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Author: Subject: Stolen girls: arrested after a series of protest marches
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[*] posted on 8.8.2006 at 08:56 AM
Stolen girls: arrested after a series of protest marches

Stolen girls: arrested after a series of protest marches in the summer of 1963, almost three dozen girls from Americus, Georgia, were held for weeks in an abandoned Civil War-era stockade. Never formally charged, the girls banded together in horrific circumstances, even as their frantic families searched for them. Now their story of courage, faith and resilience is finally being told


Donna M. Owens

The Georgia sun was unrelenting that July day in 1963. It cause sweat to trickle down the back of young brown girls wearing pretty homemade cotton dresses, starched blouses and capri pants. Moisture ed at the napes of ebony boys, with neatly cropped hair, dampening their crisp, short-sleeve shirts. But for some 200 Negro children and adults singing "We Shall Overcome" as they marched down Cotton Avenue in the small southern town of Americus, Georgia, the heat was the least of their concerns, In this onetime cotton center founded in the 1830's. Blacks made up about half of the 13,000 residents, but they were treated as second-class citizens under the same Jim Crow policies that ruled the South. Americus, with its mix of antebellum cottages, tin-roof shanties, pecan orchards and railroad tracks, had a name that suggested democracy, but racism was as fertile here as the rich. red Georgia soil. Colored and Whites Only signs proliferated, and segregated lunch counters, schools, restrooms and water fountains were a way of life.

"If you think of Mississippi first and Alabama second, then Georgia was third n terms of discrimination," says Julian Bond, then a 23-year-old leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and now chairman of the NAACP. "In those days Black people had no rights that Whites felt bound to obey. You expected every outrage, and the worst that could happen, would happen."

Indeed, at high noon on that hot July day, the worst was beginning to unfold in downtown Americus. "The plan was for half of the demonstrators to head to the segregated Martin Theater, while the rest were to veer right toward the White waiting room of the Trailways bus station," recalls James A. Westbrooks, then a 19-year-old college student and a field secretary for SNCC, which had joined with the NAACP to organize the demonstration.

In Americus, as in other parts of the South, young people, fired up by meetings at local Black churches, had become faithful foot soldiers of the movement, They had already taken part in sit-ins, protests and picketing at the segregated public library and the local courthouse, and voter registration drives were plentiful. "We were marching at least once a week and every weekend," remembers Emmarene Kaigler Streeter, who turned 14 that year. "A lot of us were sneaking out of the house and doing it against our parents' wishes."

But just as the dream of dignity and equality emboldened some Blacks, their challenge to the status quo angered and threatened many Whites in Americus, including some of those charged with protecting them. Police Chief Ross Chambliss and the tobacco-chewing sheriff, Fred Chappell, were as infamous in these parts as Bull Connor was in Birmingham, Alabama. Chappell, who some local folk described as heavy-jowled and prone to calling Blacks "[Censored]," had even left an impression on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., back in 1961. After his arrest in nearby Albany, Dr. King had been transferred and briefly held in the Sumter County jail in Americus. Afterward he is reported to have said that Fred Chappell was "the meanest man in the world." This was the man waiting to meet the marchers in Americus in 1963.

"Blood was pouring down my face"

Near the edge of downtown, the demonstrators found themselves facing a large White mob that included law-enforcement officers, known Ku Klux Klan members and self-deputized citizens who had apparently heard about the protests from an informant. No one doubted that the snarling police dogs, high-powered fire hoses, billy clubs and electric cattle prods carried by some in the angry mob would be used. But the marchers knew they would not fight back. They had taken an oath of nonviolence that included no hitting or cursing, not speaking or laughing, never blocking entrances to stores and aisles, and being courteous at all times. So when the sheriff ordered them to disperse, the demonstrators dropped to their knees and began to pray.

"I didn't have sense enough to be afraid," says Diane Dorsey Bowens, who had just turned 13 and was marching for the first time. More than anything, she wanted to see places like the local Walgreens desegregated. "You'd go in for a prescription, and there was a soda fountain but you weren't allowed to drink," recalls Bowens. "Whites there would laugh and make fun of you and call you '[Censored].' When the movement came, I couldn't wait to be part of it."

But as resolved as she and the other protestors were to remain nonviolent, nothing could have prepared them for the mayhem that ensued. As the crowd swarmed the marchers, LuLu Westbrooks Griffin, then 13, felt herself being swept from the sidewalk into the street by a stinging blast of water, her shoes knocked off her feet. As she struggled to get up, a policeman attacked her with his club. "He was on me, beating me over the head," LuLu would recall 43 years later. "Blood was pouring down my face."

