Willie Bolden, Reflections on Georgia Politics

BOB SHORT: I’m Bob Short. This is Reflections on Georgia Politics sponsored
by Young Harris College and the University of Georgia Library. Our guest is Reverend Willie Bolden, who lived
through many battles during the Civil Rights Movements alongside Dr. King, an educator,
active member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a well known citizen of Atlanta. Welcome, Reverend Bolden. WILLIE BOLDEN: Thank you. SHORT: You were born in South Carolina but
made your way to Atlanta through Savannah. BOLDEN: Right. SHORT: Tell us about your early life. BOLDEN: Okay. And just before starting, I would also like
to just for emphasis say that I’m the pastor of the Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church here
in Atlanta, 498 English Avenue. I was born, like you said, in Sumter, South
Carolina. My parents decided that they did not want
me to grow up on a farm and decided to move to Savannah. When they moved there I was three years old. I understand from my mom that my dad came
first and got a job and then three months later after he found some place to stay, he
sent for her and for me and that’s how we ended up in Savannah, Georgia. I was educated in Savannah. I developed my Christian beliefs in Savannah. I grew up in St. Phillip A.M.E. Church. It’s now Martin Luther King Boulevard, but
when I was a young boy it was West Broad Street. And it’s still there. One of the largest, if not the largest A.M.E.
church in Savannah. My involvement in the movement in Savannah
came into play — believe it or not, I was an ex-Marine and I came home and got a job
on the waterfront as a longshoreman. And I said to myself, “Self, there’s got to
be a better way to make a living than working on the waterfront.” But I didn’t know exactly what that would
be. So I ended up being an assistant bell captain
at one of the two plush hotels. In my young days now, there were only two
plush hotels in Savannah. The DeSoto Hilton, and it’s still there on
Oglethorpe Street, and the Manger Hotel. Well, as the assistant bell captain I made
money every day. So I had money every day. And my second job was shooting pool. I was a nine ball player. And not just your average nine ball player. I was a real good nine ball player. As a matter of fact, when I see these tournaments
on television today I say, “Man, if they had that back when I was a young boy I’d probably
be a millionaire now.” So that was my other way of making money. But to get involved the movement, every day
at 12:00 — you could set your watch by it — Hosea Williams would march downtown. There was a park right across the street from
the hotel where I work. And there is an Indian Chief statue by the
name of Tomochichi. And Hosea would march two or three hundred
people every day, Monday through Friday, and where he got these folks from, I couldn’t
even imagine. But he had them. And he would climb up on Tomochichi and he
would talk about the white power structure downtown. And I said one or two things, “Either this
man is crazy or he’s one hell of a organizer.” Come to find out he was both. Very good friend of mine, but some of the
things that Hosea did, it was unbelievable. But I found out that they were going to try
to integrate the hotel where I worked. And my job, given to me by the innkeeper,
was when the demonstrators come downtown you lock the door. And that’s what I did. But when I found out they were coming this
particular day, I left the door unlocked and went downstairs. And when I did, the group came in, led by
Ben Clark, who was one heck of a organizer, along with some other folk, and they just
took over the lobby because they would not let them in the restaurant, nor would they
let them check in to the hotel. When they were all arrested then I was summoned
to the innkeeper’s office and terminated that same day. Now I said, “Oh, man, you mean to tell me
I lost my job. Man.” But I lived to find out that that was the
best thing that could ever happen to me. And I say that because that same innkeeper
who fired me, before it was over, because I got involved with Hosea and the Chatham
County Crusade for Voters and we integrated the hotels and motels and the restaurants
in Savannah, and that same hotel where I was fired from, Hosea’s wife, Juanita Williams
and Ben Clark and myself integrated that hotel. And I insisted on the innkeeper who fired
me to check me in. And of course we didn’t sleep all night. We kept in touch with each other. I wish we had had cell phones back then but
cell phones were not the thing. We could just call from room to room to make
sure that everybody was all right. I slept with the chair up against the door,
not only all the other locks, to make sure that nobody could come in. Didn’t feel comfortable sleeping. I think we all went home when we checked out
the next day and went to bed and got some sleep. But I enjoyed being able to check into that
hotel that terminated me. Now, how I met Dr. King. I met Dr. King in a pool room. The pool room was called Charlie Brown’s Pool
Room on West Broad Street. All of that now is torn down. West Broad Street — Martin Luther King Jr.,
the street today is nothing like it was when I was a boy coming up. You had clubs from Broad Street to 37th street
in Savannah. I mean nice clubs. Because you see, you had the Air Force base
there and the Army base just a few miles away. Ft. Stewart. All of the soldiers came to Savannah on liberty. And at the end of Montgomery Street you had
Hunter Air Force Base, so all the airmen would come to town. So, they had to have some place for them to
go and so they had a lot of clubs. So Hosea had invited Dr. King to come to Savannah. And this particular day I was in the pool
room playing nine ball and Hosea and his group, along with Dr. King, came in. And Dr. King said, “Brother, you just give
me a few minutes; I promise you I won’t be long. I just want to talk to you for a few minutes.” Well, right about the time he was asking for
our attention I was getting ready to bank the eight ball across side, play the nine
ball in the corner, and get paid. And I didn’t want to hear nothing about what
this guy was talking about, you know. So he walked over to me, he said, “What’s
your name?” I said “What’s your name?” He say “I’m Martin Luther King, Jr.” I say “I’m Willie Bolden.” He said, “I promise you, I’m not going to
take long. Just give me a few minutes of your time.” So I very arrogantly took my pool stick and
