ST. PETERSBURG — The Cathedral Church of St. Peter, 140 Fourth St. N., held an event Sun., June 14 for award-winning storyteller Jim Gregory to recount his civil rights odyssey.
After Carolyn Hobbs led the audience in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Gregory took the room back to the Deep South in the 1960s.
He grew up in California and later in Tennessee. In California, he said, whites were the minority in his school, so he was initially unaware of the South’s desegregation. After graduating high school in Tennessee, Gregory bought a motorcycle and took a road trip, eventually stopping in Mobile, Ala.
It was at a drug store in Mobile that he first found himself face-to-face with civil rights issues. He had taken a seat near African Americans, but police raided the store and arrested the group. While sitting with the others in a jail cell, Gregory said one of the black men enlightened him to the unjust plight of blacks in the South.
Unceremoniously thrown out of Alabama, Gregory returned to Tennessee and attended college. It was there that he and his roommate purchase a school bus and converted it into an RV. At first they thought to just cruise around in their newly converted school bus.
“But a good friend of ours from college heard us talking and said, ‘Why don’t you collect a bunch of books, go to the black schools in the South, and distribute some books and maybe take time to teach some of these kids to read,’ and we thought that was a good idea,” Gregory said.
The pair met others along the way that wanted to join their mission, becoming a total of eight, and together the group traveled through the South, distributing schoolbooks and teaching blacks to read. Gregory said it was largely due to a biracial girl traveling with them, Mae, that he and the rest of the white youths were eventually trusted by the black communities they worked with.
Eventually, the eight young men and women set up “Freedom School” in a church in Mississippi, joining a movement known as Freedom Summer, an effort to register blacks to vote in the state. It was at this church that Gregory met Tom Brown, who the group taught to read and who later gained his voter registration card.
Brown, Gregory said, was a master electrician and had even wired the homes of many white people in the area, “though they would never admit it.” Although Gregory did not tell the audience what become of Brown, he did reference the title of his latest CD of his story, “The Hanging of Tom Brown,” to indicate Brown’s fate.
One night, someone set fire to the church at which the group taught. Two of the school bus group went missing and the group, now down to six people, had to move onward.
They continued to face violence on their travels. They ended up at a church outside of Selma, Ala., a town that was under the jurisdiction of the Dallas County sheriff.
“At that stop, the bus got blown up with two of our people in it,” Gregory said. “Four of us were in the church at the time and deputies stormed into the church and arrested the two girls [Mae and Mary], me and Billy, and took us to jail.”
Gregory did not detail what occurred while the four were in jail, but his voice softened as he spoke.
“The week I spent in the Selma jail was a nightmare,” he said. “The two girls did not survive the week they spent in that jail. Billy and I both came out on crutches. We were finally released because the word came that Dr. King was coming to town and they wanted to get rid of us before King got to town, so they took us in four different directions and dumped us on the side of the road.
“Mae could not handle what had happened to her in jail and they told me that she had crawled off into a ditch and found a broken bottle, slit her wrist and she had bled to death. Mary had been picked up and they took her to a hospital in Georgia and within the following year she passed away; they said she never spoke, she was a vegetable.”
After being released from jail, Billy and Gregory, the only two remaining of the original group of eight, were each tied to a tree with bags pulled over their heads. The cops who had tied them up pulled the trigger on an unloaded gun, terrifying the boys. Yet they survived and were later picked up by members of the church at which they’d been arrested.
“Our wounds were dressed and we were put on the road to recovery, but we never quite got recovered,” Gregory said.
Though the police had threatened the two boys and although the church members urged them to return to the safety of their homes, Gregory and Billy decided to stay—Dr. King was coming to Selma and the two wanted to join the planned marches.
Both still on crutches, the two young men participated in the Selma to Montgomery march. They marched 55 miles on crutches. One night, Gregory said, a man came in to the camp and said, “Here they are, doctor.” The man introduced only as “doctor” washed and re-wrapped the boys’ feet. It was only after the man left that Gregory learned the man had in fact been Dr. King Martin Luther King, Jr. himself.
Gregory said that in the years that followed, he was shunned by his family “for being one of those objectionable people” and was even placed on Richard Nixon’s “dangerous radicals list.” He had trouble finding work for years, despite having finished college with a teaching certificate. It was many years later, under the guidance of a writing coach, that Gregory was able to confront his past in order to share his tale.
Gregory ended his recollections by relating the events of the 1960s to the racial tensions in the U.S. today.
“What’s the difference between the protests of the ‘60s and the protests of today,” Gregory asked. “I’ll tell you what it is—the people in the ‘60s won. They followed Dr. King’s example of non- violence. The only violence of the ‘60s was perpetrated by the police force, by the white southerners. The demonstrators did not tear up cities or burn down buildings or rob stores. They just marched quietly. And they won. I don’t see winning today,” he exclaimed.
Gregory went on to say that he doesn’t see anything happening unless we can learn to talk to each other and listen to each other without prejudice. He feels that all of the political correctness has gotten to the point where now everyone is afraid to open your mouths.
“We have to learn how to talk to each other … how to exchange ideas … how to compromise on both sides, or we are going to be in a civil war and it’s going to be bloody,” he finished.
After his speech, a soul food supper of smoked turkey, cornbread, collard greens, fried green tomatoes and sweet potato pie was served for $10 a plate. All proceeds will benefit the Episcopal Relief and Development, which started 75 years ago to help people who were in need of refugee help and 90 percent of every dollar donated goes to victims of disaster.