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Words of Yesterday and Today: Harry Willson's Trip to Alabama
by Ashley Jordan

Nigger. Today the word brings a feeling of shame, of outrage, or of pride depending on who says it. There was a time when that word had a very different meaning, though few people think of that meaning when they hear it today. Few people can know or understand the gut- wrenching terror that "the N-word" used to provoke. For some, it was a death sentence. To hear that word in the dark and then be surrounded by white faces and baseball bats is, for my generation, a scene from a movie, far removed from today's reality.

The only thing I can think to compare it to now is the word Faggot. Like the first word, this new word was also spawned from hatred. It is also used in dark alleys, before a beating. It also targets a specific group of people that do not yet have a place in society. Today people are more sensitive to the implications of calling someone Faggot than they were to the use of the word Nigger in the past. I suppose the difference is that while both can accompany death sentences and both have been used as a justification for murder, we of the second word's era are assured justice. There is a system in place that can protect us from hate crimes that generally accompany that word.

In 1965 in Selma Alabama, it was practically legal for a white man to kill a black man, and you can be sure the murderer used that word. The system that defends us from the words of today, comes from the words of yesterday. Were it not for the people who stood up then, we would have no legs to stand on now.

By 1965, segregation -- the practice of keeping people of different colors from mixing in any way -- was finally starting to break. The movement started by brave people who helped slaves escape through an underground railroad a hundred years before was now headed by a man named Martin Luther King Jr. He spoke of nonviolence, of dreams, and of equality for all. He and his followers, who were of many different colors, brought an end to segregation, earned African Americans the right to vote, and paved the way for all people to demand civil rights as human beings.

But the world of 1965, the ideas of strange fruit hanging from the trees, the word that today means so many different things, the stories from older people who lived through it that we dismiss with a roll of our eyes, this is foreign to us. No matter what we read or listen to, we live in a world today where racial hatred is generally disapproved of, and anyone who reports racism will be heard. Few people ever acknowledge what it took to get here, and how easily things might have fallen apart.

The civil rights marches of the 1960s were not a spontaneous combustion of static energy. This was a well organized, highly publicized event led by a famous man, but put together by hundreds of regular people and attended by thousands more. Martin Luther King Jr. was one man with a dream who inspired many, many others to take action. Harry Willson was one of those he inspired.

In the spring of 1965, Harry Willson, a man who lived in New Mexico, went to Alabama to help with the March from Selma to Montgomery. Harry had heard the call for clergy to step forward and do the right thing, and he had answered it. Even then, in the days he was still serving as a member of the clergy, Harry was drawn to Humanism. He had passion for people, and he knew that what had been going on was not right. Harry was an intelligent man, a man of faith, and a man who believed in people.

In 1965, Harry Willson went to Alabama for reasons he never states clearly in his journal of that time, knowing the risks and knowing the power of words, knowing what could be used against him.

And he went anyway, and recorded his experience in detail in a lengthy essay, from which all of the following quotes are taken verbatim. Harry titled his essay "Trip to Alabama, March, 1965."

I had been wrestling within myself for a year or more about answering various calls to give time in various projects in the South, and was very close to deciding to go to Mississippi last summer. It didn't result in a clear decision until H.B., personal friend, student at San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, and candidate under my care, called on Monday, March 15, to say that he and some other seminary people were chartering a bus to Selma, Alabama, in response to Martin Luther King's call for clergy from all across the nation, to assist in voter registration and demonstrations protesting police brutality. H.B. called me, to ask me to co-ordinate some kind of send-off for the bus load as they passed through Albuquerque, collecting, funds, food, and interest. As we talked, I said, "I'll go with you." He said, "Good."
Harry's is a much more lighthearted account of the marches than most. While the situations he described are dire, and those times are emotional and controversial to this day, Harry avoids that part of it. He uses his words as tools to convey not emotion, but duty. If there is a version of the momentous events that can be considered nonchalant, Harry's version is it.