Her older brother James, the SNCC worker who had helped recruit and train the young marchers, watched in horror but was in no position to help. Pinned to the ground by police, one boot on his neck, another on his back, he could do nothing as his little sister LuLu, his 13-year-old niece, Gloria Breedlove, and dozens of other children were arrested and thrown into police wagons.

Eunice Lee Butts, now 95, remembers that her son James came running home that afternoon, screaming that his 12-year-old sister "Bang" was in jail. Bang was the nickname of Bobbie Jean Butts Wise, one of Mrs. Butts's nine children. "I was scared and sick with worry," she says, her voice clouding at the memory. "But I didn't even know where they had taken them. There was nothing I could do."

For weeks afterward, the marchers were shuffled from jail to jail in neighboring counties across the region, all overflowing with demonstrators from the numerous civil rights protests that took place that summer. Boys and girls were sometimes kept apart by chicken wire in improvised holding pens, and older teens were separated from younger ones. Eventually about three dozen adolescent girls from various facilities were transported some 20 miles from Americus to the Leesburg Stockade, a Civil War era prison in Lee County. The youngest girl was about 10, the oldest about 16. For nearly seven weeks, many would be held in that bleak place with little family contact and no sense of when or whether they'd ever be let go. "They told us that we'd be taken out one by one and killed," recalls Barbara Jean Daniels. She was 14 years old.

"He swung the shovel at me"

The Leesburg Stockade, a low-slung white structure with steel doors, looked as if it hadn't been cleaned in decades. The barred windows all had jagged, broken glass and no screens, the floors were filthy, and a single bare lightbulb hung from the ceiling. In this narrow cell, roughly 12 feet by 40 feet, more than 30 girls were squeezed into a space intended to accommodate far fewer. A squat, graying older man called Pops was assigned to guard the girls; he was armed with a shotgun. Other White men passed through on no particular schedule--whether they were law-enforcement officials or not, the girls never knew. The only other person they saw regularly was the local dogcatcher, Mr. Story, a tall, thin man with a nervous manner. He delivered meals. "The first two days we didn't get any food," recalls Shirley Ann Green Reese, who was 14. "Around the third day they started bringing us hamburgers that were almost raw."

Several of the girls began throwing up or suffering from diarrhea. The only toilet was a broken commode in the corner that couldn't be flushed. It was soon clogged to the top. With no other options to relieve themselves, the girls took to squatting over the shower drain, which quickly developed a suffocating stench. To wipe themselves they used the paper cartons from the burger deliveries. When their menstrual cycles came, they tore strips off their dresses and fashioned them into napkins. Bathing wasn't an option. There was a showerhead, but its slow perpetual drip proved useless, though the girls could get a sip of warm water by standing under it with cupped hands. One of the guards later gave them a few tin cups to share.

Rickety bunks with thin, soiled mattresses stood in a corner of the cell, but nobody dared sleep on them. Instead, the girls huddled on the concrete floor with no pillows and some stained army blankets full of cigarette burns. They didn't sleep much. Their backs ached; the mosquitoes, ticks and roaches were merciless; and the heat was stifling.

As the days and then weeks crawled by, the girls would take turns at the window, hoping for an occasional whiff of fresh air. "Once I was looking out through the bars, and I asked Pops something. When he didn't respond, I called him a bastard," recalls Willie Mae Smith Davis, whom everyone called Mae Mae. She was 15 years old. "He swung a shovel at me, and it narrowly missed my hands."

Some guards poked the girls with sticks and called them "pick-a-ninnies," "jungle bunnies" and "[Censored]." They told them Dr. King had gone to jail. "Who's going to be your savior now?" they taunted. One day one of the guards tossed a huge snake into the cell, sending the girls screaming into a corner. The reptile remained there all night, hissing noisily. The next morning it was captured after the girls begged one of the other men to remove it.

Laura Ruff, who was 15, recalls the night that two truckloads of White boys came riding up. "We knew they'd been drinking because we could see the bottles in their hands," she says. "They started yelling to Pops, 'Let us in there. We wanna have a little fun!'" Pops cocked his rifle and told them to get the hell out of there, but Sanders, now 58, still shudders at the thought of what might have happened had they somehow managed to get inside the stockade.

During those long, slow weeks of captivity, the girls did what they could to keep going. "We prayed all the time, and we sang freedom songs," says Annie Lue Ragans Laster, one of several girls who had been sent to the stockade from later protests. "When someone was down or crying, we would all gather 'round and hold her." Everyone had lost weight, and LuLu desperately needed medical treatment for her festering head wound. The other girls suffered from a range of ills: ear infections, boils and high fevers. Some had lice in their hair, and one girl, 15-year-old Verna Hollis, learned she was pregnant while inside the stockade. "Everyone else was getting their period, and mine never came," she says softly. "I was throwing up all the time. I was just miserable."

