Opinion: Reflecting on dangerous days during the civil rights movement
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Opinion: Reflecting on dangerous days during the civil rights movement

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After my last column appeared in the Lake Geneva Regional News, three readers contacted me. Each of them posed a similar question, the gist of which was, “Surely you must be exaggerating when you wrote in your column that you were almost killed three times when you were active in the civil rights movement in Alabama in 1965.”

I want to assure these three readers (and possibly other readers) that most definitely I was not exaggerating. Those years were very dangerous times, not only for black Americans in the South who were fighting to gain their civil rights, but also for white Americans who came south to support them.

During the preceding century, many hundreds of black Americans had been lynched or killed in other ways by white racists, including Emmett Till from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi, four young black girls killed in the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, and three civil rights activists who were murdered near Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964, two of whom were young whites from New York who had come south to participate in the civil rights movement.

In this column, I will recount exactly how I was almost killed three times when I was in the civil rights movement in Alabama in 1965.

The first time that I was almost killed was on my very first day in Alabama. I had arrived on a bus from Madison via Chicago that pulled into the Montgomery, Alabama, bus station. There, I and quite a few other whites from the north who had come south to participate in the civil rights movement were met by activists in the movement, and taken by cars 50 miles west to Selma, Alabama.

After we arrived in Selma, we were walking on a dirt sidewalk that ran next to a high brick wall toward the Brown’s Chapel Church in the black section of Selma, where we were to be housed and sleep on the chapel’s floor. Black civil rights workers who were walking with us had placed males on the outside part of the dirt sidewalk and women on the inside part, warning us to keep our eyes open, because it was a very dangerous place.

As we were walking, I noticed a car driving on the road adjacent to the dirt sidewalk suddenly accelerate, veer off the road, and drive directly at me. There was no curb between the road and the dirt sidewalk. Before I could move, the car smashed into my left side, pushing me up against the brick wall before it veered back onto the road and sped away. I saw that it was a dark green 1956 Buick.

My left side seemed on fire with pain. When we finally got to the Brown’s Chapel, I went to the bathroom and examined my left side. I had a horrible red, black, and blue bruise on my left hip. It took well over two weeks for the bruise to disappear. I considered myself to be very fortunate to be still alive.

The second time that I was almost killed occurred a week later. It was Saturday, the day after the long march of blacks and whites from Selma to Montgomery had ended at the Alabama State Capitol building in Montgomery, where a rally of over 50,000 people was held. I was in charge of security on the speaker’s platform at the top of the steps of the Capitol building. After the rally concluded, the large crowd that had been present, many of whom had come on buses from all over the United States, quickly disappeared to return home.

Me and a young black friend whom I had gotten to know during the preceding week noticed that hundreds of young black kids from Selma had been left behind because they had no transportation back to Selma. My friend was a student at Lake Forest College who had come south to participate in the civil rights movement. Ironically, his professor at Lake Forest College, Jim Flynn, who had urged him to go to Selma, had been a professor of mine at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater who had gotten me interested in the civil rights movement in 1961, based on Flynn’s experience as a chapter leader of C.O.R.E (Congress of Racial Equality) at the University of Eastern Kentucky in Richmond, Kentucky, where he had been a professor before coming to the UW-Whitewater.

I saw a phone booth on the southwest corner of the Alabama State Capitol Square, looked up the number of the Montgomery Bus Company and dialed it. When a voice answered my phone call, I took a deep breath, and in the most authoritative voice that I could summon up, I told the person who answered the phone to send five school buses immediately to the southwest corner of the State Capitol square. To my astonishment (and delight), 15 minutes later five school buses arrived at the corner.

My friend and I loaded all of the young kids from Selma onto the buses. Soon we were on our way back to Selma. As the caravan of five buses (my friend and I were riding in the first bus) reached the halfway mark of the route back to Selma, five Alabama State Police cars with their red “gumballs” flashing, raced pass our bus caravan heading west. About a mile or so up the road, cops stopped our caravan of buses.

