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Archive for the 'Alabama' Category

Frye Gaillard adds Jefferson Cup Honor Book for Go South to Freedom, film documentary about Journey to the Wilderness to list of credits

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017 by Randall Williams

Award-winning author Frye Gaillard is enjoying a banner year: his book Go South to Freedom has just been named a Jefferson Cup Honor Book for young adult readers by the Virginia Library Association. The Jefferson Cup honors a distinguished biography, work of historical fiction or American history book for young people. Presented since 1983, the Jefferson Cup Committee’s goal is to promote reading about America’s past; to encourage the quality writing of United States history, biography, and historical fiction for young people; and to recognize authors in these disciplines.

News of the award reached Frye as he was on the road filming a television documentary based on his book Journey to the Wilderness: War, Memory, and a Southern Family’s Civil War Letters. Produced by Mike Letcher of Dragonfly Public Media, the program follows the footsteps of Gaillard’s ancestors who fought in the Civil War. In the film Gaillard reflects on the Civil War letters written by his great-great-grandfather and other family members, noting, “My own generation was perhaps the last that was raised on those stories of gallantry and courage. Oddly, mine was also one of the first to view the Civil War through the lens of civil rights.” The film is being produced in partnership with The Center for War and Memory at The University of South Alabama for public television.

In other news, Frye Gaillard has just put the final touches on his forthcoming memoir A Hard Rain: America in the 1960s, Our Decade of Hope and Innocence Lost. In this book, Gaillard gives us a deeply personal history, bringing his keen storyteller’s eye to this pivotal time in American life. A Hard Rain is due out from NewSouth Books in spring 2018. He is presently at work researching the life of Benjamin Turner for his first illustrated children’s book, a project he’s collaborating on with Marti Rosner. The Slave Who Went to Congress will be released by NewSouth Books in fall 2018.

Go South to Freedom is available from NewSouth Books or your favorite bookstore.

Anniston, Alabama’s pitfalls, triumphs, told in books

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014 by Brian Seidman

Baptized in PCBs by Ellen SpearsAnniston, Alabama has a storied, sometimes infamous history, including the burning of a Freedom Riders bus in the 1960s and more recently, legal battles over environmental pollution caused by chemical plants in the city. A new book by University of Alabama professor Ellen Spears, Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town, tackles those latter environmental issues — not to denigrate Anniston, Spears suggests in her book, but so as to face Anniston’s past and help it move forward.

Both Spears’s book, and a recent Anniston Star column about books on Anniston, cite NewSouth’s Beyond the Burning Bus by J. Phillips Noble, about the Freedom Rider attacks. Spears’s book makes powerful linkages between Anniston’s civil rights history and the polychlorinated biphenyls environmental crisis. Spears points to Noble’s memoir in her account of how both crises were handled by local leaders; she also discusses the lingering effects of both events on Anniston, its reputation, and the lives of local people.

Another recent memoir on Anniston published by NewSouth is In Love with Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal, by Anniston Star publisher H. Brandt Ayers.

Read more about these titles from the Anniston Star.

Ellen Spears’s Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Justice in an All-American Town is available now. Beyond the Burning Bus by J. Phillips Noble and In Love with Defeat by H. Brandt Ayers are both available from NewSouth Books or your favorite bookstore.

On MLK’s Holiday, a Few Words About the Poor

Monday, January 20th, 2014 by Randall Williams

Today is the MLK holiday, although in Alabama the adoption of the holiday passed the legislature only by designating it as also being in honor of the birth of Robert E. Lee, who coincidentally shares the same birth week as King, so that white state workers taking the day off didn’t have to do so in tribute to civil rights.

Setting aside that head-in-the-sand Alabama political posturing, it is MLK Day, which means it’s a good day to remember that though MLK is rightly celebrated as a leader of the movement which broke the back of legalized segregation, toward the end of his life he was mostly campaigning to end economic injustice and war (at the time, in Vietnam). And while the civil rights movement was relatively straightforward — Jim Crow laws were an obvious evil — and gained the support of government, business, and, for the most part, the public, the same support was not forthcoming for anti-poverty and anti-war efforts.

For one thing, poverty and war have complex causes that are not easy to identify, much less target. For another, while changes in the U.S. economy and infrastructure had largely eliminated the economic benefits to white Southerners of first slavery and then segregation, there remained/remain powerful interests who profited from poverty and war.