Maybe this is because Harry did not march. He was certainly prepared to. He took down all the instructions and mentally prepped himself to face his own mortality if it came to that:

The cloak-and-dagger atmosphere thickened after we left Dallas. We got instructions from T.S. over the speaker system, then broke up into our groups for further instruction and sharing of insight... Instructions went something like this, taken from my notes: "Try to know where everyone in the small group (ten men) is at all times. Your deacon must know where you are at all times. Go nowhere alone, not even to the John... Keep at least one dime hidden on your person at all times, e.g. in your shoe. When arrested, your wallet will be taken, and you will not be able to call SCLC for assistance and bail bond." Most of us taped a dime on our foot, with the phone number written on the tape.

Further instructions: "You must control your emotions at all times. Steel yourself to ignore verbal insult. Avoid verbal interchange of any kind with strangers, since any such interchange could turn into a test of your restraint. Let us be aware at all times that we are enlisting in a non-violent movement; if one of us loses his temper and starts swinging, we could wreck this whole project. When you see someone else being attacked in any way, do not attack with violence, but seek to protect the attacked person by covering him with your own body. When arrest seems imminent, lock arms so that several get arrested at once. If arrested, do not accept release, unless more than one is being released at the same time. If in confusion, to escape blows, you are scattering (e.g. trying to avoid horsemen) try to stay with others." We had all that to say and more, and all that to think about for some time, as we crossed Louisiana. Many were so engrossed in the "meeting" that they were afterward completely unaware that we had gone through Shreveport. We crossed the Mississippi River at Vicksburg after dark on Saturday, and entered Mississippi. It was unfair that we saw that state only at night, both going and coming. It looked more sinister, because of our state of mind, both going and coming.
No, Harry did not march until the last day. He instead was volunteered for a position in "Logistics." Harry put up the tents that the marchers slept in. He cleared the fields of cow manure in his best preaching suit. He did the grunt work that is never glorified, hardly ever even mentioned in most accounts of this story. Perhaps that is where Harry's story gets its appeal. It is an untold variable, and one that can be read without losing one's appetite. It is not a story about triumphing over personal adversity, exactly; Harry had very little at stake in the end, and he conquered his fear by going in the first place. Harry was not blasted by fire hoses or beaten by men wearing white hoods. He was not arrested, and he did not have to protect anyone from beatings by using his own body, though he was willing to do all that and more.

Instead, Harry wound up in a field.

It was quite symbolic, or something or other, forty guys in preaching clothes, quite a number in clerical collars, raking and shoveling cow dung to the glory of God. I happened to notice that it was the exact hour, figuring on the time change, that worship was being held here in Alameda. I was sure nobody was guessing accurately what I was doing. We joked about collecting it instead of our normal practice of spreading it, and soon had it done.
Harry's job was to be in the background. He and his group were to do the hard manual labor. They would set up the tents. They would build a "bridge" where the trucks could come into the field over the muddy entrance without getting stuck, and they would be given sack lunches from the SCLC. Each sack contained the same thing: 1 peanut butter sandwich, 1 vanilla wafer, 1 orange. These sack lunches would be the most constant form of nourishment received by all the workers. Harry was later approached by military men who wanted to know who was in charge, but he could not tell them; "One of the most marvelous things about the whole operation was the obscurity of the leaders; we often did not know who was in charge, and yet everything got done and done quite well."

So Harry spent his time doing the hard labor, pitching tents and clearing fields, but the thing his job allowed him to do often was converse with the marchers when they came into the camp at night. The conversations Harry shares with several young "Negro men" about their time in Alabama helped him to understand the power of the non-violent movement:

One told of his experiences as a share cropper. He had been growing cotton, the arrangement was that 1/4th of his crop would be rent, payable to the white landowner. Incidentally, it came out in his story that federal cotton allotments and price support payments are all controlled and determined locally, meaning that the Negro is almost completely excluded from the program. This cotton share-cropper took his rent, so many bales of cotton, to the owner. He accused the Negro of cheating him on his payment. The Negro insisted he was not cheating, that he was paying him all that he had coming to him. (It is hard to get the flavor of these stories because the colorful language used in the quoted conversations is not really printable.) The landowner said, "you #$% cheatin' nigger, I'm gonna whup you good." The man telling the story said, "I stood up straight and looked him in the eye while he came at me." The white man stopped, and finally said, "If you weren't lookin' me in the eye, I'd really whup you." In so saying he gave himself away, and this story illustrates the power of non-violent action -- take what they dish out, but make them dish it out openly, publicly; don't cringe in front of them, don't degrade yourself before them. When you look them in the eye, they find it harder to hit you. Here was a man admitting it, and admitting it to the Negro.... But the punch line of that conversation, was when the Negro said to me, "I finally decided I'd rather die than let him have his way. I wasn't scared of him no more." Here is some of that courage which so amazed us all week. And here is an insight into the importance of the teaching of non-violence to people like this man. He really isn't afraid of anything now. If he can keep his dignity, if he can continue to be as self-disciplined as he now is, and if he can continue to work for what he claims is his by methods of non-violence, he cannot be stopped, certainly not by white men who cannot stand to be looked in the eye.
Instead of sleeping in the camp the first night, Harry and his friends were instructed to walk back to a nearby church, take a train back into town to the headquarters and sleep there. The train ride was filled with singing which moved Harry. The passion and power of the songs, the courage and bravery with which they were sung compelled him to write them all down as he heard them. Particular verses about not letting Tear Gas stop them amazed him.
"Ain't gonna let nobody Turn me round, turn me round, turn me round.
Ain't gonna let nobody turn me round,
Keep on a walkin, keep on a talkin, marchin on to freedom land.
Ain't gonna let George Wallace Turn me round, turn me round, turn me round.
Ain't gonna let No Jim Clark Turn me round, turn me round, turn me round.
Ain't gonna let No troopers Turn me round, turn me round, turn me round.
Ain't gonna let No tear gas Turn me round, turn me round, turn me round.
Ain't gonna let nobody turn me round,
Keep on a walkin, keep on a talkin, marchin on to freedom land."
When the train ride was over, they were told to line up tightly and stay close together; in order to reach their headquarters they would be walking through the white part of town. They all knew how dangerous this was:
We were guarded by soldiers all along the way, especially at street crossings. We walked in silence. We were in residential areas mostly, but part of it must have been white. On the right side of the street was a little brick church, with a sign hanging up on it -- "Revival." The service seemed to be over; there were children on the front stoop, eight to ten years old with blonde hair. I heard a little girl's voice say, "Here come the niggers." Negro people in line in front of me and behind me heard it too, and nodded to each other and to me. I wondered what kind of revival was possible in an atmosphere in which little children learn the same scorn which made life so dangerous in Selma that we had to be watched by soldiers wherever we rode or walked.
The next day consisted of Harry and his group learning the routine. Hurry up and wait, Harry called it. Clean manure, put up the tents, build the bridges, free the trucks, eat a sack lunch, and wait. Here Harry got to know more of the people working with him, and later more of the people of Selma:
We had a lengthy conversation, joined by H.M., our Negro pastor. H.M. asked, "What should we tell the folks back home about what's going on here?" They (the elderly Negros) said, literally in unison, "Tell 'em it's hell down here." They spoke of beatings, insults, deprivations, hatred, scorn. "We often ask ourselves, 'How come a nigger is born?'" H.M. asked them, "How can you still love them?" referring to the local whites. The most talkative lady answered immediately, "'Cause they's all God's chillun." In conversation it came out -- we don't like what they're doin', but we can't hate no one. We still love 'em. H.M. observed that we have that feeling about our own children and their behavior sometimes. I marveled at the analogy; these humble Negroes were like parents; the whites with all their advantages were like misbehaving children. The people from Marion understood Herman, and agreed. The elderly lady went on, "I want 'em all treated right. I don't care if they as white as this cup (paper cup), or as black as this purse (jet black leather), I want 'em all treated right."
More stories arise from Harry's time in Selma much like this one. Stories of a little white boy and a little black boy who wanted to play together, so they tried to bleach the black boy's skin with Clorox. Stories of racism in children that young, because they were taught it by adults. Stories of people with severe injuries, such as fractured knees, who continued to march. All this and more Harry witnessed and recorded.

