In 1963 Union Presbytery, based primarily in eastern Tennessee, sent a delegation to its four black congregations in Alabama: Trinity, Miller’s Ferry, Prairie and Arlington Presbyterian Churches. I, along with two other pastors, were chosen to visit Wilcox County and meet with the four church sessions. At the time I was pastor at First United Presbyterian Church, which is on the campus of Knoxville College, a historically black Presbyterian college.
The three of us left Tennessee on a Wednesday morning in May 1963. After lunch in Birmingham, we arrived in Camden, Alabama, the county seat of Wilcox County.
Looking to vote for 10 years
I had started my work as a minister in Wilcox County in 1949. In the years after World War II, Wilcox County was the sixteenth poorest county in America. It sits in the Black Belt, known for its loamy soil ideal for growing cotton.
Back then, Wilcox County was 84 percent black. Through conversation and informal sources I had learned that no African-American in the county was registered to vote, and that no African-American had “attempted” to register.
In late 1956, the Montgomery Advertiser printed the name of the registrar in each county. I knew one of the registrars by sight. This wouldn’t be so hard, I expected.
But over the next 18 months, when I looked for the registration site inside the courthouse and other county buildings, I found nothing. There were no public identifications of where the registrars sat in the local newspaper and no leaflets.
I only found two registrars inside the courthouse after an African-American minister friend told me where they were meeting. When I stated my request, “I would like to get a form to register to vote,” a long silence followed. “I don’t know what you are talking about,” one registrar said. Another long silence was broken by the words, “You have to speak to the probate judge.” I went to the probate judge and asked for the registration form. His reply was similarly dismissive: “I don’t have them.”
I left the courthouse that day a 34-year-old man with no criminal record, a U.S. citizen, educated with three degrees, a taxpayer, a home owner… but someone unable to get the form to register to vote.
Six months later I received a call from a staff member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission interested in hearing my story about trying to register. I said: “I will be glad to share my story. When can you come to hear me?” He replied, “I will be (expletive) if we are coming down there again!” I later learned that they had been in the county and been treated shabbily.
I eventually told my story to the Civil Rights Commission in Montgomery, to Father Theodore Hesburgh – the commission chairperson (in private to protect my privacy) – and to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which had sought my testimony after finding out that Wilcox County was “one of those in which no Negroes are registered.”
I left Wilcox County in December 1958 to begin my pastorate at Knoxville College. Along with my wife, I was finally registered to vote on July 14, 1960. That day we stood in line for two hours, a drop in the bucket compared to my 10 years in Camden, Alabama, searching for the registration site and being told, “I don’t know what you are talking about!”
Unwelcome visitors: Driving in the dark
So in May 1963, I found myself back in Camden with two white pastors: Geddes Orman, who was the stated clerk of Union Presbytery, and Alexander Stuart, who was the moderator of Union Presbytery. They found lodging at a hotel and I stayed at the home of James Hobbs, the principal of the local black high school. When we stopped for gas, I thought that the station operator recognized me from the time when I lived in Camden five years before. That evening, after Orman, Stuart and I met with elders from the sessions of Trinity Presbyterian Church and Miller’s Ferry Presbyterian Church, we returned to our separate lodgings.
At approximately 3:00 a.m. I woke to a slight knock on my bedroom door. Hobbs cautioned me, “Don’t turn on the light.” In the living room was Orman, visibly shaken and bewildered. The manager of the hotel had awakened him and Stuart by banging on their bedroom door and screaming, “I do not want you civil rights agitators in my hotel!” He carried a shotgun in his hands and a pistol in his waistband. While Orman and Stuart dressed and tried to leave, the man beat them with the shotgun, the force of the blows so great that the barrel and stock separated.
Orman and Stuart fled the hotel on foot by different routes, leaving their car behind. Orman arrived first at the Hobbs residence, followed by Stuart, whose right arm hung limply.
Hobbs called the pastor of Trinity and Miller’s Ferry, Thomas Threadgill, who lived next door. Orman, Stuart, Threadgill and I agreed that it was unsafe to stay in Camden. Hobbs and Threadgill, fearing harm to their families, felt that they must not leave. I asked for keys to a car, which I used to drive the three of us out of Wilcox County.
I had no idea if we were being pursued and drove the first 10 miles on the road to Selma without turning on the lights or touching the brakes. A shot had been fired when Stuart and Orman fled the hotel. Was it fired at them? Was it a warning? We didn’t know.
Hurt and scared, we arrived in Selma, the city where I had met my wife in happier times. I went to the home of C.C. Brown, pastor of Prairie Presbyterian Church and Arlington Presbyterian Church. We were to meet with him and church session members later that day.