The poverty part of that profit equation is hard for some to swallow, though I believe the case can be made. Consider the hugely profitable low-end loan, check cashing, rent-to-own furniture, etc., businesses that prey on the poor. Consider the prison-industrial complex that has expanded alongside the increased incarceration rates of the poor. Consider the increased numbers of well-paid and well-pensioned judges, prosecutors, police, and support personnel, and all the suppliers and manufacturers of their furnishings and consumables needed to keep a lid clamped on the “criminal” poor.

The military part of the profit equation is more obvious; even President Dwight D. Eisenhower, our last five-star commander in chief, famously warned of this danger, but we just keep spending and spending.

But back to the poor, and the impetus for my taking up your time today …

The NYT has recently been running a good series, “The Great Divide,” about the country’s return to Gilded Age levels of income inequality. Reading the NYT this morning, I was struck by today’s entry about the results of a study by an epidemiologist examining linkage between poverty and mental health. Her conclusions seem to indicate that — surprise — giving poor people money improves their lives and saves the taxpayers money. I suppose this is the academic equivalent of the folk wisdom that money can’t buy happiness, but the absence of money does buy misery. And the societal costs of misery are high.

As Congress dithers on extending benefits for the long-term unemployed, and is likely to pass a Farm Bill that will further cut food stamps even while subsidies continue to agribusiness, it seems a good time to think about policies that might actually help the poor and the country.

Jeff Benton compiles Montgomery reading list, recommended books

Monday, October 28th, 2013 by Brian Seidman


Jeffrey Benton edits local history titles for NewSouth Books; he is also the author of the newly released Respectable and Disreputable: Leisure Time in Antebellum Montgomery, Alabama. He was inspired to compile a list of books about Montgomery in completing the writing of his own book. Jeff writes:

When I was looking over the bibliography of Respectable and Disreputable: Leisure Time in Antebellum Montgomery for one last time before the book went to the printer, it occurred to me that there are a respectable number of books about Montgomery. Although there is no definitive history of the city, Mary Ann Neeley’s The Works of Matthew Blue, Montgomery’s First Historian fulfills this role for the city’s early history.

Scores of more specialized books fill in the intervening years up to the present. Personally, I’ve use many of these books in writing more than 250 newspaper articles on local history. So I was inspired to compile a list of books on the city and its environs with the hope that others may find local history more accessible. I forwarded the list to the main Montgomery County Library and to NewSouth Books. The latter, of course, has made this list available on its website. I am grateful to NewSouth Books for having done so and assume that others who want to appreciate and understand the city will also be grateful.

View the “Selected Books About Montgomery, Alabama” reading list on the NewSouth website. Jeff Benton’s latest book, Respectable and Disreputable: Leisure Time in Antebellum Montgomery, Alabama, is available now.

Memoirist Sue Pickett shares an economics lesson, still meaningful

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012 by Randall Williams

In the current Great Recession, some 8 to 9 percent are officially unemployed; many more—especially among groups such as minorities, the young, those without high school diplomas, those 55 and over—are omitted from the official statistics because they have quit looking for jobs. Still, there’s a huge difference between 9 percent and the 25 to 30 percent that were unemployed during the Great Depression of the 1930s (or now in some European countries).

For those U.S. families whose breadwinners are still working and who didn’t lose their homes to foreclosure, etc., what we have been going through since the last half of George W. Bush’s administration mostly passes without personal pain. Small wonder then that the average citizen ignores the debates around economic policy, the safety net, and the nature and role of government itself; such matters are left to the special interests, the pundits, and, sadly, the talk radio and faux news show hosts.

Around the office, we have been proofreading the forthcoming The Path Was Steep by Suzanne Pickett. This is a small gem of a book, a memoir by an Alabama woman who was a young wife and mother during the Depression, in the coal camps of north Alabama and for a time in West Virginia. This will be a new edition of a book that we first published in the 1990s and that has been out of print for several years.

Mrs. Pickett died a few years after we initially published her book. She was, as her memoir proves on every page, one of those spirits who make you feel more alive by knowing them. Though she was self-taught as a writer, she had a natural storytelling gift and the ability to express a scene so that you feel present in it.