they had benches around the wall, because if you weren’t playing you had to sit on the
bench out of the way. So I went over and sat on the bench with my
pool stick in front of me and he was talking. I act like I wasn’t listening but I was listening. And finally, he got through and he said, “Thank
you, guys, man, I really appreciate your time.” Well, he invited everybody to come to a mass
rally at St. Philip Church that night because he was going to be speaking. And so when he and Hosea and the crew left
I got back over the table, I banked the eight ball cross side, I played the nine in the
corner, I got paid. So, later on that night I was home. Man, Bob, my pockets was swolled up like they
had the mumps. I mean I had a good day in the pool room,
right? So I went home that night to take my bath. And we didn’t have showers like we have today. I took my bath in a number 310 tub. Some of the people who’ll be listening to
this tape would not even know what a number 310 tub is, but that’s what we used to wash
clothes and everything back during those days. So I took my bath in my number 310 tub and
got dressed up for the evening. And while I was in the tub, it was strange,
because I could hear Dr. King talking about how we were beating each other out of the
little bit of money that we had. When, in fact, the man who was really robbing
us was several blocks down the street at City Hall and at the County Commission and in the
County Commission Chambers and sitting up in these suites. And I said, “You know, I think I’ll go hear
that guy tonight and see what else he’s got to talk about.” But I didn’t want the boys to know that I
was going to go to the church. So when I got ready to go, I lived on the
corner of Anderson and Burroughs, I walked down Anderson Street to Montgomery Street,
which is the street past West Broad. Then walked up Montgomery Street and back
to West Broad Street so I could get to St. Philip Church which sat on West Broad and
Hall Street. And I went in there, people were all — I
know the pastor of that church wished that people were there every Sunday like that — people
were all over the place. I mean in the rafters, up in the balcony,
all around, standing all around. I said “Jesus Christ, all these folks.” So I just kind of leaned back on the wall
and I was listening. And I watched this guy Dr. Martin Luther King,
Jr. He had everybody in the palm of his hand. At will, he picked folk up out of the pew
and sat them down at will. I had never heard nobody speak like that before. And I’m learning on the wall and all of the
sudden chill bumps start coming on me. And I said to myself, “Self, a man is not
supposed to make another man feel the way this man is making me feel. That’s just not supposed to be.” And when he finished, folks started lining
up around the wall to go shake his hand. And I went and got in line and when I walked
up to him and I stretched my hand out to shake his hand he stretched his hands out and when
our hands met it felt like I had cotton in my hand. I was scared to give him a real firm confident
shake. I just squeezed his hand just a little bit. But the thing that got me, Bob, was this:
he say, “Willie, I’m so glad you came.” Now, I don’t know how many folk this man had
met, but how could he remember my little ol’ Willie name? And I must admit that it made me feel pretty
good, right? A guy like this remembering me. About three weeks later Hosea told me Dr.
King wanted me to come to Atlanta. I said “For what?” “Well, he might want you to talk about working
with him.” I said, “Now, Hosea, that’s the non-violent
movement. I know yours is non-violent, too, but you
know, we don’t have folks spitting on us and we don’t have folk slapping and hitting on
us because we don’t have that kind of violent movement. Only thing happening to us in Savannah was
we got locked up, okay? ” And I said, “Now, Hosea, you know I’m an
ex-Marine and if somebody spit on me, if they have a lip when it’s all over with, it’s going
to be a miracle. Beause I’m not letting anybody, I don’t care
who it is, spit on me. And Lord knows, you know I ain’t going to
let nobody hit me and I not hit them back. So, you tell Dr. King that, you know, I can’t
handle that non-violent stuff.” He said, “Well, I tell you what, Bolden” — ’cause
he always called me Bolden — “you tell Dr. King yourself.” He gave me a flight check, what they used
back then. All I had to do was go out there and sign
my name to it and give it to ’em and get on the plane and go to Atlanta and when I got
ready to come back take another check, sign on it, and come back to Atlanta. He gave me one for going, one for coming. I came to Atlanta, met with Dr. King at 334
Auburn Avenue. That’s where the National SCLC Headquarters
was located, right on the corner of Hilliard and Auburn Avenue. His office wasn’t nowhere as large as this
office is. I mean his office really was like a little
closet, had a very small desk and his chair and had books all around naturally, and one
small sofa over on the wall. And I met with him and he told me that he’d
like for me to come work with him. And all that stuff I told Hosea, I could not
get it out of my mouth to tell him. I don’t know why. As a matter of fact, I’ll be quite honest
with you, I was a bit nervous sitting in there with him. And I remember him asking me, he said, “Do
you have a Bible?” And I said, “Yes, I have a Bible.” And he gave me — and I still have it — a
book on Mahatma Gandhi, the master of non-violence. And he said to me, “Willie” — he always called
me Willie — he said, “Willie, we’re going to turn this country from upside down to right
side up with two books: one, the Holy Bible and two, Mahatma Gandhi. Read and study both of them.” It was three years before I went back home. I had to have my mom pack up my stuff and
send it to me on the Greyhound bus. That’s how I got involved in the Civil Rights
Movement from Savannah, Georgia. SHORT: What was your first experience in the
movement after you joined SCLC? BOLDEN: Now, my first experience was to go
into town. Andy Young — well, at that time, before Andy
came it was Wyatt Tee Walker. He was the executive director. He and Andy, they all worked closely together. But primarily, my job was wherever Dr. King
was going into a movement, my job was to go in and make sure that the people knew he was
coming. I had to get out, make sure that thousands