"We weren't afraid of death"

Several weeks into their captivity, the girls plotted an escape. Billie Jo Thornton Allen, 14 at the time, recalls that the plan was for them to call out to Pops so he'd open the door, then they'd push past him and make a run for it. Chased by blasts from the old man's rifle, they made it across an open field to the trees. But after stumbling through the heavily wooded area for some time, they began to realize they'd never be able to find their way home. Dejected, they returned to the stockade.

There were other rebellions. The pile of mattresses in the corner, which the girls had been forced to use as an impromptu lavatory, developed a horrible smell, recalls Robertiena Freeman Fletcher, who was 14. One day, in protest, the girls set the pile on fire with some matches they found on the floor.

Back in Americus, frantic family members and SNCC workers were making the rounds of jails trying to discover the whereabouts of the children. Word finally filtered to some of the girls' families that they were being held in the Leesburg Stockade. The few parents who had transportation drove out with food and provisions, holding fast to the hope of taking their daughters home. A handful did succeed in securing their daughters' release, but they were mostly the town's more influential Negro citizens, including the principal of the Black junior high school and the local funeral director. Most other parents weren't even allowed to see their girls.

After more than a month, help finally arrived in the form of a 21-year-old SNCC photographer named Danny Lyon, a Jewish New Yorker living in Atlanta. The organization had sent him to take photos of the girls as evidence of the fact that they were being held illegally. Smuggled to the stockade grounds by a Black teen driving Lyon's Volkswagen, the photographer lay on the floor behind the front seat. While the young driver distracted Pops, Lyon crawled out of the car and around to the back, where he saw the girls through the windows.

"They clustered around the window, holding hands through the broken glass and bars and saying 'freedom,'" remembers Lyon, who later recounted the experience in his book Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement (University of North Carolina Press). "They were beautiful." Lyon knew he didn't have much time, so he explained to the girls the sort of pictures he needed to make. They understood at once. "They all went and lay down and pretended they were asleep," says Lyon. His hands trembled and his heart pounded as he snapped photo after photo of the girls in the squalid cell. He documented the overrun toilet, the rusty showerhead, the girls in torn clothing on the filthy floor. Then, while the teen who'd smuggled him in continued to engage Pops, Lyon hurried back to the car, shaken by his close-up view of southern "justice."

When he returned to SNCC's Atlanta headquarters with the pictures, workers rushed to publicize the girls' plight. "The pictures first appeared in our newspaper, The Student Voice," says Bond. "We then mailed them to Black newspapers all over the country." One image appeared in a September 1963 issue of Jet magazine, along with an article, "GA Marchers Kept in Filthy, Stench-Filled Jail." Bond and others say that Lyon's photos also came to the attention of a U.S. senator, Harrison A. Williams, Jr., who later entered them into the Congressional Record. In her self-published book, Freedom Is Not Free (Heirloom Publishing), LuLu Westbrooks Griffin speculates that the pictures were eventually passed on to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. While no one has been able to verify a paper trail, it seems clear that after the pictures arrived in Washington, D.C., someone important, perhaps President John F. Kennedy himself, orchestrated the girls' release.

All the girls know for sure is that in the first week of September 1963, just after school opened, they were herded into a police wagon and transported back to Americus. They'd had some inkling that they were soon to be released: Pops had muttered it to them, and the dogcatcher, Mr. Story, brought scraps of news from the girls' families as he delivered meals. On arriving back in Americus, several of the girls were brought before officials at the local courthouse. There they learned that some families had been charged $2 per day as a "boarding fee" for the time their children spent in prison. But the parents, overjoyed to see their daughters alive, focused only on getting them home safely.

Carol Barner Seay, who was 13, remembers that she and her mother were told to appear before a magistrate who asked if she would promise to stay away from the protests and other "mess" in the future. Carol retorted angrily, "Mess, what mess?!" as her mother tried in vain to shush her. "We always knew that marching could mean jail or death," Seay, a minister, says now. "But I was not afraid, and neither were the others. We were willing to do what we had to do to gain our freedom."

"It's like I'm drawn back here"

On a crisp, clear day in January 2006, a caravan of cars zooms past wide-open cotton fields, magnolia trees, marshland and peanut stands in scenic southwest Georgia. Forty-three years after their imprisonment, some of the women are returning to visit the place where their innocence was stolen.