Two or three of our young staffers and interns have remarked while copyediting and proofreading the page galleys of The Path Was Steep that it made them for the first time understand the Great Depression. Here’s an excerpt of a few pages from the memoir, in a chapter from the period when Mrs. Pickett’s husband David had found work in a West Virginia coal camp:

One afternoon, as we ate supper, a small boy and girl appeared at the kitchen door. The little girl was about ten and had a curious, old-woman look in her face. The boy, a year or so younger, stared at a plate of leftover boiled corn.

“Have you had supper?” I asked gently.

The girl’s face reddened. “We was just going to ask if you have any food to spare.”

“Of course there is food.” I took down two plates.

“Could we have it in a poke?”

“Are there others?” I asked.

“Mommie and Aunt Bess and three small children.”

“Where do you live?” I asked.

She bent her head, and her face reddened again. “Nowhere.” It was only a breath. “We—we’ve got people over the mountain.”

“Where did you sleep last night?” I put my arm around her shoulders.

“Down the road.” She raised her head. “I aim to pay for the food. I’ll wash dishes,” she said.

“You slept outdoors?”

“We built a fire. Hit wasn’t cold.”

Nights in the mountains were always cold. “Go tell your folks to come here for supper,” I said.

“If you’ll let me work. I aim to pay.”

“If that’s the way you want it,” I agreed. I knew the stern pride of the mountaineers.

“That’s the way hit has to be,” she said.

I stirred the fire in the kitchen stove, sliced salt pork, put it in a pan at the back of the stove, and ran to the garden. The pork just needed turning when I returned with corn, tomatoes, onions, and lettuce. By the time the corn bubbled on the stove in salted water, with a little butter added for flavor, and biscuits were browned, the girl was back with her family. The women, young and fair, looked tired and hopeless. The smaller children were shy, hardly speaking. After supper they were all a little more cheerful.

The girl’s name was Irene. She washed her hands, cleared the table, and began to wash dishes. One look at her face, and I didn’t interfere.

“You got some soap we could have?” her mother asked. “We ain’t washed no clothes since we left Pennsylvania.”

“How did you travel?” I took a bar of Octagon laundry soap from a pantry shelf.

“Rode a freight. They found us at the state line and throwed us off the train. Said if hit wasn’t fer the children, they’d a throwed us in jail.”

Irene swept the kitchen floor, then carried water to wash the clothes. They hung them up on my lines and stayed until dark; then the aunt said, “You mind if we sleep in yore yard?”

“We’ve plenty of room for all of you,” I said, my throat dry.

“Just make us a pallet,” she smiled listlessly.

But I crowded Sharon and Davene into bed with David and me, so the women could have a bed. Perhaps it was the first they’d slept in for many nights.

Irene spread their bedding on the floor. It was dirty and mud-stained. I offered my only clean sheets for cover. “I mean to pay,” her eyes were fierce gray. “I’ll sweep yore yard in the morning.” She had watched as I put the girls to bed, first kneeling with them for their prayers. She knelt and whispered, and I saw tears falling from her hands between her fingers.

I fought back tears. How had she kept her pride? Her mother, aunt, and the smaller ones had the very smell of the Depression about them. Pride, if they ever possessed it, and most mountaineers do, was gone and there was a trapped, animal look—I couldn’t describe it, but when David came in from work the next day, I knew. It was the look of cheap, shoddy, used goods.

There was two dollars in my purse. I didn’t even dare look at the fireplace, but slipped the money to Irene’s mother and gathered corn and tomatoes, found half a box of crackers and some cheese, and put them in a bag just before they left the next day.

Irene washed dishes, swept the floors, and was sweeping the yard when her mother called. “Time for us to git on.”

“I done what I could,” Irene told me.

“You did more than you should,” I stooped to kiss her.

She threw her arms around me and gave a big, gasping sob. “You are so good, as good as any angel,” she wept.

“Oh, no,” I whispered and held her close. “Why don’t you visit with us for a week or so?” I asked. I’d bathe the child, cut her hair, make her a dress. “All right?” I asked her mother.

“You can have her fer good if you want,” indifferently.