On the 23rd, the marchers left the camp site in the pouring rain. Harry and his group remained to take down and pack the tents, but their truck was late to pick them up. They stood in the cold rain for several hours, wandering around the campsite. Finally they came upon music in a barn house:

The windows were mostly out and boarded up; the door hung crooked. But inside we could see that it had a good roof, almost new, and a dry concrete floor, and the latest in coin-machine record player, stocked with rock and roll. The kids were feeding dimes to it, and had begun dancing. There were quite a few Negro teen-agers, and a good many younger boys. We watched them with fascination. At first it looked wild. It was the first time I had seen "the jerk." They don't call it "jitterbugging" anymore, but they had dances something like it. After a while it made more sense, and the beat and the spirit were contagious. After quite a bit of watching and clapping on our part, an older middle-age lady came in, claiming to be the sister of the proprietor of the place. She seemed bent on getting us into the dance. She was loud, disheveled, not too steady on her feet except while dancing. She had some message: "We is all the same now. We is all flesh and blood. We'll all have our fun together. That's what we's here for. We is all the same." Her refrain was, "We is all the same." A Negro boy of perhaps ten years ran up to her and said "Then give us some a what you been drinkin'." It was a good laugh.
Another long day of tenting was ahead of them in another rain-sloshed field. At last Harry and his friends got to enjoy a little human comfort- they showered for the first time in days at the empty school building across the road. Because of the weather, tents went up and came back down several times, and sleeping was not easy. There was a rally in camp that night which Martin Luther King was supposed to be at, but Harry was in the audience only for the first half:
The crowd was huge by now, stretching for yards in all direction, far out of sight of the stage. I decided to call it an evening and turn in. Just as I got to our tent, they got loudspeakers going well, and it seemed the thing was going to start. So I headed back in that direction, but not attempting to get within sight of the stage. Martin Luther King gave a brief statement, and so did Harry Belafonte. But then they started trying to clear the stage again, and when that went on for some long time, I did give it up and went to bed. There were quite a few others already in the sack. The show started before I fell asleep; I could hear laughter, but could not hear the jokes which caused it. Those who stayed up for all of it said it ended after midnight, and was a very good show.
At last, the final stretch of the march was before them, and Harry and his friends would be among the 8,000 people who marched into Montgomery on March 25th. In fact, the word was that the tent crew would be right behind the 300, since they had accompanied them all the way from Selma:
We started out through the Negro section. The streets were lined and porches filled with people. Many clapped and cheered and waved and joined in the singing. There was no doubt they were with us. Gradually we moved into the white section, beginning with poorer sections. C.N. said, "This march is to prove to whites that black and white can be together and march together. They keep saying it's impossible; they don't believe we can go together; they think we'd kill each other. This proves that that's not true."

We sang all the way. One song was composed during the week of the march. I never learned the verse, but it included accompaniment, "Ya-dat-da-da-dat, da-dat-da-dat," and a chorus, "O-oh Wallace! Ya never can jail us a-a-a-all. O-oh Wallace! Segregation's bound to fall. Ya-dat-da-da-...

Still in the poorer white section, we noticed that the onlookers were almost entirely women and toddlers. At one point a two-year-old girl broke away from whoever was holding her and ran up to get into the line of march. They pulled her back. She broke away again and again they caught her. The third time she got away, and everybody was smiling, and I called out, joined by others, "Don't teach her wrong. Let her come." They held her.
When they reached the capitol, they were followed in by thousands. It is estimated that 25,000 people marched into the capitol that day, but Harry believed that "50,000 would not be too high". He recalls seeing them coming as far as the eye could see. And there in Montgomery, along with other speakers, Martin Luther King Jr gave his now famous "How Long, Not Long" speech, which Harry found impressive:
There were more speeches. A priest next to me complained that it was going on too long, that the intensity of spirit was dissipating. It didn't seem to be dissipating from the Negroes around us. I said to him, "They've been waiting 300 years for this moment. No need to hurry past it." He looked at me, and seemed to see the point. At last Abernathy introduced King. He made allusions to the effect that King was similar to Moses, and declared outright that Montgomery was the "heart of Egypt." The biblical allusions, especially to the exodus, are old among Negroes and their aspirations; they still have them. King really is a new Moses for them. King referred to the crises in the Negro movement that have occurred on Alabama soil. First, in Montgomery in 1954, the bus boycott, with led to the non-violent movement and court decisions striking down segregation laws. Second, the Birmingham bombings of 1963 which resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And now third, in Selma, the voting rights struggle which led to Johnson's recent speech calling for federal laws to guarantee free voting. He said, "Segregation is on its death bed; the only question is how costly will some people, like George Wallace, make the funeral."