Many of the Americus girls have moved away from their hometown and are scattered all over the country. Some have become educators, business owners, nurses, real estate agents, urban planners, scientists and ministers; others have worked at factories and fast-food places, and some are retired. Most are married with adult children, some have grandchildren, and several have passed away. Though their lives have followed many different trajectories, they all say they were forever marked by what they endured in the summer of 1963.

The Leesburg Stockade along Highway 32 has been slightly altered over the years, and its name, etched into a wail of the structure, has been obscured by a public-works sign. "A lot of sad memories in this place," says Sandra Russell Mansfield, a small, fragile-seeming woman who still lives in Americus, and who begins weeping almost from the moment she steps out of her car. "I drive down sometimes. It's like I'm drawn back here. Every time I come, I leave a piece of myself."

For some of the women, like Robertiena Freeman Fletcher, this is the first trip back. Others, like LuLu Westbrooks Griffin, now 57 and a resident of Springwater, New York, and Gloria Breedlove, 57, of Philadelphia, have made regular pilgrimages to both Americus and Leesburg over the last decade, taking pictures and videotaping the site to preserve the history.

A documentary, LuLu and the Girls of Americus, Georgia 1963, premiered in Americus at the Rylander Theatre in July 2003, the fortieth anniversary of the girls' imprisonment. Filmmakers Richard J. McCollough and Travis W. Lewis of Mirus Video Productions in Rochester, New York, spent hours and their own money documenting the incident. "It's one of those untold civil rights stories that everyone needs to know about," says McCollough, 49, a broadcast journalist who first met LuLu in 1999, after reading about her in their local newspaper. Completed in 2003, the documentary has won several awards, including the prestigious Telly, which honors the best in cable, news and video, in 2004. Yet the filmmakers believe that not enough people have seen the film. "The story of what happened to these women deserves national exposure," says Lewis.

Shari K. Thompson, 34, an adjunct professor in film and media arts at Temple University, couldn't agree more. She is working on her own documentary about the women. She became aware of them in the late nineties after Philadelphia attorney Calvin Taylor, Jr., who had met Gloria Breedlove, approached Thompson to tell the story on film. Taylor thought the documentary would help him build a legal case on behalf of the women. Intrigued, Thompson traveled to Americus to see the stockade and meet the women. "This story has a spiritual connection for me," she reflects. "I haven't been able to let it go."

Indeed, this too-little-known incident of the civil rights era haunts all who learn of it. Taylor, a specialist in litigation, says he cried the first time he discovered what had happened to the girls in that sweltering summer of 1963. "I think they deserve some type of reparation for this tragedy," says the attorney, who now represents Gloria and several of the other women but has not yet filed a lawsuit. "These women suffered enormously, and most Americans don't even know it happened."

"We took a stand for justice"

Roaming the grounds of the stockade on a crisp blue morning last January, alternately crying and holding one another, the women reflect on the fact that, all these years later, many of them still have recurring nightmares. A few have sought counseling, but others have spent their entire adult lives burying the incident, refusing to talk about their time in the stockade, even with their spouses and children.

Nor has their hometown come to terms with its cruel response during that summer of protests. While the population of Americus has grown to 17,000 (39 percent White and 58 percent Black), and the town now houses internationally known organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Americus has never officially addressed the stockade incident or other shameful episodes in its history. Many of the authorities involved, including sheriff Fred Chappell and police chief Ross Chambliss, have died, and court records that might document the girls' imprisonment have proven impossible to locate.

The women feel that an apology, and some form of legal redress, is appropriate given what they suffered. Officials at the U.S. Department of Justice, the federal agency charged with pursuing civil rights violations, told Taylor that the five-year statute of limitations has passed, but legal precedent exists for other avenues of pursuit. "If there is a strong community outcry about what happened," says attorney Jacqueline A. Berrien of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, "then legal recourse can still occur." [See "Delayed Justice" sidebar.]

To raise awareness, several of the women have spoken publicly about their experiences, and all would like to see a memorial or museum erected at Leesburg to educate young people. Georgia congressman Sanford Bishop, who represents the Second Congressional District, which includes Americus and Leesburg, has said that a memorial "is in the realm of possibility." He has already pushed through legislation to name the new U.S. courthouse in nearby Albany for civil rights attorney C.B. King. With support from the Georgia legislature, he says, the women might be honored with their own memorial as well. "It's a very gripping story," he says, "one that needs to be preserved."

Would any of the women choose to rewrite their fateful history? Not one said she would. "The minute I became a freedom rider," reflects Gloria, "I was choosing to abandon my jump rope and be a soldier for freedom. That motivation superseded fear."