I looked at Irene, dreading to see the blow strike. But her eyes grew luminous and she ran to her mother. “I have to go with Mommie! I have to!” Her face grew protective, tender, burning with love, and suddenly I understood. The mother was whipped, cowed. Nothing was left to her, not even love for her children; but this child was not whipped. Somehow, Irene would get them through this Depression, if it ever ended, as a golden voice over our $14.50 portable radio promised over and over that it would end.

As they started away, Irene darted back to whisper fiercely, “Don’t think Mommie wants to give me away. She just wants to get a good home fer me.”

“Of course she does.” I kissed her, and her face lighted at my words. I offered them as a sacrifice to the child, and if He will accept a lie as a sacrifice, I offered them to God, for I knew the words to be a lie. Irene’s mother would be happy to be rid of the child. But no earthly power could make Irene believe this. Her love was so overwhelming that she wrapped it like a warm blanket around her mother. She was a swamp blossom. Pure gold, growing from black swamp mould. Perhaps her love would be strong enough to save her mother.

Sadly, there were not enough Sue Picketts in the 1930s to save or even help all the Irenes. But brick-by-brick, led by that golden voice that resonated on the Picketts’ $14 radio, Congress built the New Deal safety net programs, expanded during the 1960s by the Great Society legislation, that today by and large keep our Irenes fed, clothed, and housed during hard times. Today these programs are threatened. We should tread carefully before we dismantle them.

Remembering Alabama education pioneer Dr. Ethel Hall

Monday, November 21st, 2011 by Brian Seidman

Dr. Ethel Hall, the first African American woman elected to the Alabama State Board of Education, died this month at age 83. Hall had recounted both her two decades on the Board of Education and her early struggle to achieve higher education in her memoir My Journey, published earlier this year by NewSouth Books.

In a review of My Journey, First Draft‘s Linda McQueen called Dr. Hall “the epitome of a true role model for all generations. [Her memoir] is filled with memorable narratives of faith and hope. It is an inspiration to readers facing adversities and finding joy and success in achieving their goals.”

In her memoir, Dr. Hall discussed her experiences with prejudice and discrimination, while at the same time emphasizing her family’s love that helped her pursue education despite her family’s poverty; Hall left her parents’ farm at a young age live with her grandparents in order to be closer to school. She later graduated from Alabama A&M College, received masters and doctoral degrees, and taught high school and college before her election to the state board. Among issues she dealt with were strengthening academic requirements for grade school education and maintaining education standards despite budget cuts.

Dr. Hall wrote, “I carefully and consciously prepared for a challenging, demanding career in education because I believe learning is a lifelong process that impacts every individual. My experiences have affirmed my belief in a greater need for advocacy for those who are least able to make the changes needed in our social system.”

Read more about Dr. Ethel Hall from the Birmingham News.

My Journey: A Memoir of the First African American to Preside Over the Alabama Board of Education by Dr. Ethel Hall is available from NewSouth Books, Amazon.com, or your favorite bookseller.

Leah Rawls Atkins praises Mary Ann Neeley’s Works of Matthew Blue, Montgomery’s First Historian

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011 by Brian Seidman

The Works of Matthew Blue, Montgomery's First Historian, by Mary Ann Neeley

This review originally appeared in The Alabama Review: A Quarterly Journal of Alabama History, July 2011, Vol. 64, No. 3. Review by Leah Rawls Atkins, Auburn University.

The Works of Matthew Blue: Montgomery’s First Historian. Edited by Mary Ann Neeley. Montgomery: NewSouth Books, 2010. xvi, 459 pp. $45.00. ISBN 978-1-58838-031-9.

Anyone researching a nineteenth-century Alabama topic that touches Montgomery must consult Matthew Blue. Before the appearance of Mary Ann Neeley’s edition of Blue’s works, this was difficult because copies were rare and fragile. Finding who or what you were interested in without a comprehensive index, understanding all the facts and events, knowing the family and political interrelations of the people whom Blue mentioned were impossible for most researchers. Significant nuances were surely missed by those of us not familiar with the history and people of Montgomery.

