Special to the Democrat by: John Zippert,
During this weekend’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Greene County’s Freedom Day – July 29, 1969 –the Alabama Civil Rights Movement Museum unveiled two new monuments in Eutaw to the grassroots leaders and footsoldiers of the movement.
This weekend’s activities celebrated a Special Election held in Greene County, fifty years ago, which elected four African-American County Commissioners – Harry Means, Vassie Knott, Franchie Burton and Levi Morrow Sr. – two school board members – Robert Hines and James Posey. The two school board members joined two elected earlier – Rev. Peter J. Kirksey and John Head, which gave Black people majority control of county government. Greene County, Alabama was the first county in the South, where Black people took political control since passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The July 29, 1969 special election was ordered by the U. S. Supreme Court after the names of the Black candidates, running under the National Democratic Party of Alabama (NDPA) were deliberately left off the November 1968 General Election ballot. In the November 1970 election, Judge William McKinley Branch was elected Probate Judge, Thomas Gilmore, Sheriff and Wadine Williams, Circuit Clerk, Robert Cook, Tax Collector.
The success in the elections of 1969 and 1970 had their roots in a student protest and boycott that began in January 1965 at Carver High School in Eutaw and lasted the rest of the semester.
At 9:00 AM on Saturday, July 27, 2019, Spiver W. Gordon, President of the Alabama Civil Rights Museum, convened the program to unveil a monument to the students and supporting parents and community leaders who were involved in the 1965 school boycott. The monument which is in front of the former Carver School, now a City of Eutaw Community Center, lists the names of over 120 grassroots people who took part in this boycott, which paved the way for other civil rights and voting rights victories that followed in the 1960’s.
Joyce Crawford Mitchell, a tenth grade student in 1965 said the boycott came about because of the “blatantly unbelievable inequities in the educational system at that time.
“We had hand-me-down textbooks; sometimes we had to bind the books together they were so old. We could not go to the public library in Eutaw and there weren’t many books in the school. We shut down the school, chained the doors and left the principal inside.”
Jacqueline Bloxton Allen, of the 1965 graduating class described the boycott and ensuing months of marches and protests. “First we met in the First Baptist Church but they were pressured and put us out, so we started meeting in the cemetery across the street from the church. Black students from Eatman Jr. High and Greene County Training School joined us across the county. The parents and groups from around the county sent food for us to eat – mostly bologna sandwiches. We marched into downtown Eutaw. We were fearful and excited. Many parents were evicted from farms when the power structure found out their children were involved in the boycott and protests.”
Allen continued, “We found out that we would not have a graduation because of the boycott. At this point, SCLC scheduled a graduation for us on May 30, 1965 in Selma at Brown’s Chapel Church. We went to the graduation, boys wearing overalls and girls in denim skirts and white blouses.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was our graduation speaker and we all received Freedom Diplomas, signed by Dr. King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and James Orange. Dr. King told us we would have a bright future because we had taken part in the boycott. He said we had shown that young people are powerful when they make up their minds to change the world.”
The group moved on to unveil a second monument, on Alabama Highway 14, at the home of two Black sisters – Annie Thomas and Rosie Carpenter – who were grassroots leaders of the movement and allowed their home to be used for strategy meetings and as a resting place for civil rights leaders.
Ms. Rosie Carpenter was a schoolteacher, who was instrumental in actively supporting the civil rights and voting rights struggle in Greene County, when many other educators were afraid to stand-up and speak out against injustice. Mrs. Annie Thomas was a businesswoman who supported the movement. Ms. Carpenter, who is 97 years old, living with her daughter in Maryland, attended the program and made some remarks recalling the difficulties of standing up for justice in the 1960’s.
Others spoke to the role of the two sisters in supporting the civil rights movement. Some recalled that Dr. King, James Orange, Hosea Williams and other SCLC workers stayed at their home as a place of rest during the movement. Renatta Gail Brown, daughter of Robert Brown, first Black School Superintendent, recalled that SNCC workers, Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, played with her, as a child during the 1960’s at Ms. Carpenter’s house.
As the monument was unveiled, the group recited a dedication which concluded, We dedicate this monument to stand for years as a symbol that grassroots and ordinary people can do extraordinary and exemplary things, despite insurmountable obstacles, to advance their destiny and quality of life, as part of a movement for social change in their home community, the state, the nation and the world.
Gordon postponed, until a later date, the unveiling of a third monument, to be placed at the Robert Brown Middle School to honor Black students who integrated the schools of Greene County in the late 1960’s.
The Democrat will have additional reports and photographs of the 50th anniversary commemoration in next weeks and future editions of this newspaper.