of leaflets would be distributed, that churches would be notified, that the people in the
community knew that he was coming. My job was to get the town ready for Dr. King. And I did that in several cities. That was my primary job. But I felt like I had more to offer than just
making sure that some leaflets and stuff got put out. You know, I felt like I was a leader in my
own right. I mean even back home in Savannah I was a
leader, you know. And I felt that I had much more to offer. And I remember saying that in a meeting, I
said, “You know, I can do a lot more than just make sure there’s some leaflets. But anybody can go to town and put out some
leaflets.” And that’s when they assigned me to Hosea. And Hosea started me with voter registration
in Albany, Georgia. And I went to Albany and I stayed in Albany
over a year on voter registrations. I had several run-ins with one of the meanest
police chiefs you’d want to meet by the name of Pritchett. He locked me up two or three times. And I remember on one occasion I took some
people down to the courthouse to get registered and they wanted us to leave and I told the
folk we weren’t going to leave. And I was standing up on the — it had a little,
I guess you’d call it an edge, going up the steps to the courthouse. And I was standing up on that because the
people could see me as I talked to them. And he slapped me off the edge on top of a
car and I guess he thought that I was going to get up and leave, but fortunately, I didn’t
hurt myself. Did more damage to that car than I did myself. And I got up and went back and stood right
back up on that same stump and kept on talking and the people never left. So he had his folk to lock me up. And I stayed in jail a couple of days and
a lawyer by the name of C.B. King, Slater King’s brother, was the one who came and defended
me. And the guy who went on my bond was a black
business man there who owned a beauty supply company called Chapman Beauty Supply. And he was the one that went on my bond and
got me out of jail. And C.B. King was the one who represented
me in court. And if my memory serves me correctly, I was
fined something like $100 for failing to obey a police officer. But we registered hundreds and hundreds of
voters in Albany during my stay there at that time. SHORT: Dr. King was also arrested in Albany
wasn’t he? BOLDEN: Oh yeah, he was arrested in Albany. J.T. Johnson, there were a lot of folk from
the movement who were locked up in Albany. And C.B. King, the one who represented us,
even today the federal courthouse in Albany, Georgia is named after attorney C.B. King,
in Albany, Georgia. I went down. The wife and those and invited me to come
down to the ceremony. And it’s downtown Albany. C.B. King Federal Building. So you see a lot came out of what we did that
the average American don’t even know about. They may have heard the name but I doubt if
anybody, well I wouldn’t say anybody, but there are very few people outside of Albany
would know that the guy who stood our bonds and fought for us in the courtroom had the
federal courthouse named after him. And he also ran for governor. He was a guy before his time. He was a brilliant lawyer. A brilliant, brilliant lawyer. SHORT: So what happened after Albany? BOLDEN: After Albany I think my next move
was Social Circle, a little town about 30, 40, maybe a little more than 40 miles east
of Atlanta. There was a white teacher and a black teacher
who became friends. Both were females. And they were terminated, both of them, because
they would not sever their relationship and they supported each other, and they were good
teachers. But you know, when they want to find a way
to terminate you they will find a way. So, they found a way and terminated them. They brought it to SCLC, so I was assigned
to Social Circle to see what could we do to get their jobs back. So I went in and started organizing the community
along with some other staff from SCLC. And we stayed there in Social Circle over
a good year, because we pulled kids out of school. We closed the schools down in Social Circle. And we were marching every day. The state patrol, they had as many as 20 to
25 state patrols assigned — they would follow me — I thought they were my escorts because
everywhere I went there were one or two state patrols behind my car. They knew my car. They knew when I left. They would follow me from Social Circle back
to Atlanta. And they would stop out there on 20, and when
my car headed back to Social Circle they would pick me up and follow me. Well, I didn’t mind that because I said “As
long as the state patrol is following me then I don’t have to worry about the Ku Klux Klan
following me.” So, I say “They don’t know it but they are
really doing something to help me.” So I almost wanted to call them and say look,
“I’m getting ready to leave”, so they could come behind me and follow me. But we stayed there for about a year and that
particular city received at the SCLC National Convention, they received the Affiliate of
the Year Award because of what was going on. Because not only did it affect Social Circle
but it affected many of the other little cities around, like Lincolnton and Washington, all
the way over to Monroe. The movement just started spreading like throwing
a rock in the water and you see the ripples going out. So, it was a catalyst for a lot of other movements
in and around Social Circle. As a matter of fact, that’s where I was when
Dr. King was assassinated. I was meeting with the leader and the treasurer
and the leadership of the Social Circle Movement at the president’s house when it came over
the TV that Dr. King had just been shot. And I said “man.” I mean everybody just stopped. I mean we couldn’t do or say anything. And then they showed a picture. I shall never forget it. They showed a picture of Dr. King speaking
somewhere and it was like you saw a halo over his head. And I said then to the group, I said, “He’s
dead y’all. He’s dead.” Not knowing that he really was dead. Because the news was he’s been shot. And sure enough he died. And I remember getting in my car going to
Atlanta, trying to get a airplane so I could go to Memphis and they had cancelled all flights
to Memphis, Tennessee. And I remember calling the office and speaking
to Dora McDonald, who was Dr. King’s secretary, and said, “Dora, I got to get to Memphis. I got to get to Memphis. I got to get” — she said, “Willie, they have
