Posts tagged ‘southwest Georgia’

Powerful Reserve

Notch > November 1st
On this day in 1961, SNCC workers Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon, along with nine members of the NAACP Youth Council—funded by local business man Tom Chatmon—test new Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) rules at Trailways bus station in Albany, Georgia.

Charles & Shirley Sherrod: Hyper Gym, Albany State University, June 2011

Meeting Rev. Charles Sherrod at the 50th Anniversary of the Albany Movement back in June 2011 was a momentous occasion for me. He was one of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)) field secretaries who came to Albany half a century ago to work on voter registration; ended up carving a Movement and never left. He and his wife, Shirley Sherrod, still live in southwest Georgia, and still champion the empowerment of black families with The Southwest Georgia Project.

I had tried in vain to connect with Charles by email, and had seen him at a distance at the opening session of the Anniversary in the Hyper Gym. I was even introduced to him, but the timing wasn’t right, we were taking our seats to hear the keynote delivered by Dr. William Anderson, the first president of the Albany Movement.

Generally speaking,  I’m a person who “meets no strangers”—as we say in SOWEGA (southwest Georgia)—but for some reason it was not easy for me to walk up to Charles and introduce myself. Later, this seemed absurd because—as many had told me—he is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. I mistook his graceful, reserved manner for something unapproachable.

Charles is a man of few words. I finally plucked up the nerve to asked for an interview, and he asked if I had a car, said I could drive him to a function that evening and we could talk then. That was easy. I settled into my chair to knit and take notes on the rest of the sessions. Then a little later, during a lull in one of the longer sessions, he came to me in the  and whispered, “Let’s talk now,” and headed for the doors, carrying his granddaughter in his arms. I quickly closed my notebook, stashed the knitting and rolled my carry-on camera bag down the aisle to catch him. We sat in a quiet room across the lobby and in his very deliberate, peaceful way, he talked about coming to Albany back in 1961armed with only the names of two local people. He was totally at the mercy of black families around Doughtery County whose homes became “Freedom Houses”.  He never wanted for meals or a place to sleep. In fact, most times there was a contest to see who would feed and house him for the night.

Charles Sherrod came to Albany to lead, to teach, to help black folk find a voice. When I asked what a typical day in the Movement would’ve been like for an 18-year old he said, “We told them that they would face danger everyday; some kind of violence everyday, in the guerilla type lifestyle they had chosen.”  It was made clear to recruits that if you weren’t prepared for such a life, then working in the Movement was not for you.

Growing up on Hazard Drive

View from porch of 325 Hazard Drive: Background ~ Gibson Hall, Albany State College Circa 1960

Our house was #325 Hazard Drive, one door down from Hazard Laboratory School in Albany, Georgia. During the late 50s and into the 60s when I was growing up there, Hazard Drive was a dichotomous slice of black life, one of the east side communities closest to the Flint River. On the north end of the street both sides were lined with wooden houses, mostly rentals, where working folk raised their families, rented rooms to the college students and mostly kept their noses out of the business of struggling for racial justice. On the south end of the street stood Albany State College (ASC), a future lightening rod for the Albany Civil Rights Movement—where internal unrest was already brewing as students members of the NAACP Youth Council stood up against authorities and racism, demanding changes that were not being met by local law enforcement nor the ASC administration.

Enter Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon and Charles Jones; at the time all twenty-something field secretaries for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC (pronounced “snick”), a one-year old civil rights organization established on the Shaw University Campus in Raleigh, North Carolina; born out of student-led lunch counter sit-ins. Using youth-led, nonviolent, direct-action tactics, SNCC focused heavily on voter registration, having chosen to work in southwest Georgia because the need was great based on the large numbers of disfranchised blacks not exercising their right to vote. Seems only natural for SNCC to join forces and further mobilize ASC student energy to help accomplish their shared goals, for SNCC knew that the only way to achieve racial equality was to get black voices heard through the polls.

As all of this progressed outside our home, within the government grey walls of 325 Hazard, the Joneses mirrored the polarity of the greater community in our own way. My late sister, Dr. Betty Jean Jones, turned twelve on December 11, 1961. She very much wanted to work in the Movement. I, on the other hand—being only seven—had no clue because our parents sheltered us from the struggle.

That fall I was blissfully starting second grade in Mrs. Pearl Sanders class at Hazard, while Betty, taking the bus to Carver Jr. High across town, wanted to participate in the marches, sit-ins and non-violent protests; to go to jail with others who put their lives on the line. Our parents forbade it. Unlike many other black tweens and teens who joined the Movement, Betty was not one to defy her parents, even though she harbored regrets. How I wish I could talk to her about that now. Betty passed away in January, 1997 in a plane crash at the age of 47.  Would that I could find out what motivated her to want to work in the Movement, and how she processed Silas and Irene Jones’ dominion over her fledgling activism.

When I went back home this past June for the 50th Anniversary of the Albany Movement, I met face-to-face with many who worked in the Movement, and heard first hand many stories of courage and diligence. This left me feeling troubled that my parents chose not to involve our family in that important American event. Later, I shared this with Charles Jones ( no direct relations) and he said, “Sister Jones, they were sheltering you, they wanted to ensure that you would make it to this moment.”  Thanks, Brother Charles, for that insight. I see clearly now that my family’s work is in this story, waiting to go out into the world. This is our contribution.

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