Shown L To R: Eutaw Mayor Hattie Edwards, School Board President, Leo Branch, Spiver Gordon, Sheriff Jonathan Benison, School Board Vice President, Dr. Carol P. Zippert and Rev. Randy Johnson at the 2016 Freedom Day Program.
The 47th anniversary of Greene County Freedom Day (July 29, 1969) was celebrated Saturday at the William M. Branch Courthouse in Eutaw. The Alabama Civil Rights Museum, headed by Spiver W. Gordon, sponsored the program commemorating the special election in 1969, which led to Black control of the Greene County Commission, School Board, Probate Judge and Sheriff’s Departments. Greene County was one of the first counties in Alabama and the nation to realize the full benefits of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The county was organized precinct-by-precinct at the community level by grassroots leaders organized and assisted by the civil rights movement. The local efforts were spearheaded by students from Carver High School, Greene County Training School, Eatman Jr. High School, Judge William M. Branch and Rev. Thomas Gilmore, backed up by a cadre of grassroots leaders.
In the 1968 primary election, local Black leaders were nominated for various offices on the County Commission, School Board, Probate Judge and Sheriff. The white controlled Democratic Party left the names of all the Black candidates off the ballot.
The Black candidates joined the National Democratic Party of Alabama (NDPA), headed by Dr. John Cashin of Huntsville, and sued in Federal court for a new election. The Supreme Court of the United States ordered a special election for July 29, 1969 with the names of the Black candidates restored to the ballot, under the Eagle Eye symbol of the NDPA. The white candidates ran under the Democratic Party with a rooster as their symbol and ‘Segregation for the Right!’ as their slogan.
In that historic 1969 election, four Black men: Harry Means, Vassie Knott, Levi Morrow, Sr., and Frenchie Burton were elected to the County Commission, which gave control of this important political entity to Black people. Robert Hines and Rev. James Posey were elected to the Greene County Board of Education, to join Rev. Peter Kirksey, who was already on the Board, giving Black people a majority on this board as well. In the 1970 elections, Judge William M. Branch was elected the first Black Probate Judge in Alabama; Thomas Gilmore was elected the second Black Sheriff in Alabama.
The celebration on Saturday was to commemorate these events and look for lessons in the five decades of electoral control by Black people of the Greene County government.
Spiver Gordon and the Alabama Civil Rights Museum have compiled a list of more than 300 grassroots community leaders that were involved in the struggle, including those who ran for office, were precinct leaders, were student marchers, were evicted from their homes on whitefolks property when they registered or organized politically, raised funds to support the work and those who baked a cake or cooked a dinner to help feed civil rights workers. Gordon said he hoped that the Museum would have photos and a written story on each person who played a part – big or small – in the Greene County voting and civil rights movement.
Many of the speakers at the event lamented the fact that young people in Greene County do not know about the struggles for voting rights and democracy in the county. Several speakers said that ‘Greene County History’ should be part of the curriculum and taught in the schools.
Sheriff Benison gave greetings and said that the late Sheriff Thomas Gilmore had directly motivated him to pursue a career in law enforcement. Three mayors – Hattie Edwards of Eutaw, Louis Harper of Boligee and James Gaines of Union spoke about the inspiration they derived from the voting rights struggle in Greene County.
Leo Branch, Chair and Dr. Carol P. Zippert, Vice Chair of the Greene County Board of Education also spoke. They announced that the new Middle School consolidating the fourth to eighth grades at the old Eutaw High School will be named for Dr. Robert Brown, the first Black Superintendent of Schools, who built the new high school in the 1970’s.
Jerry Brown thanked the Greene County School Board for recognizing his father by naming the school. He recalled that Sheriff Bill Lee called his father, who was a principal of Jameswood School in Tishabee, at the time, into his office and told him that he could not protect him anymore, after the elder Brown started participating with Branch and Gilmore in the voting rights struggle. This was the kind of threat that Black people had to endure during this period to win rights for everyone.
Jerry Brown went on to talk about his experiences as one of seven young people, who integrated the formerly all-white Eutaw High School in the mid 1960’s. “ We were tortured and tormented by the white students for four years but we were successful and paved the way for others in Greene County,” said Brown.
The Saturday meeting took place in the William M. Branch Courthouse named for the late Probate Judge, in a courtroom that has photographs of Martin Luther King, Judge Branch and Andrew Young on the wall behind the judge’s chair.