Willie Mae Wells Helps Change the World
Willie Mae Wells has the posture of a dignitary. She glides across the campus with elegance, her shoulders back and her chin high. “I feel as though Stillman belongs to me. I feel as though I am woven into the fabric,” admits Wells, who graduated from the College in 1965 and has worked on the campus in diverse positions since 1966. Although there is nothing snobbish about her, she does exude the confidence and grace of someone who just might own a college or two. So when she admits that she was once arrested, you know instinctively that a miscarriage of justice must have taken place. Fortunately, the indignity she experienced helped to change the world.
You could say that her story began in 1963, when she was a student at Stillman. But you have to reach further back to really understand why she did what she did, and why her experience should be significant to all of us. You may also need to understand who she was, and juxtapose that person to who she is now, to comprehend the magnitude of her story.
In her youth, Wells and her friends were almost oblivious to the enormous injustices being perpetrated against them on a daily basis. “If our parents went downtown to buy clothes or shoes for us, they had to know our exact sizes because we were not allowed to try things on. When I went to work with my mother, we always entered through the back door. We could purchase food at Kress and at Woolworth, but we couldn’t dine in those establishments. And we knew we were not allowed to use their rest rooms so we made sure to go to the bathroom before leaving home. We were not aware that we were being mistreated, but we knew that old books and old desks from white schools were passed down to us. We were accustomed to this. Most of us didn’t really talk about it. My father worked for the railroad and the overseers were always white. We lived near whites and played with their children. But after a certain age, they no longer played with us.”
The realization that something was wrong with her world dawned on Wells and most of Tuscaloosa’s African American residents almost over night in 1963. “We began hearing about the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham and in Montgomery and, in the summer of 1963, Reverend T.Y. Rogers, Jr. came to Tuscaloosa to be the pastor of First African Baptist Church. He was Martin Luther King’s protégé, and he began calling mass meetings to discuss what was happening.”
Wells and her brother joined the Movement. “I was in the mass choir, which would sing Civil Rights songs before each meeting. We would sing, pray and have a Bible reading and a sermon. Then Reverend Rogers would give us our directions about how we were to march. We did most of our marching in the summers of 1963 and 1964. I remember that it was always extremely hot out when we marched. There were white people who were secretly on our side and, on days that were not safe, they would warn Reverend Rogers and we wouldn’t march. In the spring and fall between those two summers, we did much of our planning. Whenever we attempted to march in defiance of the parade permit, which only allowed us to march in groups of two, he would usually instruct us to go back to the church after the leaders were arrested.”
“In my junior and senior years at Stillman, I worked at the Stafford Hotel. I was busing tables the day Governor Wallace stood in the door at The University of Alabama and tried to keep Vivian Malone and James Hood from integrating the University. Wallace came to the hotel for a luncheon and press conference after he left the University.”
While the mere sight of this avowed racist might have elicited unadulterated rage in many African Americans, the ever-dignified Wells was not shaken when she saw him in the hotel. “My mother taught me not to hate people, but to hate what they stand for. Once this is ingrained in you, you can look at them and what you see does not affect you.”
Fortunately, Wells would soon have an opportunity to openly defy everything that segregationists stood for. On Bloody Tuesday, June 8, 1964, an infamous day in Civil Rights history that was virtually overlooked by the media, she embarked upon a march that would forever alter the life of African Americans in Tuscaloosa.
“A call was made that we were going to have a mass meeting at First African Baptist Church. They said we were going to integrate the newly constructed courthouse, where separate restroom facilities had been constructed for Blacks and whites. We planned to drink from the white only water fountain,” Wells recalls.
“In past marches, Reverend Rogers always said to turn around and go back to the church after the leaders were arrested, but this time he said to keep going. He said to get downtown to the courthouse however you can get there. We broke up and went in all different directions. Some went toward the railroads. Some people were forced back into the church as soon as they tried to come out. But my group went around the church and down 10th Street.”
Police, aided by white mobs armed with bats and clubs, attacked the marchers. After many marchers were forced back into the church, police fired tear gas through the windows. People were arrested in the sanctuary and in surrounding streets. Newspaper reports of the event indicate that thirty-three Black men, women and children were sent to the hospital and another 94 were arrested by the Tuscaloosa Police Department.
“We were arrested on a corner when we were getting ready to cross the street where Murphy Museum now stands,” says Wells, who was with her brother and other marchers.
“I often speak at schools, and when I speak to children they always ask, ‘Were you afraid?’ But we weren’t because we really never realized what could happen. My brother and I both went to jail, and it felt really good because I felt that I was doing something for my people. Through our mass meetings, we had become united and we knew that we were all in this together—and God was on our side. So we weren’t afraid. In jail we sang freedom songs and rejoiced.”
Despite their joy, it was also a tragic day. Wells framed photos and news clips of marchers who were severely injured and jailed. One victim said he might be blind today if Wells’ brother had not boldly insisted that medical attention be given to the wounded who were with them in jail.
Shortly after Bloody Tuesday, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which included legislation giving African Americans greater voting rights and the right to be served in public facilities, including hotels, restaurants, theaters, and retail stores. Soon Wells began to notice significant changes in Tuscaloosa.
“One change that is so vivid in my mind is that the employment office, which never used to hire us, hired a relative and friends of my family,” she says, adding that attitudes did not change overnight. “Quite a number of stores downtown closed rather than hire Blacks. Those that did hire Blacks, hired them specifically to wait on Black customers.”
Wells, who is immediate past President of Stillman’s National Alumni Association and currently serves as Secretary/Receptionist for the Wynn Fine Arts Center, believes it is important that young people know about the past. “History repeats itself. Don’t ever become complacent, or your rights will be taken away again. Even during the presidential election, we witnessed states rezoning and attempting to purge people from voter registration,” states Wells, who found her cell phone to be more useful than walking shoes in her most recent political battle.
She called over 500 potential voters in Florida prior the 2012 election to urge them to support the President. “One night I called and asked for a man named Tom. The woman who answered said, ‘Tom, it’s that woman from voter registration.’ I wondered, ‘How did she know who I was?’ I realized that she must have also been on my list. I must have called her earlier, and she recognized my voice.”
The same Willie Mae Wells who was once so accustomed to injustice that she never questioned the way she was treated, was transformed by the Civil Rights Movement. She believes that a similar transformation may be needed among young people today, and laments that many do not register to vote and fail to understand the significance of what she and other marchers endured.
“I see a lack of self-esteem in many young people today,” admits Wells, who often reaches out to students and encourages them to succeed. She believes that very few young people know what their parents and grandparents experienced.
If they knew their history, she believes that they might recognize their worth. “Unlike the Israelites, we did not tell the story. It was not passed down from one generation to the next. Maybe many of us failed to tell the story because we wanted to pretend that we had arrived, so we didn’t’ want to tell about what we did and what our parents did. But look where we have come from. We were slaves. Stolen from our parents.”
Although Wells speaks with a poise and grace that match her flawless posture, her calm demeanor does not veil the urgency she clearly feels. “Why be ashamed of who we are and where we come from?” she asks. “We have the richest heritage. We have something to talk about. We can say, “Look what God did for me.”
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