Editor’s note: This is Part 3 of a five-part personal account of the voting rights struggle. Don’t forget to cast your ballot in the Nov. 3 election.
Our assigned Freedom Riders, Bill and Nash, arrived the next day, because they truly believed that justice was a reality even in Allendale County, South Carolina, and that somewhere we could find a law enforcement officer who would do something about what had happened at our house.
We got in the little green 1957 Ford and went looking for justice. We went to three other counties trying to find someone who would allow us to swear out a warrant for the arrest of Mayor Wade Smith.
After the last justice of the peace said you all must want to be arrested, we headed home. Bill, Nash, Geneva, Rose and I discussed our options. We had only one left and that was to continue to convince the Black citizens of Allendale County that they should register to vote.
Many political moves were taking place on the larger front, but we could only deal with our little area. We decided to forge full speed ahead. We knew that, because of events and activities taking place all over the South, we could call out for help. Bill and Nash felt confident that their strategy would work without help, and we quietly fought the battle alone.
Mom took the mayor his pump-head later that same day.
We, with me being the spokesman for the group, told Mom that we had come too far to turn around. We felt the need to keep on traveling up and down that dangerous road. Next to protecting ourselves from the white people, the hardest job was to convince the Black people that they had rights. It reminds me so much of how it is today for many to realize that voting is a hard-fought right that should be exercised.
Mom told us to go on and do what we felt was right. She did not hesitate at all. She simply asked me not to take the sister next to me, because she was handicapped from birth and would not be able to defend herself verbally. We agreed to leave Teen (Ernestine) behind.
We lived 25 miles from the town of Allendale. We kept going and we kept being chased. Many of the plantation owners had told their people that they had better not receive us and dared them to go register to vote. They were told that if they did go they would have to move off the plantation. The saddest thing was to realize that we had no place to go when we were running ... but into the arms of Jesus. There was no one to help us but God and the serious prayers of those who believed in the cause all over the country.
The Freedom Riders ate what we ate and traveled where we traveled. We trusted them, and they trusted their lives with us. After about two months of going from home to home and talking, we felt that we had enough people convinced to go to the court house to register to vote. By now more and more people were building up the courage to stand. Many of the independent Blacks who did not live on plantations joined the effort because several Black families who owned their own property joined with us as well.
The two older people who stood out the most in my mind were Mother Pinky Johnson and her husband Rev. Richard Johnson. They began to meet with us and were very outspoken. At that point the older people had someone with whom they could identify, someone their age. Thus, we began attracting the attention of more of the older people.
We moved around different places in Allendale, standing and singing the freedom songs. During the Civil Rights Movement of the early 60s, many of the people who are now silent because of death or age were very noisy — singing “We Shall Overcome,” “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” and many more freedom marchers’ songs. I particularly remember being on Flat Street which is a well-known street in town where Blacks congregate especially on weekends.
Every day we would get families who had cars and trucks to pick up people and take them to the courthouse to register to vote. Day in and day out, from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., we lined up at the door of the Allendale Courthouse. Most of us lived 15 to 25 miles away from the city. We would stand there in line with no food or water for eight hours every day.
For three weeks, by the time 5 p.m. came, the registrar would have registered ONLY two people, one before lunch and one after lunch. We realized then that the officials were only meeting the minimum requirement to cover themselves, so that they were able to report to Washington that they were registering Black People to vote. How many was another story.
We, on the other hand, were concerned with numbers and time. Over the weekend, we met at Mt. Hope Baptist Church in Martin and developed a plan.
That Monday, sure enough, only two were registered when the registrar came to say the office was closed. This time she was in for a rude awakening — because instead of moving backwards as we had done so many times before, our movement was in a forward direction. She looked at us in disbelief and said once again, “It is 5 o’clock and the Registrar’s Office is closed for the day.”
We were still moving forward, as an overflowing river. We flowed inside as the muddy banks of the Mississippi must have overflowed many times as ships bore slaves down its path heading south.
Our response sent her running for help. Police officers were in on us in seconds, and the chief told us to get up and get out. All guns were drawn as the police waited for someone to make a wrong move, but we knew what we were facing. This was nothing compared to what some of the Freedom Riders had already experienced. We Did Not Move.
We remembered that Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman had been killed and later found in shallow graves.
We remembered that law enforcement officers, along with two dozen white segregationists, were accused of the murders.
We remembered that Viola Liuzzo had already been murdered during the night by three Ku Klux Klansmen.
We remembered that the Black soldier Jimmie Lee Jackson had died from wounds inflicted by a group of Alabama State Troopers.
One Hundred-and fifty of us were inside the Allendale Courthouse in the Confederate state of South Carolina. The first state to secede from the Union.