden, AL March 1, 2012

Willie Kate Charley of Coy AL, known to most simply as “Kate” or “Ms Charley, ” born in 1934, peacefully passed from this world on February 11, 2013 in her own home, of natural causes and on her own terms. She was unapologetic about her choice to stay single, and as a retired teacher and tireless community activist, Kate enjoyed the affection of countless students, many “adopted” nieces, nephews and grandchildren and her sister congregants.  She was devoted to her church and to her other causes which focussed on improving the lives of  youth. Often when I’d call she had just finished making a pie to take to a church event, including her famous her famous “stick to your  ribs” (and teeth!) coconut pie.

Kate was generous, wise, kind and funny.  She once told me, “I keep myself busy to keep me out of devilment.” Kate loved to view the Fall Foliage in New England, and to visit the successes of her students. She also liked to race around the back roads of Wilcox County in her “Dodger Blue” pick-up truck, always on a mission to do some good deed. About her truck, she explained, “I always liked the Dodgers. I had to get a new truck – so when I was picking it out I said, I believe I’ll take the blue one; you know I am loyal that way.”

Kate was proud of her parents, Leona Brooks Charley and Joel Wentworth Charley, direct involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, including the risky work of transporting people to register to vote and of housing civil rights workers, while Kate herself chose to uplift the community through a lifetime of teaching and mentoring young people.

I had the honor to meet and the joy to get to know Kate through my search for folks I lived and worked with when I served as an SCLC student civil rights worker in Wilcox County during the tumultuous summer of 1965. We visited in person in 2008 and again in 2010 for the 45th Commemorative March & Mass Meeting in Camden, and enjoyed many long telephone conversations over the years. Her contributions to my forthcoming book, This Bright Light of Ours, University of Alabama Press 2014, are invaluable.

All who know Kate will remember her lively wit, energetic spirit and her devotion to her church, Little Zion in Coy. Contributions in her memory may be made online to the Bessie W. Munden Playground [] and Frank Smiley Scholarship Fund at the Black Belt Community Foundation [}. W. Kate Charley was a true Woman of Valor, as we say in the Jewish tradition. May she rest in blessed memory and may all who mourn be comforted and inspired to move forward with the teachings of her exemplary life.