On our journey along King’s Road, we visited Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The story of Tuscaloosa is not well-remembered in the annals of civil rights history.
If anything, this southern college town is best remembered for Autherine Lucy’s attempt to integrate the University of Alabama in 1956, and Governor George Wallace’s failed effort to maintain segregation in 1963 when Vivian Malone and James Hood became the first black students to successfully attend the University of Alabama. But segregation extended far beyond campus grounds.
"We pretty much had separate everything," Willie May Wells, foot soldier in the civil rights movement and Tuscaloosa native. "All of the schools were separated in downtown Tuscaloosa. There were no black cashiers or salespersons. The, well, we might as well say the unemployment situation was not fair when it came to blacks. My mother was a domestic and my father worked for the railroads. Tuscaloosa was just a segregated place. If you were gonna ride the bus, you sat in separate waiting rooms in the bus stations, or if you were waiting for a train, when you boarded the train, you were in separate cars. They were black cars, reserved just for black people, you could not eat in the dining cars, of course. So we were left to bringing our little bags of food if we were traveling a great distance. That was the same situation with the busses, we sat at the back of the busses. In essence, it was just a segregated situation."
The untold story of Tuscaloosa’s civil rights movement is a rich history of resistance, activism and resilience.
"All of us, I guess you might call all of us who participated in the mass meetings," Wells said, "particularly on Bloody Tuesday, we were called foot soldiers, and I think that was a term that was used throughout the South for those persons who participated whether you were young, old, whatever, we were called foot soldiers."
One of the pivotal movements in the civil rights struggle in Tuscaloosa became known as Bloody Tuesday. On June 9, 1964, a group of peaceful protesters planned to march two blocks from the First African Baptist Church to the county courthouse, to protest against the segregated restrooms and drinking fountains in the public building. The marchers barely made it out of the church before they were attacked by an angry mob.
"They started to push us, as marchers, back into the church," Wells said. "My brother and I were together. We never made it outside of the church. And they began to beat them with bully plugs, they had the cattle prods, they started to throw tear gas bombs into the church, and to break out the windows because they had instruments, they were throwing bricks, all of these things could be seen on the inside of the church after the melee had happened. So my brother and I went out through a back exit, and we were arrested as we started to cross the street, but those who were still in the church, who were tear gas bombed, we even had tear gas bombs set in the heads of some of the foot soldiers. People were looking for escape under pews, and in closets, just merely jumping out of the windows. Wherever they found somewhere that they could escape, because the tear gas was so overwhelming.
"About six months shortly thereafter, Bloody Tuesday, we did march to the County Courthouse, and that was a success. And people were able to go in and drink from the water fountain. It was amazing the very people who had been there to make sure that we did not enter into the courthouse on June 9th, 1964 are the same people who had to stand and protect us from any person who tried to do anything to us as we marched through the courthouse."
Today Miss Wells, along with surviving foot soldiers and leaders, such as Maxie Thomas, Danny Steel and Reverend Thomas Linton, are sharing their experiences with a new generation of activists. Together with the Tuscaloosa Civil Rights Task Force, they are telling their stories, to not only remember the past, but to foster justice and reconciliation going forward.
"Segregation in Tuscaloosa, and what led up to Bloody Tuesday, and what we are doing thereafter, we are also doing reconciliation," Wells said. "So you have to find yourself, find where you stand, as with the students with the shooting situation, you have to take a stand on something. You have to decide which side of that fence you are on. There is so much out there that needs to be changed. We have not reached that dream that Dr. King talked about. I think that there is a lot that still needs to be done, but it takes people to do it. We could not have done what we did here on Bloody Tuesday had it not been for people being involved. People have to be concerned, you can’t look and see things and then not take action on those."