In Memory of Civil Rights Martyr David Colston Sr., Camden, AL January 23, 1966

scope078 jetDeath threats, firebombing, incarceration and assassination of Southern Blacks seeking freedom and equality continued from the time of enslavement until long after most people believe The Civil Rights Movement ended. Alabama is steeped in the blood of martyrs who have never made the history books, but they were heroes to us. The fact that death was a potential price to be paid by Freedom Fighters was always on our minds.

Mr. David Colston, age 32, was a local resident who had participated in Wilcox County voting rights protests. He and his family were pulling into the parking area outside Antioch Baptist Church to attend a civil rights mass meeting. A white farmer, Jim Reeves, deliberately bumped Colston’s car. When Colston got out to protest, Reeves shot Mr. Colston in the head at close range in front of the Colston family and dozens of community members coming out of the church.

SCLC leader, Daniel Harrell and local leader Rev. Frank Smith were leaders of the meeting in the church. After the police took Reeves into “protective custody.” Harrell and Smith reconvened the mass meeting with a eulogy for Mr. Colston and called for a march the next day. Camden native , King scholar and author, Lewis V. Baldwin, who was still in high school at the time, recalled the march of hundreds of Wilcox County Black residents, as being very solemn, almost silent.

The next day, SCLC Photographer Bob Fitch arrived with Martin Luther King Jr., to take the photos that appeared in Jet Magazine. Fitch told me that the family was devastated but grateful for King’s consoling visit.

Nearly 50 years later, Colston’s namesake nephew, David Colston, was elected as the first Black representative from Wilcox County to serve in the Alabama State Legislature. Of all the civil rights murders in the South in the 1960’s, the Colston assassination is recalled most vividly by the then youn Wilcox County Freedom Fighters. Typical of the times, despite witnesses, the murderer was acquitted. May the Colston family, their relatives and neighbors draw some comfort from knowing that David Colston’s sacrifice is mourned by many of us who continue to fight for racial justice.

Update August 2013: Despite a conservative backlash that consistently drives out the majority of promising young Democrats, David Colston has fulfilled the dream first, of being an Alabama state trooper who truly understands justice and now, of continuing to serve in the statehouse in Montgomery. He will run for a second term in 2014. With the outcry and awareness generated by the recent Supreme Court decision on the 1965 Voting Rights Act http: and the tragic Trayvon Martin case, perhaps good-hearted, strong and smart Alabamans of all races will vote for progress during the 3013 November’s mid-term elections. The future is in your hands: move forward or continue a slide backwards.

Searching for Friends & Relatives of Major Johns, Civil Rights Hero

For more than six years, I searched for stories and photos of Major Johns who was Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) field director during the Summer of 1965 Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) project in Wilcox County Alabama. His brother William was most helpful but most family members declined to be quoted in my forthcoming book.

Major Johns, center with student protesters at Southern University

Excerpt from This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Wilcox County Freedom Fight, University of Alabama Press, early 2014. Copyright, all rights reserved

Major Johns

One of the leaders who inspired optimism was our beloved SCLC field director Major Johns. Born and raised in Plaquemines, Louisiana, Rev. Major Johns was instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana for at least a decade, yet he is scarcely mentioned in books written to date. In 1960, five years before we met him in Camden, AL, he was arrested along with other Southern University students for sitting-in at a lunch counter in Baton Rouge as part of a multi-state Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) integration drive. When they were released from jail Major Johns and two classmates stood on a school bus while he made a rousing speech. They and other CORE members organized a march to the state capitol of more than three thousand Southern University students to protest segregation and the arrests of students participating in sit-ins at segregated drugstore soda fountains and bus terminals. All of the arrested students were expelled from Southern University and barred from all public colleges and universities in the state.  In 2004, long after Major’s death, the student civil rights workers were awarded honorary degrees and the state legislature passed a resolution in their honor.

The famous photo of Major on the bus with Ronnie Moore is held in the collection of The Advocate  Library  in Baton Rouge which charges for a one time only use. Please contact me if you have any other photos of Major Johns for use in talks about my forthcoming book. Thank you!

Bob, Dan & The Man with a Gun

 

Dan Harrell

 

Excerpt from This Little Light of Mine, This Bright Light of Ours ©mariagitin2010

Photo ©Bob Fitch 1966

http://www.BobFitchPhoto.com

My boyfriend Bob Block was surprised and didn’t seem especially pleased to see me when we hooked up in Pine Apple. He looked at my legs and shoes and said, “You’re gonna hafta keep up. We don’t have all summer, you know.” That summer, it seemed like every day lasted for an eternity, the way it does when you are a child.  But Bob was right, pretty soon the Voting Rights Bill would pass and federal examiners would come help these folks register, backed up by federal troops if necessary. Maybe they wouldn’t need us anymore.

Later, while John G. drove me back to the church before taking Bob down to Lower Peachtree, Bob told me what had happened to him yesterday.

“Dan and I were walking along when this white guy appears out of nowhere. I mean we didn’t hear him comin’, see a truck, nothing. Just like that, he takes his pistol, raises it right to Harrell’s head and presses it against his temple.”

“You know I would kill you as soon as look at you, doncha?”

“I believe I do,” was all that Dan replied.

“Man, that Dan, he was so cool. I was just about to beg and cry myself.”

Bob said as the seconds ticked into years he saw himself just as dead as Dan right there on that country lane, knowing this guy would never be caught or punished.

“And”, Bob explained, “This was just an ordinary guy, not one of the sheriff’s posse or anything, just an ordinary cracker. They can just do this stuff. Man! S–t!” He lit a cigarette and blew smoke out the open car window.

My heart was racing, “How did it end?”

“That cracker just lowered the gun, snorted and spit on the ground and walked away just as fast as he’d appeared.”

Then I told Bob what happened out in Arlington, about being chased all afternoon by a white man in a pickup with a rifle. “He must’ve been related to my guy. Dan didn’t even tell me about what happened with you!”

Bob said, “Yeah, I already heard.”

It made me feel good that our elders knew we were a couple and that he had some kind of idea what was going on with me even if the information didn’t flow both ways.  As an eighteen-year old boy he wasn’t the greatest at telling me what I wanted to hear, which was that he’d protect me, no matter what. How could he, when we’d chosen to put ourselves in danger?  Being threatened and scared went with the territory and he always claimed he wasn’t afraid. He was likely shell-shocked before I even arrived, what with the tear-gassing, beating and harassment, but he also liked the excitement. That’s a boy for you. I tried to talk and write letters that sounded like my boyfriend Bob, but inside my guts were churning.

There were so many incidents that I can’t recall them all. It was the same all over the South, in every county, every day for years for Movement folks. 95% of them were black folks who pressed on in a mostly nonviolent battle for freedom and justice for all against a continuous onslaught of violence and hatred. Not only were the local grassroots folks the real leaders of The Movement, they saved our little white behinds time and again. Sometimes we knew what they had done and could thank them; sometimes they just kept it to themselves.

Author’s note: Rev Daniel Harrell and his wife Juanita Harrell worked in Wilcox County Alabama on voting rights, literacy and community economic development from 1964 until their untimely deaths, both still in their forties. For more stories of unheralded heroes of the civil rights movement, watch for upcoming publication of “This Little Light of Mine, This Bright Light of Ours” by Maria Gitin. Thank you for sharing your comments and this page with others who are committed to honoring the memory of our civil rights veterans.