locked. They closed down everything.” I said “Well, I’m going to drive.” She said, “No, don’t drive. You just need to come on to the office.” And so, instead — I’ll never forget. It was pouring down rain. I mean it was raining like cats and dogs. And I remember driving on back to Atlanta
to the SCLC office that night. But Social Circle was quite a movement. And then after Social Circle I went to Pike
County in Georgia because they had terminated Dr. Glover, D.F. Glover, who served for many years in Atlanta
on the Board of Education as an elected official. They terminated him. And the reason they terminated him was because
they were going to integrate the schools and Dr. Glover was the principal of the only black
high school there. Pike County Mechanical something Industrial
High School. So, they terminated him because they were
going to merge the black high school in with the Pike County High School, which was the
white high school. Now, here’s a guy who had been in education
almost 15 years longer than the principal at the white high school. Not only that, he had a doctorate in education. He had come up through ranks. He had taught. He was department chair. His experience was 100 times more greater
than the guy who was there, but rather than make him the principal of that school, they
did not renew his contract. And when they did not renew his contract he
got in touch with SCLC and they sent me there. And I went and we met with them and I’m saying,
“On what basis do you have not to renew Dr. Glover contract?” And they just played with words. I said “You terminated the man. You fired him.” “No, we didn’t fire him. We just didn’t renew his contract.” “Well, if you didn’t renew his contract you
got to have a reason. You just can’t arbitrarily and capriciously
not renew someone’s contract and not give them a reason why.” “Well, we just didn’t renew his contract.” That’s all they would say. So, what I did, we started organizing the
community, organizing the schools. I pulled all the kids out of school, and we
marched every single day in that town for about a month. Every day. And we saw where our marching — we would
go downtown to the courthouse, give big speeches — we saw where we had to up the ante a little
bit as we would call it. So we started marching out to the superintendent’s
house. And we marched out to the superintendent’s
house. He lived out on the outskirts of Zebulon. So we marched out to his house during the
day. And then a student came up to me one day and
said, “Reverend Bolden, maybe we need to do it at night.” And I said, “you know, I never really thought
about that. That’s a good idea.” So, we marched out there a couple nights. But then that got to be a little dangerous
because they started throwing bricks and bottles and several people got hurt. And that’s when I invited A.D. King, the brother
of Dr. King. He came to Pike County and he led a march
and spoke. But they never did renew Dr. Glover’s contract,
but we felt like we won because what they tried to do was to keep the high school students
who were qualified to graduate that year not to graduate. They didn’t want them to graduate. So I got a guy in Savannah — you probably
heard of him — the only guy I know picket more than Hosea. His name was Reverend Joseph Boone, Joseph
Boone. I went to him and talked about it and we organized
a graduation class for the students who met all of the criteria’s to graduate. But the county didn’t want to give them their
diploma. So we held our own graduation, gave them our
own diplomas, and Bob, every one of them we helped get in college. Every one of them went on to college and are
doing quite well even today. Okay? So we felt like that was a victory. Now, the other thing that happened in Pike
County was we closed down a canning company. This canning company had about a four or five
million dollar contract with the federal government to make pimentos and bell peppers and all
kinds of stuff for the federal government. And what we did, we organized the picketers
with the students. We picketed the company and when that seemed
like it wasn’t going to work we started organizing the workers who were the parents of the students
that we were trying to help. And when we convinced them of what we were
doing, they came out of the canning company, and as a result, the canning company lost
their contract with the federal government. And they sued me personally for $1.5 million. I went to Macon, the federal court, and I
said to the guy who sued me, “You know, you would have scared the hell out of me if you
had sued me for a $100, but a million five. Where am I going to get it? The best thing you can get is me. Do you want me?” And they finally dropped that case. But that company lost somewhere between three
and five million dollar contract with the federal government. So we felt like we had a victory in Pike County
because we were able to get those students into college. Then later I was assigned to Marks, Mississippi. As I told you earlier, that’s the only city
I ever saw Dr. King literally cry. And he cried because he witnessed a third
world city right here in America. We were always talking about going to Africa
and going here and going there, the third world. Well, we had one right here in America, a
Third World city called Marks, Mississippi. At that time, it was the poorest county in
the nation. Listed as the poorest county in the nation. Kids seven, eight, nine, eleven, twelve years
old walking around with pot belly stomachs. You would think that they were there because
they were eating too much. The truth of the matter is they were dying
from starvation. Their teeth just rotting out. It was nothing to see a ten-, eleven-, twelve-year-old
boy or girl walking around with just raggedy teeth or no teeth. You could almost just reach there and pull
a tooth out with your fingers because of no medical care. Well, right about that time the Poor People’s
Campaign was being organized. And I was asked if I would lead the mule train. Hosea gave me this assignment to bring the
mule train from Marks, Mississippi to Washington, D.C. Took us 52 days to do it. I had 16 wagons and about 175 men, women,
and children on there. We left out of Marks, Mississippi. The governor of Mississippi directed the state
patrol to close down one side of Highway 20 so we could travel through Mississippi. Got to Alabama, the governor instructed the
highway patrol, “close down one side of Highway 20, 20 East” so we could continue our journey