Brown called an African-American doctor who examined Stuart and Orman. Stuart’s right arm was broken, but he refused any medical treatment in Alabama. Brown drove Stuart and Orman to Birmingham, where they took a plane back to Knoxville.
I stayed in Selma until someone brought the car back from Camden. The distributor wires had been pulled out and had to be reattached.
I waited until nightfall before I started the drive back to Tennessee. Stuart and Orman did not press charges, which would have required their retuning to Camden. The congregations remained in Union Presbytery for two decades, until the union of the UPCUSA and Presbyterian Church in the U.S. formed the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), when they became members of the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley.
When I talk about that evening in Camden, I use it as a litmus test for what is really bad. Budget deficit? Not bad. Loss of members? Not bad. No promotion? Not bad. Bad is driving down an Alabama highway in the middle of the night with no lights and never touching the brakes.
Waiting with a ticket
In the struggle for civil rights I often found things that were scary. I also found things that were ludicrous.
More than a decade before my move to Knoxville, the Supreme Court had ruled in Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia that there was to be no segregation on interstate travel. Today we remember the Freedom Rides in 1961, when civil rights activists were beaten during a series of bus trips around the South. One of those riders never left the station.
A new bus terminal was built in Knoxville in the early 1960s. It came complete with two passenger waiting rooms: one labeled “Colored” and the other a general waiting room.
Together with Frank Gordon, pastor at Shiloh Presbyterian Church, I bought a ticket to Williamsburg, Kentucky, about 40 miles north of Knoxville. Each day (except for Sundays, when we had congregations to minster to), Gordon or I would take the ticket and sit in the general waiting room. After about three hours the other would come, take the ticket and sit for three hours.
No one ever asked us, “Where are you going?” No one ever asked us, “When are you going?” No one ever asked, “May I see your ticket?”
And yet, our action seemed to have an impact. After six weeks we went to the station and the “Colored waiting room” sign was gone. Everyone could sit anywhere they wanted.
Fleeing Wilcox County was frightening. Desegregating a bus station without setting foot inside a bus was ludicrous.
Sit-in for lunch
Knoxville, like more than 30 other cities in the South and southeast U.S., was the scene of sit-ins in the spring and summer of 1960. They started on February 1, 1960, when four African-American students sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The attempts to integrate Knoxville’s lunch counters lasted six months. After daily sit-ins that began in June, weekly negotiations and a “Stay Away From Downtown” movement, The Knoxville Good Will Committee recommended that the “lunch counters be open to all.” That was on July 12, 1960.
I was secretary of the Knoxville Ministerial Association, and it was my privilege and pleasure to carry the ministers’ letter with 75 signatures to the merchants who planned to desegregate. The role of the African-American church in the civil rights struggle cannot be overstated. There could have been no victory without the black church.
Each morning before sit-ins we held a worship service, and we invoked the presence of God with each effort we made. Members of black congregations provided most of the persons who participated in the struggle, took the insults, received the physical assaults and yet stayed committed to the cause. Between 1960 and 1969, nine Knoxville College graduates (Richard David Sellers, Frederic Walls, Eugene Turner, William Eugene Thomas, James McDowell, John Rueben, Edward Bernard Newberry, William Blye, Charles Marks and John Chapman lll) went on to attend Presbyterian seminaries and become Presbyterian pastors, a number exceeding the totals who followed that path from 1875 to 1959 and 1970 to 2015.
The students assisted in worship services, were members of the campus group “Sons of the Prophets” and were monitored and cared for by the ministers on staff at Knoxville College. It was my privilege and opportunity to be the pastor of the church on the campus from 1959-1967.
Our conviction and rewards
In my life I have been much more of an expectant than a militant. I see things around me as a promise to be fulfilled, an opportunity to be satisfied. I approached a voter registration office, a lunch counter, any place of possible denial with the expectation that I would be satisfied, served, fulfilled. If the expectation is not satisfied, then I may have to be a militant.
I am Christianly proud to be a Presbyterian. Presbyterians share this commitment and we can approach life with this expectation. The Book of Order (F.1.403) calls us to this work: “The Unity of believers in Christ is reflected in the rich diversity of the Church’s membership. In Christ by the power of the Spirit, God unites persons through baptism regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography, or theological conviction. … There is no place in the life of the Church for discrimination against any person.” Psalm 126 reminds us of our reward: “Then it was said among the nations, The Lord has done great things for them. The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”
James Foster Reese has been a Presbyterian pastor for 65 years and is now pastor of Germantown Community Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. At the 2017 National Black Presbyterian Caucus he received the Drum Major for Justice Award, which recognizes individuals for their display of commitment to the biblical principles of justice.