The most traumatic event of our voter registration drive in Wilcox County occurred on June 29, 1965. Our headquarters, Antioch Baptist Church had been vandalized several times so we thought it best to have someone there at all hours to protect project equipment and files. The group of teenagers watching the church that night—all of whom were between fifteen and eighteen years old—included Emmanuel Hardley, Robert Powell, Frank Conner, Charles Nettles and his younger brother Grady, Henry Robertson, William Truss, and one other teenager. Don Green would have been with them had he not still been in jail on his concealed weapons charge, and we were still worried for his safety.
The last time I saw Frank Conner and Emmanuel Hardley, who were beaten the worst, they were in Major Johns’s car heading to Good Samaritan Hospital with Frank looking like he was bleeding to death in the backseat. Robert Powell and the Nettles brothers escaped but were shaken and angered by the attack. At the time, the boys told both our leader Major Johns and my boyfriend Bob that they knew the men: they could see their faces through stocking masks. Major Johns told us the names as well. That same night, Don Green, who was still in jail in the solitary confinement bullpen, was beaten again, more severely than before.
On July 1, 1965, the New York Times published this account of the attack in the church:
Local Youth Civil Rights Activists Attacked in Church
Riddled with misinformation, no doubt received from Sheriff Jenkins who endorsed the attack, the New York Times article sharply contrasted with a press release by the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, vice president and treasurer of SCLC, issued July 1, 1965. The mistreatment of our SCOPE group in Wilcox was cited as yet another reason to hasten the passage of the Voting Rights Act:
“Field workers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and local Negro citizens engaged in voter registration projects throughout The South are being subjected to sinister harassments and brutal intimidations. . . . Wilcox County is one of the most infamous of the state’s Black Belt counties, where until recently not a single Negro was registered to vote.
In Camden, the county seat, local whites Tuesday night broke into a house of God, Antioch Baptist Church, fired a shot gun blast against the wall and brutally beat seven Negro teenagers, two of them so badly they had to be hospitalized.”
Please share your memories and comments at the “Leave a comment” link here. Read more about these courageous young men, in their own words, in “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight.”