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Reconstruction Period Research Forum

“Memories: Perspectives on Black History"

TOMMY STEVENSON: The civil rights stories from our own back yard
April 17, 2005

The legacies of places like Selma and Birmingham occupy large chapters in the histories of the civil rights movement in America. But stories from Tuscaloosa and the rest of West Alabama are often just as compelling, usually get short shrift in the chronicles, perhaps because they didn’t attract the media that swarmed the civil rights hot spots.

It was in part to correct that imbalance and fill in some of the missing history that Stillman College and the University of Alabama sponsored “Memories: Perspectives on Black History" last week at Stinson Auditorium.

The symposium, which was recorded and from which a CD will be produced, featured six veterans of the movement in the area, including the Rev. Tom Gilmore, the first African-American elected sheriff in the Deep South, who assumed the office in Greene County in 1970. Others were Joseph Mallisham, a Tuscaloosa black leader from the time he returned from Korea in the 1950s, who became the first black elected to the Tuscaloosa County Commission in 1985; and John Blackburn, the white dean of men at the University of Alabama as it weathered former Gov. George C. Wallace’s infamous “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door."

Also on the panel were Tuscaloosa native and early activist Willie Mae Wells, who was arrested more than once for participating in local civil rights marches; local attorney John Bivens, who formed the first chapter of the Afro-American Association on the UA campus in the early 1970s; and Harold Bishop, one of the first black members of the staff at the university, where he remains today.

Some of the stories in this oral history project were horrific.

Mallisham remembered his rude reception when he returned home to the bus station, where the post office now is on University Boulevard. Even though he was in uniform and had just finished serving his country overseas, he was told in no uncertain terms by a Tuscaloosa policeman not to get too uppity: “Remember, you are nigger here and you are going to act like a nigger."

Both Mallisham and Wells, who said the thing she is most proud of in her life “is getting arrested for blacks, poor whites, red or yellow," remembered “Hobo Den," the old Ku Klux Klan hangout at the bottom of River Hill on what is now Jack Warner Parkway and the frequent marches launched there.

Mallisham said he once heard a Klan potentate quoting from the Bible to justify racism, scripture that he said “almost made me anti-religious" until he became wise and well-read enough to know that the KKK was just twisting the Good Book to justify its hatred.

One of the more compelling stories was of a trip Gilmore took with civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and Hosea Williams on Alabama 14 from Greensboro to Marion in which a white trucker forced them off a road in the lot of a small country store.

Gilmore said the trucker came over to the car window and began cussing the group for shining their lights in his rearview mirror. At that point, King, in that measured, but firm voice of his, advised the man in no uncertain terms to “just get back in your truck and move along."

Gilmore said he assumed that the man recognized King, who was to be killed only days later in Memphis. The man turned on his heels and got back in his truck without another word.

Some of the stories also were positive and life affirming -- testimony to the good that was many hearts even back in the bad old days.

Bivens recalled that even though Blackburn and others at the university supported the Afro-American Association, the UA was loath to support it with any funds to set up offices.

So he and several other AAA officers visited several of the Greek organizations on campus. It was “the first time I had ever been in one of those places," he recalled, and put it this way to the white students:

Imagine you were a student at nearly all-black Howard University in Washington, D.C., and every building, every street and every meeting room you encountered was named for a famous black person. Wouldn’t you want something to make you proud of your own heritage and culture?

Within weeks, Bivens said, the AAA had raised enough money from the Greeks and other sources to establish a viable and lasting association that thrives at the Capstone to this day.

Blackburn joined the university community in 1956, shortly after the aborted first attempt by Autherine Lucy to integrate the Capstone. He called Wallace’s futile June 1963 stand at Foster Auditorium to block the registration of Vivian Malone and James Hood “the most profound experience of my life."

“But I cherish it [and the subsequent complete integration of the university] like no other," Blackburn added.

All of them admitted to have no friends of the other race growing up (Blackburn even remembered being admonished for even calling a black man “mister" one time), but for all the horror stories, they all said they also had fond and even cherished memories of growing up in the Jim Crow South of the 1940s through 1960s.

“I had a ball growing up, just like kids today," Gilmore, who is now the minister at a church in Ensley, said. “Today they’ve got [rapper] 50 Cent.

“Back then we had B.B. King, Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf," he said. “That wasn’t too bad."

Reach Tommy Stevenson at or 722-0194.

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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