Neeley’s book places this history in easy reach with an index and copious annotations and notes. Blue’s text is in boldface type, and Neeley’s annotations follow in regular type. Her notes are placed by appropriate paragraphs on the outside margin of her book, which makes the scholarship easily accessible to the reader. Neeley, now retired, was the longtime director of the capital city’s living history museum, Old Alabama Town. She spent her life studying Montgomery, its people, and events. Taking more than a decade to complete the book, Neeley used numerous primary sources, especially the Blue family papers in the Alabma Department of Archives and History.

Matthew Blue was born in a log cabin on September 24, 1824, on the hill where the Alabama capitol now stands. He died in Montgomery on December 20, 1884. In his lifetime, Blue was a mail clerk, the city’s postmaster, the publisher and part-owner of the Montgomery Advertiser, a columnist for the Montgomery Daily Post, a coroner, and secretary of the state senate. Most of all, he knew everyone, was a keen observer of people and events, and he had a sense of the importance of recorded history.

Blue wrote an early history of Montgomery and compiled a list of events in the city, both included in the 1878 City Directory of Montgomery. His essay on church history was published in 1851, and his early study of the organization of the city’s churches was privately printed in 1878. Blue’s history and genealogy of the Blue family appeared in 1886, two years after Blue died. These works, along with the unpublished diary of Ellen Blue, are included in Neeley’s work. One strength of the book is the copious illustrations and photographs, which are fully explained in captions. The large number of names and the easy index will be an asset for genealogical and family researchers.

Blue’s descriptions of many historical events in Montgomery have been the authority for much that has made its way into modern articles and books — General Lafayette’s entrance into Montgomery on April 3, 1825, and his reception “on the hill upon which the State Capitol now stands”; the fire on December 14, 1849, that destroyed the first capitol building in Montgomery; the city as capitol of the Confederacy and Montgomery during the Confederate period.

Neeley’s edited and annotated volume of Blue’s works should be in major research libraries in the nation and included in most of Alabama’s public and academic collections. Collectors of Alabamiana will welcome this volume.

The Works of Matthew Blue, Montgomery’s First Historian, by Mary Ann Neeley, is available direct from NewSouth Books, Amazon.com, or your favorite book retailer.

Civil Rights Lawyer Charles Morgan Jr. Dies

Sunday, January 11th, 2009 by Randall Williams

Chuck Morgan, 78, one of the most colorful and powerful legal advocates for civil rights in the 1960s, died January 8, 2009, of complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He “died peacefully at his Destin, Fla., home,” the local newspaper reported. I hope that was so, and if it was, then it was one of the few things Chuck ever did “peacefully.” He was a larger-than-life personality who not only recognized the injustices in society but did something about them. There’s a good story by Roy Reed in the New York Times about Chuck’s passing.

NewSouth’s author Bob Zellner also wrote movingly about Chuck in The Wrong Side of Murder Creek. Here’s a passage from the book:

The everyday slog and the relentless work load could get us down, so spirits always soared when outside help arrived to reinforce what we already knew—that what we were doing was important and that the word was getting out up North. The joy was even greater when the help came from a progressive Southern lawyer, who by definition had to be both courageous and slightly crazy to get involved in civil rights cases. One such lawyer was the outspoken Charles Morgan Jr. from rough-tough Birmingham. Victor was already comfortable with our legal standing, assuring us that the Bill of Rights applied even in the primitive backwoods courts of darkest Alabama. What Big Chuck brought was joie de vivre and utter fearlessness. Chuck was not bashful about letting the courthouse thugs and hangers-on know that he was onto their game. He’d been to enough rural courtrooms in Alabama to know that the “Courthouse Gang” was there to prop up the powers that be by hanging around to whittle sticks, spit tobacco, and glare menacingly—we called it “the hate stare”—at outsiders or anybody else the sheriff and the judge didn’t like.

Morgan went about his work in Talladega with such gusto that we felt less stressed. After court we gathered around him in his tiny motel room as he spun hilarious yarns of past exploits. “The other day,” Chuck said, “I had to go down to Greene County—that’s in the Black Belt—where I’m defending a poor black man. I told Camille, my wife, I might not make it back if the rednecks down there know about me ranting up here in Birmingham against Bull Connor. When she asked if I really had to go, I told her yes, if this man is to escape spending the rest of his natural life in jail for just trying to register. ‘What’d they charge him with?’ my wife asked. I told her it was carnal knowledge of a chicken, a tough charge to defend against.”