to Washington. Got to Georgia, Tallapoosa, Georgia, Governor
Lester Maddox was the governor. A kindergarten drop out. I almost said a high school drop out but I
couldn’t give him that much credit. A kindergarten drop out, who was our governor,
came out and met us as we were ready to enter into Georgia and said to me, “These wagons
and mules will not go down 20.” I said, “Mr. Governor, the governor of Mississippi
allowed us to come down 20, the governor of Alabama allowed us to come down 20. Now you mean to tell me my governor in my
home state will not allow us to continue our journey.” He said, “I don’t care what Mississippi did. I don’t care what Alabama did. I’m telling you what’s going to happen in
Georgia.” And I said, “Mr. Governor, it’s obvious that
you don’t know me very well. Oh, we’re going down 20 one way or the other. We’re going down 20. He got in his car and left.” I understand later on he ordered for me to
be arrested. They came and locked me up, took me to jail. Andrew Marsette, one of my helpers on the
march who knew how to organize, organized the mules and wagons off of 20 and brought
them all in downtown Tallapoosa to the jailhouse and said “we’re not leaving until Willie Bolden
is out of jail.” They kept me in jail about six hours and they
turned me loose. And guess what? We spent the night there, got up the next
morning, and we went down 20 East, came off at Ashby Street, which is Joseph E. Lowery
right now, to Hunter Street, which is Martin Luther King. Took a right on Hunter Street to Chestnut,
which is James P. Brawley Drive. Well, Dr. Ralph David Abernathy’s West Hunter
Street Baptist Church sits right on the corner, at that time. And we parked the mules and the wagons over
at Clark College football field. And that’s where we spent the time until we
got ready to go to Washington. Dr. Abernathy and the restaurant across the
street fed us. It was strange because one of the guys who
owned one of the restaurants across the street was a number man. Okay? And he had this nice restaurant. And he found out what we had gone through. He fed everybody on that trip a steak, baked
potato with all the trimmings, all of us on that trip. I think we stayed in Atlanta a couple of days
and then we loaded up the mules, the wagons, put the people on buses, loaded up the mules
and wagons on horse drawn buggies, I guess you’d call ’em, and the wagon and we took
them to Washington, outside of Washington, and we reassembled everything, the mules,
the wagons, put all the people on it, and then we went across the bridge into Resurrection
City. And I must admit, and I think I told you earlier,
a few tears came to my eyes when we saw all the folk. Because they knew we were coming. And they were out there to meet us. And they were just cheering us on, you know. Cheering us on. And the other folk on the wagon, they were
cheering us on. And I told you earlier, and I didn’t put it
in here, but I was given a white horse with a saddle. Never rode a horse before in my life. But I rode that horse that was given to me
as the wagon master. They called me the wagon master. And the guy said “if you’re the wagon master
you got to act like a wagon master. You got to ride like a wagon master.” And I remember him saying like that movie
that came on back during the day, “Rawhide,” “you’re going to have to say, Get ’em up! Move ’em out!” And I would get up every morning after we’d
have breakfast and got ourselves together, I would go up to the first mule drawn wagon
and I’d look and the guys who were helping me would let me know that everybody was ready,
and I say, “Get ’em up! Move ’em out!” Oh, it was fun. And the weather wasn’t always conducive. We ran into a lot of bad weather. But we made it. But we made it. And then later on I was assigned to St. Augustine,
Florida. That was quite a task there. In St. Augustine we were trying to integrate
the hotels, motels, and restaurants. And these movements that I’m talking about
may not go in sequence but at least you’ll know what they are because in St. Augustine
it was in 1964. And everyone knows — if you don’t know I’ll
tell you — the Poor People’s Campaign took place in 1968. That’s when we had Resurrection City in Washington,
D.C. But in St. Augustine, as I stated earlier,
we were trying to integrate the hotel, motels, and restaurants. And we were beaten twice a day, because it
was twice a day that we would march downtown, march out on the beach, and they would be
there ready to jump on us. And on the weekend they would import the Klan
from Florida, Jacksonville, Georgia, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama. They would have the Klan to come over and
they would be waiting for us at the beaches. So when we got to the beaches and we got out
and they would wait until we got out in the water and then they would come in and jump
on us. And the strange thing about it, the state
patrol would be standing up on the banks and they would see them out there and wouldn’t
do a thing. Just allowed them to come and beat us. But let me give you just a little bit of information
about St. Augustine and then we can move on. For those of you who may not be aware, Birmingham
and Montgomery, Alabama put the 1964 Civil Rights bill on President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s
desk because of the movements and activities in Birmingham and in Montgomery. There’s no question about that. They were the ones who put it on the desk. He took it and put it in his drawer. But it was the movement in St. Augustine,
Florida in 1964: those beatings that I just told you about, a man at the Munson Motel
throwing acid in the pool and then the next day when we went back and had a six foot alligator
in the pool. We would go in the restaurant and they would
bring the coffee and then just pour mounds and mounds of sugar in it. Or we would order food and they would come
back with salt just stacked up and pepper stacked up on the food to the point where
you couldn’t eat it. But it was during St. Augustine, Florida’s
movement that Dr. King’s house was shot up. A family out of New York allowed him to stay
in the house in St. Augustine while we were there. And they literally shot that house up trying
to kill him and anybody else who was in there with him. And because of that movement, Lyndon Baines
Johnson took the 1964 Civil Rights bill out, put it on his desk and signed it. That’s how we got that. Marion, Alabama. The night Jimmy Lee Jackson got killed, Dr.