Even so, the women are aware that many fellow soldiers never lived to tell their story; that in the same year they were in jail, Medgar Evers was fatally shot in the back outside his Mississippi home; and that four little Black girls were killed in a Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing.

But 1963 also had its triumphs. August 28 of that year, while the girls shored up their courage by singing civil rights anthems inside the stockade, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his indelible "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C. Few among the 250,000 gathered to hear him knew that hundreds of miles away in Georgia, another group of marchers was also serving the same cause. "We took a stand for justice and dignity, and I'm proud of what we accomplished, knocking down those ugly walls of segregation," LuLu says.

As the daylight slants lower over the stockade, the women, bound by shared experience, spontaneously come together in a circle and bow their heads to pray. Afterward, as they break apart, each one lost in her own separate memory, you know that in the pantheon of fighters who struggled and sacrificed for freedom's cause, the girls of Americus, Georgia, deserve their rightful place in history, too.


In the summer of 1963, at least 33 girls from different protest marches were held at the Leesburg Stockade. Most of them had participated in the violent Americus march that was intended to desegregate the local movie theater and bus station. The following are among those who were reportedly detained. They are listed by their childhood names,

DELAYED JUSTICE In recent years some cases involving civil rights--era crimes have been reopened by the Justice Department

THE CASE: The 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killed four Black girls: Addie Mae Collins, 14; Cynthia Wesley, 14; Carole Robertson, 14; and Denise McNair, 11.

THE RESULT: One defendant was convicted in 1977. In 1997 the FBI reopened the case, prompted by pressure from the community. An investigation led to a second conviction in 2001 and a third in 2002. A fourth alleged participant died in 1994, and therefore was never tried.

THE CASE: Ben Chester White, 67, a Black sharecropper, was driven into a national forest and murdered in 1966 by Ernest Avants, who was reported to be a Mississippi Ku Klux Klan member.

THE RESULT: White was murdered on federal land, so the five-year statute of limitations didn't apply. In 2003, at the instigation of civil rights groups, Avants, 72, was convicted in Jackson, Mississippi.

THE CASE: Emmett Till, 14, was abducted in August 1955 after allegedly whistling at a White woman in Money, Mississippi. His mutilated body was found in the Tallahatchie River several days later.

THE RESULT: In 1955 two White men were acquitted by an all-White jury. In 2004 the FBI reopened the case, in part because of new information uncovered by documentary filmmakers. This year the case was turned over to the state's attorney in Mississippi. At press time no charges had been filed.--D.M.O.

1. Carol Barrier

2. Lorena Barnum

3. Pearl Brown (Deceased)

4. Bobble Jean Butts

5. Agnes Carter (Deceased)

6. Pattie Jean Collier

7. Mattie Crittenden (Deceased)

8. Barbara Jean Daniels

9. Gloria Dean

10. Carolyn DeLoatch

11. Diane Dorsey

12. Juanita Freeman

13. Robertiena Freeman

14. Henrietta Fuller

15. Shirley Ann Green

16. Verna Hollis

17. Evette Hose

18. Mary Frances Jackson

19. Vyrtis Jackson

20. Dorothy Jones

21. Emma Jean Jones

22. Emmarene Kaigler

23. BarbaraAnn Peterson

24. Annie Lue Ragans

25. Judith Reid

26. Laura Ruff

27. Sandra Russell

28. Willie Mae Smith

29. Billie Jo Thornton

30. Gloria Breedlove Westbrooks

31. LuLu Westbrooks

32. Ozellar Whitehead (Deceased)

33. Carrie Mae Williams

Teresa Mansfield of Americus assisted in compiling this list.

If you cant be a Good Example, then youll just have to be a Horrible Warning
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[*] posted on 8.8.2006 at 10:11 AM

I read about this a few months ago.. So sad..

Loving me... :butterfly:

Compromise, to a certain degree becomes surrender....
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[*] posted on 8.13.2006 at 08:38 PM

I am sending this to everyone I know. The story of these women's lives should not ever be forgotten or erased from history.

squint your eyes and look closer
I'm not between you and your ambition
I am a poster girl with no poster
I am thirty-two flavors and then some
and I'm beyond your peripheral vision
so you might want to turn your head
cause someday you're going to get hungry
and eat most of the words you just said
Ani DiFranco
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[*] posted on 8.14.2006 at 05:22 PM

This story was in some magazine some months ago...I want to say American Legacy. I don't remember which magazine, but I do remember reading the story.

Touching. Enraging.

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