From the center of his sagging bed Morgan would lean over and put down his sweating glass of iced bourbon and branch water. He’d grab the phone and call the respected journalist Claude Sitton at the New York Times. “Claude, I got a report from the front.” Pause. “What do you mean what front? It’s the only front that matters right now—Morgan defending Zellner, the Bradens, and now Rabinowitz and Madame Grant—nothing but me standing betwixt them and the benighted lawlessness of the Great State of Alabama! My favorite kind of story, Mr. Sitton.” Another pause. “Sir, it certainly is news that’s fit to print. You ought to be down here to see it for yourself, but since you ain’t, let me tell you about it in living color.” Sitton was an Atlantan and the NYT’s chief Southern correspondent. He reported widely on civil rights from 1958–64. Morgan’s bantering with him was partly for our entertainment and also to make sure that our activities would stay in the national focus, thus bringing additional support and some measure of protection.

Rabinowitz and Grant had been added to the injunction when they showed up for my hearing. By the second or third day of the hearing, Morgan and Rabinowitz, with help from another volunteer attorney, Arthur Kinoy (later a co-founder of the Center for Constitutional Rights), had prepared a countersuit against the state of Alabama, Talladega County, et al. That morning our group, led by Morgan, had woven our way through the usual crowd of whittlers and spitters outside the courthouse. Inside, Chuck motioned for me to follow him down the stairs. We marched into the basement where many county employees worked, and he announced loudly with a big smile, “Mr. Zellner and I have just accused all of y’all of being white.”

Most of the time things in SNCC were so hectic and our lawyers were so busy trying to keep us out of jail or getting us out of jail that there was no time for preparing proactive suits. In Talladega, however, we were lucky to have these feisty attorneys working for us. So when Morgan impishly accused all the county employees of being white, he was deadly serious. Our counter-injunction asked the federal government to ban segregated courtrooms, all-white juries, and all-white judges and sheriffs. Morgan and Rabinowitz asked that all proceedings against civil rights workers and black voter registration aspirants be removed to federal courts.

The very next morning our entry into the courthouse changed dramatically. As Chuck and I approached the front steps and the waiting courthouse gang, he simply pushed his seersucker jacket aside just enough to reveal a huge gun snugly nestled in a beautiful brown leather shoulder holster. The gang parted like the Red Sea for Moses, and we sailed peacefully into the courthouse. As it turned out, Chuck was friends with the sheriff and had cleared this ploy in advance, but at the time his only comment was, “Zellner, maybe you know how to be nonviolent and survive. My mama told me, ‘Son, walk loudly and carry a big piece.’”

We were sworn to nonviolence in all our public affairs, but . . . we were kicking ass in the courtroom and it seemed that Charles Morgan Jr., Esquire, of Birmingham, was prepared to kick it on the courthouse lawn if push came to shove.

And another passage from the same book:

Wallace and his prosecutors were delighted with the prospect of trying me on something other than the political charge of conspiracy. Conspiring to do what? They had no evidence of plans to demonstrate at Wallace’s inaugural. So their Plan B was to convict Zellner on a bad check charge and send him to the penitentiary for ten years. Maybe he wouldn’t survive the Alabama prison system!

Chuck Morgan assisted Clifford Durr at my trial. Clifford in frail health and was exhausted, and Morgan was always spoiling for a civil rights legal fight. I remember at one point coming out of the courtroom and I had a cigarette in my hand and my hands were cuffed in front of me, and the photographer was there, and I didn’t expect the photographer, so I smiled and he took the picture. Chuck told me later, “No matter if you are acquitted or convicted or there’s a hung jury, never smile when you come out of the courtroom, because you weren’t supposed to be arrested to begin with.”

When they took me to the jail, I guess it was the same jail Rosa Parks had been in, and Martin Luther King, and even Hank Williams a time or two. One of my classmates from Huntingdon was the brand new jailer. The newsmen interviewed him, and they asked how it felt to lock up his old classmate, Bob Zellner. I wasn’t treated badly at all.