King was supposed to go to Marion, Alabama that night because we had just found out that
James Orange was arrested and beaten in Marion, Alabama. He couldn’t go. So he sent me and about five other guys. I think it was Henry Brown Lee, “Big Lester”
Hankerson, Jimmy Lee Wells, myself, and one other person. I can’t think of who that person is. But we went there. We had a big mass rally that night. And I spoke. And we were getting ready to march out of
the church to march down to the courthouse and then eventually over to the jail where
they had James Orange. But when we got there the media was all over
the place. And the sheriff and all his folk were there. But before we could really get the march on
the way outside the sheriff summons one of his henchmen to come and grab me. And he grabbed me up by my jeans and carried
me over to the sheriff and the sheriff said, “What’s your name, nigger?” And before I could say anything he took his
pistol and stuck it in my mouth and cocked the trigger back and said, “If you breathe,
nigger, I’ll blow your so and so brains out.” Now here I am looking at him and I’m trying
to say to myself, “Self, don’t breathe.” And I’m just looking at him and he’s looking
at me and he’s calling Dr. King all kind of names. “Dr. Coon” and “you one of these outside agitators
who came into town and upset my negro — my niggers.” What — he didn’t call them niggers. “Niggerettes” — “and upset my niggerettes.” “I ought to blow your so and so brains out.” And he finally snapped it out and when he
did the end of the barrel of his pistol hit my teeth and cracked it. And then he hit me in the head, busted my
head, and then say, “Lock your so and so ass up.” And they jumped on the marchers and that’s
the night Jimmy Lee Jackson was killed, trying to protect his mother. And they took me to jail, along with many
others, and as we got to the jail they were taking us upstairs we could see blood all
over the floor, going up the steps where they had not only beaten James Orange but they
had beaten some other folks who went to jail with him. So, Marion, Alabama was a tough movement. And of course, the march on Washington I was
fresh out of jail in Savannah. I had been in jail for about five days. Hosea had been in jail 55 days. He refused to come out. But I came out of jail and helped organized
the group that went to Washington, D.C. during the march on Washington. And of course, as I stated earlier, the mule
train was a part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 when Dr. Abernathy organized Resurrection
City in Washington, D.C. Then we had a program called SCOPE, S-C-O-P-E. It stands for Summer Community Organization
for Political Education. That was another one of Hosea’s projects. That was his baby. He created it. And that program was designed specifically
for us who worked with him to go north, northwest, in the west to recruit specifically white
students to come south to work on voter registration. Because what was happening in the south was
those of us who were of the same hue that the folks were out on the plantation, for
some reason or another – I wouldn’t say they didn’t trust us – but they were a little skeptical
about going downtown with us because they felt like we weren’t able to protect them. But if the white students would come and say,
“Bob, my name is Susan; I’m from the University of Pennsylvania and I’m down here working
on voter registration, and what we’re doing, we’re traveling throughout the county trying
to register blacks” — we weren’t saying African Americans then, we were saying blacks — “who
are not registered to vote, because we know that you have taxation without representation. We know that you are the last hired but the
first fired. We know that you don’t have the jobs that
others have. And with voter registration, we can change
that. So, I’d like to take you down to register.” And believe it or not, they would go. They would go on down there. And we knew that and found that out from the
few whites who were working with us in SCLC. Guys like Al Lango and Willy Leventhal. They were white guys who worked with us. And they were getting folks and taken them. So, Hosea said, “Well, let’s see if we can
get the white students from the north, the west, the Midwest to come down to help us
with this.” And we did. And we got thousands of them to come. And we went out in Alabama, in Mississippi,
in Florida, in Georgia, and began to register black voters. And that’s when the black voting power really
started kicking off. It was those kind of campaigns that help us,
along with Selma, to get the Voters Right Act. Because once we got the voting right act out
of Selma, it made it a bit more easier for us to get blacks registered. And I say all the time, no Selma, Alabama,
no President Barack Obama. No Selma, Alabama, no Maynard Holbrook Jackson,
mayor of the city of Atlanta. No Selma, no Andrew Young, United States Congressman. No Selma, no Andy Young, United Nations. No Selma, no Andy Young, mayor. No Selma, no Shirley Franklin, Mayor of the
city of Atlanta. And then you can just take it outside of Atlanta
and just go all over the world. We had less than 300 black elected officials
nationwide, if we had that many, in 1965. Today we got over 10,000. And that’s all attributed to Selma, Alabama
and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which I’m glad to say I was on it, both times. The first time, March the 7th, and seven days
later, March the 14th. I was there. SHORT: Well, tell us about it. What was it like on the bridge on Bloody Sunday? BOLDEN: Okay. I had been assigned there along with some
other SCLC staff members to organize voter registration in Selma. I think it was about four or five of us. And at the same time, SNCC was there also
working on voter registration. After Bloody Sunday, we had people coming
in and Bloody Sunday was when we attempted the first time to go across the Edmund Pettus
Bridge. The sheriff and his posse and state patrol,
they beat us back across the bridge. Now, Dr. King — you’re right — was not much
in favor of the march at first because he wanted to try some other techniques before
we march. But Hosea Williams convinced Dr. King that
the march was the best thing for us to do. So, Dr. King acquiesced and said, “okay, we’ll
march.” But the ones who led the march was, the first
time was Hosea, John, they were the leaders of the march across the bridge. And that’s when they jumped on us and beat