My friend and I got down out of our bus to see what was happening. I noticed that a car had gone off the road and onto the embankment on the road’s south side, and was facing east with its doors open. I asked an Alabama State cop what had happened, but he ordered me to get back on the bus. Eventually the cops let our caravan continue on toward Selma. I did not learn until the next day that the person driving the car, Mrs. Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights worker from Detroit, had been shot and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

When our bus caravan arrived back in Selma at the Courthouse Square, the black kids on the buses quickly dispersed, leaving me and my friend standing there. As we were figuring out how to get back to the black section of town, a caravan of pickup trucks came careening around the Courthouse Square. They were all flying Confederate flags. On the doors of their trucks was painted in crude black letters, “K.K.K.” People in the trucks were pointing shotguns, 30.30s., and 30.06 rifles out the trucks’ windows, as were people riding in the backs of the pickup trucks.

They were yelling and screaming profanity and racist terms at us. A pickup truck stopped right in front of us, and a guy leveled his rifle at us. “Oh, oh,” I thought to myself, “this is it. This is my last moment on this earth.”

All of a sudden, my friend and I were pulled from the back and people stepped in front of us. They were all black, and they, too, had 30.30s, 30.06s and shotguns, which they pointed at the people in the pickup trucks. We later learned that they were veterans of World War II, who had learned that the “K.K.K” was on its way to Selma from New Orleans, and they intended, and were prepared, to meet the “K.K.K.” head on.

I (and my friend) fortunately had once again dodged the bullet.

When the armed black World War II veterans appeared, all of the pickup trucks full of “K.K.K.” white racists disappeared. The black vets escorted my friend and me back to the Brown’s Chapel in the black community.

The next day, young black members of S.N.C.C. (the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) told all of the whites who had come to Selma to participate in the civil rights movement that they must leave town, because it had become too dangerous and they could not protect us.

A white Jewish woman in her 40s from Miami, Florida, who had driven up to Selma to join the civil rights movement, told me that she was driving through Montgomery on her way back to Miami and that she could drop me off at the Montgomery Bus Station. I decided to ride with her, as also did two black carpenters from San Francisco who were Korean War veterans. I had helped them build a stage on the football field of the black Catholic high school on the west side of Montgomery (St. Jude’s) where entertainers from throughout the United States had performed on the night before the final day of the march from Selma to Montgomery.

The black carpenters piled into the back seat of her car and I rode shotgun next to her in the front seat. As her car proceeded east on the highway to Montgomery, we were all chatting pleasantly when, about three quarters of the way to Montgomery, a car had smashed into the back of the car we were riding in. Then, smash, smash twice more.

The car that had smashed into us then pulled up on the right side of our car and tried to force our car off the road. I looked out my window and saw a white guy in the back seat of the car that was trying to force us off the road pointing a rifle directly at me. He was not more than a foot away, and I could see that he had bad teeth. His car had a Confederate flag flying from its radio antenna.

The woman driving our car drove faster and faster, and the car that had been trying to force us off the road pulled back behind us and smashed into the back of our car two or three more times. One of the two black carpenters in the back seat of our car said, “If they force us off the road, let us take care of them.”

I heard what I thought were pistols being cocked, and looked toward the back seat and saw that they both had .45s. The car behind us smashed into our car again. I looked ahead out of the front window and saw that the highway split a short distance ahead, with one lane leading off to the right probably to go around Montgomery while the other lane led into Montgomery. The car that had been smashing into us pulled up next to us again. and I saw the guy with bad teeth level his rifle directly at me. But by the time that he had gotten me sighted in, his car took the lane that bypassed Montgomery while we drove straight into Montgomery.

The experience had so frightened me that I was drenched in sweat. The woman driving our car dropped the two black carpenters off at the airport before dropping me off at the bus station.

Unlike Viola Liuzzo, I had survived Selma.

Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.

Quinn is a Lake Geneva native who is the University Archivist Emeritus at Northwestern University.

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