Cliff and Chuck had a good defense for the all-white, mostly male Montgomery jury. The prosecution said that I had purchased a camera for $85 from the pawn shop on Friday afternoon. Because I traveled so much, my SNCC paycheck was automatically deposited in Atlanta each week. The police wouldn’t let Mr. Erlich, the shop owner, deposit my check. Instead, the cops called the bank in Atlanta to see what my checking account balance was and were told that at the moment there was less than $85. But they were also told that the bank knew the account and knew that a deposit was made each Friday. The bank said the check would be honored. Nevertheless, that was the state’s case against me.

“The check,” Mr. Durr argued, “could not be evidence of false pretenses since it was never presented for payment, nor was it ever returned for insufficient funds.” The prosecutors could not have it both ways. In closing arguments, Morgan marched his ample frame up and down in front of the hometown jury, waxing homespun as he asked each juror, “How many times have you, or your spouse, bought groceries on Friday based on the family paycheck that was to be deposited that afternoon?”

Then in summation, Clifford Durr, as courtly a Southern gentleman as anyone ever saw, rail thin in his crisp seersucker suit and bending slightly forward because of his bad back, delivered the final blow. He asked the jurors, “How would you feel if the Governor or the police were mad at you and took the check out of your grocer’s hand, called your bank and then tried to put you in jail for ten years because someone at the bank said you didn’t have enough money?”

However, long before Cliff drove these last nails into the coffin of Wallace’s case against me, Chuck had done something in open court that determined the outcome of the trial. It is rare that the opening shot is the one that decides the battle, but that is what happened. We had spent weeks asking the progressive ministers of the conference and their wives to attend my trial in support of a fellow Methodist in trouble because of an issue of conscience. We had asked them to be prepared to be called as character witnesses.
Mrs. Francis McLeod, the grande dame of Alabama Methodists and the mother of a brood of charismatic and successful preachers in our conference, agreed to lead the charge against the state for trying to imprison me for ten years. This famous Methodist momma was the mother of Dad’s best friend, Reverend Fletcher McLeod. Another son, Powers McLeod, was everybody’s pick to be bishop someday.

Chuck’s simple but brilliant maneuver, as the judge gaveled the crowded court session to order, caught everybody off guard. He stood and addressed the judge, “Your Honor, there are several preachers here with their wives who are character witnesses for my client, Mr. Bob Zellner. Mr. Durr and I have not had the opportunity to interview all of them. In the interest of saving the time of the court, if it please your honor, would you ask for them to stand so we may identify Mr. Zellner’s character witnesses? I don’t know how many of them are here.”

Before the prosecutor could object and before the judge realized he was being poleaxed in his own courtroom, the judge asked the character witnesses to stand. Almost the entire audience stood up. Case closed.

Black Belt civil rights pioneer Hulett passes

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2006 by Randall Williams

John Hulett, the first black office holder in one of the historic Black Belt counties of Alabama, and the co-founder of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, died August 21 at his home in Mosses, Alabama. He was 78 and had been in poor health for several years.

Lowndes County was and is one of the poorest counties in the U.S., despite being adjacent to the state capital. The county lies between Dallas and Montgomery counties and in 1965 the famous Selma to Montgomery march passed through Lowndes. Civil rights martyrs Viola Liuzzo and Jonathan Daniels were both murdered in Lowndes, and prior to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, there was not a single registered black voter in the county, though the population was 80 percent African American.

Hulett and his fellow activists in the Lowndes County Freedom Organization took their lives in their hands every day to challenge both state power and the unofficial terror of the Ku Klux Klan. But they prevailed, and the black panther they chose as their ballot symbol in Alabama elections was an inspiration to Stokeley Carmichael and other young activists who poured into the Black Belt to help Hulett and others register voters in the mid-1960s. The symbol was later adopted by the founders of the Black Panther Party.

Visitors to Hulett’s small office in the Lowndes Courthouse after he had become sheriff were startled to see hanging on his wall a vicious-looking wood-handled whip that he had inherited with the office. He kept it there, he said, as reminder that it had been used by his predecessors to beat Lowndes’ blacks for years. As sheriff for two decades, Hulett himself often did not wear a gun, and the county was so small and so poor that he often cooked the jail inmates’ meals himself.

Later he also won election as the first African American probate judge in the county, and he mentored a generation of Alabama black office holders who followed in his footsteps. Today, thanks to the gains of the Voting Rights Act, Alabama has more elected black officials than any state in the union.

He is to be buried Saturday, August 26, 2006.