us up and pushed us back across the bridge. Then we regrouped and went back and that’s
when everybody — I mean people came from all over the world. Because they saw what happened on that first
march and all of our sympathizers came. And prior to that, we had had not only the
killing of Jimmy Lee Jackson in Marion, but we had two whites killed right there in Selma. One was a priest, whose name escapes me at
the moment. I was trying to think about it as I talked,
but the name just won’t come to me, and another one. So it was kind of touch and go. But on that second march we took out across
the Edmund Pettus Bridge and we were protected all the way to Montgomery. Along the way we had all kinds of celebrities
who came and supported us. Again, Harry Bellafonte, Joan Baez, Peter,
Paul & Mary, Sidney Poitier. We had all kind of folk who had helped the
movement along to come and be with us. And of course, you know, we reach Montgomery,
Alabama, and Dr. King gave the big speech on the steps and someone might ask, “then
what happened after that?” What happened after that was SCLC started
Voter Registration Campaigns all across the country. All across the country. And even some small towns we started voter
registration. You take in Selma, Alabama, where there was
not one black elected official. There are now. And so, not only did we target large cities,
but we targeted small cities. If you remember, Carl Stokes in Cleveland,
Ohio, the first black mayor of a major city. And right after him in Gary, Indiana, Hatcher
in Gary, Indiana where SCLC played a major role in getting both of those guys because
Dr. King sent staff in to help them on their campaign. So all these cities where you see blacks serving
in elected positions, they have to thank the Selma Movement. And those who suffered being beaten, and even
after we got the 1965 Voter’s Right Act, there were still some cities, and not all of them
small cities, where we had a problem getting blacks registered to vote by the administration,
by political, by the power structure of those cities, because they knew that once we got
blacks registered then we were going to also turn them out to vote and that meant that,
hey, they might get caught up in that wheel. SHORT: Mississippi. You led some marches in Mississippi. BOLDEN: Well my biggest march in Mississippi
was Marks. And the next one would be Grenada, Mississippi. Grenada, Mississippi was a violent movement. Again, and that’s why I try to tell young
people today. We were always able to get a movement going
and get it started with the young people back then. We would go into a town and get the young
people ready and then after a while we would get the adults. But the young people were the ones who really
started the movement. And in Grenada, that movement got to be really
violent. As a matter of fact, on one occasion, when
the Klan jumped on us and beat us up, we were getting ready to march downtown. I saw with my eyes a guy take his foot and
put it between the crotch of a young boy and took his foot, I mean took his foot by his
hand and twisted and broke his leg in two places. I mean how could somebody take a child and
put your foot between their crotch and take your hand and twist and break it in two places? And there were several people who got hurt
that day. And we went to the hospital in Grenada, Mississippi,
and guess what? They wouldn’t wait on us. They wouldn’t wait on us. They said “Get out of here. We can’t do anything.” That’s when I found out about an all black
town on the outskirts of Grenada called Mound Bayou. I had never heard of Mound Bayou. It’s an all black city, elected officials,
everything, all black. Had their own hospital. And that’s where we had to take these injured
folk in order for them to get the services they needed for the injuries that they had. Grenada was pretty tough. But weathered the storm. We weathered the storm. SHORT: If you were asked what future generation
should know about the Civil Rights Movement, particularly during the 60’s and 70’s, what
would you say? BOLDEN: What they need to know about the Civil
Rights Movement? They need to know that what they are enjoying
today came at a heavy price. A lot of people whom they don’t know died. A lot of people whom they do not know have
mental and physical conditions today as a result of the Civil Rights Movement of the
60’s in order for them to enjoy what they are enjoying today. And they ought not take what they are enjoying
lightly. I would say to young people, today the question
should be what is it that I can do to make sure that this country does not revert back
to the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. And then get involved. Get involved with something. Get involved with some organization. Do some volunteer work. I worked for the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference for nine years and the most I ever made was $25 every two weeks. I was never hungry. I was never naked. I was never outdoors where I didn’t choose
to be on my own. Because the people who we were helping made
sure that we had what we needed. So you ought to get involved. Secondly, get an education. Go to school. When I came to Atlanta in 1961 there were
125,000 students in the Atlanta public school system. They have less than 55,000 now. And the dropout rate among blacks in high
schools are higher today than it was in 1961. In 1961 when I came to Atlanta they had one
black elected official on the Atlanta Board of Education. Now we have six. The superintendent in 1961 was white. The superintendent in 2009 is black. But yet, we have more students dropping out
of school in 2009 than we had in 1961. Something’s wrong with that picture. Something’s wrong. And we need young people to get involved so
we can make sure that whatever’s wrong gets straightened out. John Lewis and Julian Bond and Dr. King and
Dr. Abernathy and Hosea and Andy and C.T. and Fred Shuttlesworth and Willie Bolden and
James Orange and Leon Hall and Lester Hankerson, we were young men. You know, we weren’t old. We’re old now. But we were young men when we started out
in the Civil Rights Movement. And that’s what we need now. We need young men. I mean kids are smarter today than my two
and a half year old granddaughter came to me the other day and I stretched out in the
chair and I felt a charley horse coming in the back of my neck and she got up and came