...King went on to list what all got segregated from what. Not only the white man from the black. He had a list. I remember the one that hit me: "The southern churches were segregated from Christianity." Then he aroused the crowd with "We' re on the move now. " He alluded to the song about not letting anybody turn us around. He quoted the old spiritual about the Battle of Jericho, noting especially Joshua's words at the conclusion of the second verse: "The battle am in ma hand." The battle is in our hand, here in Montgomery and everywhere. He referred to the southern white hope that King will go away, SCLC and SNCC will quit agitating, and we can return to normalcy. He promised that there would be no return to "normalcy" if it meant conditions that produce the atrocities and murders and brutality and degradation. He listed several incidents which have been "normal," the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, murder of Birmingham Sunday School girls, and so on. He called for a new normalcy of brotherhood and justice and equality. He said people are asking, "How long?" He answered his question, "Not long." He repeated it many times. "How long? Not long." Truth crushed to earth shall rise again. He quoted the Battle Hymn of the Republic -- God is marching on; his truth is marching on.
When the march was over, the excitement dissipating but the experience resonating, Harry took the time to reflect on everything he had seen, what he had been a part of in the most crucial way:
I went away convinced that as long as they stick with the discipline of non-violence and just demands, they are invincible. I felt thrilled to be allowed to take part in the movement with them. It is without any doubt in my mind the most important thing happening in our nation, probably in the world.

...I began to ponder what our experience had meant. I was most impressed with the southern Negro people. They were wonderful, lovable, cheerful, open and warm -- every single one I approached was glad to talk and eager to know me. I am thrilled by their faith. They are convinced that their cause cannot be thwarted in spite of every setback they remain hopeful, and that hope is centered on God. This is a religious movement. I am thrilled by their courage. They have been through many nightmares, and there is much suffering still ahead of them, but they have lost their fear. This makes them dangerous in some ways, but is held in check by their faith and their love. It was their love that most amazed and thrilled me. They really do love their enemies. They really do love George Wallace. I have not yet learned to love my enemies that way.

I was tired, and happy to have had the experience of recent days. It was an education. It was like living in the New Testament, in many ways. I suppose that I will return for more. I hope to keep in touch with some of the people I met there.
Harry couldn't know then how much that march would mean to us now, nearly 50 years after the civil rights movement. Equality is a consistent theme throughout the human experience, and we are still fighting for it, only now in a different way. Racism, homophobia, class warfare, have all come to the fore in yesterday's and today's movements. Protestors all have asked for the same thing; the right to be equal to their fellow human beings. Maybe that's part of the reason Harry later came to Humanism. In the essay, he describes the marches as "a religious movement," but they were so much more than that. They were a human movement.

We are in a human movement today. As groups like the GLBTQI and the Feminists and the Occupy Wall Street all fight for what they deserve as human beings, we have to look back to the Marches for hope. Martin Luther King Jr. succeeded, though he did not live to see it. The people of my generation do not see race as a limiting factor, but a factor of empowerment. So Harry's work, which was always Humanist work even though he didn't always call it that, is succeeding.

Harry never took himself too seriously. We can laugh when we think of Harry shoveling cow manure in his best suit, as he laughed at himself. But we can also be proud of him, as Harry would be proud of the world for not forgetting everything he and others did that week in Selma, Alabama. Harry worked for a better world all his life, and the best way we can remember him is by working for it, too.

And one more thing -- Harry was not afraid of "magic words." And so he sums up his experience this way:

This account could conclude with a toast proposed by Herman, our Negro Pastor, who referred to himself as "the integrating factor." He proposed a toast to "all you white niggers." This was used as in insult in Alabama. Coming from Herman on the way home from Alabama, it was an honor.
Harry understood that in all movements language is key. Not everyone can take to the streets, but we can all take charge of our vocabulary. We can defuse and demystify those magic words, and learn to speak to each other with honesty and respect.

* * *

copyright © 2012 Ashley Jordan. Quoted material used with permission.

For the purpose of this article, many names Harry recorded have been omitted or reduced to initials.

To comment on this article, e-mail info@amadorbooks.com with "Words" as the subject.


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