over to me and she said, “Papa, what’s the matter? What’s the matter, Papa?” And she went over to her mama and said, “Lotion,
lotion”, and mama put a little lotion on her hand and she came back over to rub Papa’s
leg. Two and a half years old. Kids are much smarter today. But are they using it? We texting. And we can’t write a full sentence because
we text shorthand. Instead of saying Y-O-U, you just put U so
you can get a lot of words in there. And as a results, when you sit down to get
ready to write you’re writing just like that — U. So can’t nobody understand what you’re writing. SHORT: What do you think are the most important
issues facing African- Americans today? BOLDEN: Education and health. Education, health, and parental involvement. SHORT: What can we do — BOLDEN: When I was a young man I could not
come to my mother’s table with no t-shirt on. In my mama’s house, when me and my daddy came
to the table we had to have a shirt on. And the shirt had to be tucked in my pants. I never saw my daddy in my mama’s house with
his hat on. Always took it off before he came in the house. But I see folks today sitting up in restaurants,
the daddy got his hat on backwards, the son got his hat on backwards, the daughter got
her hat on backwards. We have to — and I know they call it old
school but some things we shouldn’t throw away. Some things we should maintain. SHORT: Is there a single spokesman for African-Americans
today — BOLDEN: No. SHORT: — as Dr. King was in his day? BOLDEN: No, and I don’t think there ever will
be another single spokesman for the black community. And I think maybe the closest person to it
today would be our president. But I can’t think of any one civil rights
leader who can be identified as the spokesman for the black community. Now many of them are speaking out on issues
that we certainly have some concerns. Brother Al Sharpton and even Jesse Jackson
is a spokesman in his own right. The National Urban League. We have a lot of spokesman now, but don’t
think we will ever have a single spokesman like we had during Dr. King. I also think that one of the reason we have
a problem in getting the masses of people to get involved like we did in the 60’s — remember,
in the 60s nobody had nothing. Nobody had anything. You didn’t have nothing to lose. You had everything to gain. But today folk are living in $3-400,000 homes;
they don’t want to lose that. They’re driving Bentley, Rolls Royce, Mercedes;
they don’t want to lose that. They’re wearing Armani instead of J.C. Penney. They don’t want to lose that. So, they are ready to send you a few dollars
so you can do it, but in terms of them doing it, they’re not going to do that. But in the 60’s, didn’t nobody have anything. So, it was much easier to organize the masses
of folk because we all were in the same shape. Even with the churches, you know, you got
the mega churches, with exception of maybe one, you don’t see them on the picket line. They will speak out and they’ll write you
a check. But what you really need is their bodies,
you see. SHORT: The SCLC is in existence today. What now is its main focus? BOLDEN: Well, I wish I could tell you that. I can’t tell you what their main focus is. I think right now SCLC, because it is trying
to get a president, and it’s hard for SCLC to get focused right now because they don’t
have a leader. But I think once the leader has been selected
and that leader gets his or her cabinet in place and then they can do what Dr. King and
Reverend Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth and others do what they did. But I just don’t think they are really focused
right now, and really focused. SHORT: Well I appreciate you being with us. I’d like to ask you one final question. BOLDEN: Okay. SHORT: Have we overlooked anything in your
career that you’d like to mention? BOLDEN: Well, no, except I always make it
clear that I worked with Dr. King and I loved him and I could have taken that bullet for
him — I really mean it — some folks say it and just because it sounds good. But if I could have taken that bullet for
Dr. King I would have taken it. I loved him that much. But my real hero, my real hero — I have two. And they are my mother and my father. My mother gave me the fight that’s in me because
that’s the way she was. My mom was president of PTA in my elementary
school and then when I got promoted to middle school, they called it junior high back then,
she was elected president of the PTA. And the elementary school would not let her
resign. So she ended up being president of the elementary
school PTA and the junior high PTA because she was a fighter. She was a organizer. She liked to get things done. My dad, on the other hand, I got my work ethics
from. My daddy taught me the importance of having
a job, working, taking care of your family. He taught me about time. He said if you’re on time you’re late. If you’re on time you’re late. So I always have a problem, even at the church
where I left and the church here, our Sunday morning worship service starts at 11:00. I’m not coming in the pulpit at 11 or five
after 11. I’m there before 11. I’m there while the deacons are having devotion
so when they finish and turn it over to me we’ll have a smooth transition. We can move on. Like today, I knew I was supposed to meet
you at 11:00. I left home early enough in case I ran into
traffic and had to detour where I could be here. I think I got here what? About 10:35, 10:30, 10:35. SHORT: Yeah, you were early. BOLDEN: Yeah. SHORT: You were early. BOLDEN: Because I got all that from daddy. He was my hero. That’s the only thing that I would like to
add in here, that because of my relationship with my mother and father, I am what I am
today. Dr. King and those just — and Hosea and Andy
and those just helped put the icing on it. But when I was in the raw it was my mother
and father who chiseled me and got me ready. And when Dr. King and them got me all they
had to do was say let’s go; I was ready. Yeah. SHORT: Okay. Willie Bolden, thank you very, very much. BOLDEN: Thank you. And I certainly hope that this interview will
be enlightening and help those who will watch it. Because what you have seen and heard today
is authentic. I didn’t get it off the Internet and I didn’t
read a book. Everything that I talked about today I witnessed
it with my own eyes, and I was there. And again, thank you, Bob. [END OF RECORDING]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *