Gillis Morgan’s friends are determined to get him to the awards ceremony, no matter what.
By Jacque White Kochak
My friend Gerry Morgan says her husband Gillis used to have nightmares, tossing and crying out, “No! No! No!” She says she thinks he has post-traumatic stress disorder and that the trauma occurred during his days as a reporter for the Birmingham News, covering the civil rights era and the period leading up to and following the famous Selma-to-Montgomery march. Gerry tells me people have been telling her lately that Gillis was one of the unsung heroes of that time.
Now, Gillis is an old man weakened by diabetes, confined to a wheelchair and slipping into dementia. He’s having a good day, back at home with Gerry after being rescued from a nursing home, and Gerry is trying to coax stories out of him. Gillis barely remembers, though, so Gerry does most of the talking.
Gerry and Gillis didn’t marry until long after these events, so the memories are disembodied and detached from any timeline. The worst experience was in the little town of Greensboro in Hale County, Gerry prompts. Gillis concurs, saying he was wearing a green suit. Klan members who had gathered downtown recognized Gillis as a reporter, one of those stirring things up by bringing widespread attention to local troubles. The problems would blow over if not for outside agitators, people said.
Worse yet, Gillis wasn’t a Yankee. He was one of their own, raised just 120 miles to the southeast in Evergreen. The Klansmen gathered around him, spitting on his green suit, threatening bodily harm. Gillis was saved when a fellow journalist, publisher of the Greensboro weekly newspaper, opened his office door and gestured for Gillis to come in, saying “Look, I’ve got something to show you.” Gerry says the menacing gang knew the publisher had something they did not want to see – a photographer.
You have to understand that Gillis is neither big nor imposing. He is soft-spoken and indirect, never abrasive, choosing his words with an almost old-fashioned precision. I met him when I was a reporter for the Opelika-Auburn News and he was a retired Auburn University journalism professor who met with the news staff weekly to try to coax some good reporting out of them. Later he was editorial-page editor, with a cubicle right next to mine, and still later I was his editor at The Villager, where he wrote a weekly column. Over the years, we became friends and mutual admirers.
A REPUTATION FOR SOLID REPORTING
Gillis was sucked up in the maelstrom of history, just happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or the right place at the right time, depending on your point of view. Still a young man, he developed a reputation for solid spot news reporting, earning recognition and awards from the Associated Press in both 1964 and 1965. In those days, before computers and cell phones, that meant taking notes by hand, finding a pay phone and calling an editor.
Gillis witnessed the murder of Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian, in the county seat of Hayneville in Lowndes County. Lowndes County, like Hale County, is deep in the region known as the Black Belt for its rich black soil. Before the Civil War—or the War of Northern Aggression, as some old-timers still call the bloody conflict—planters in the Black Belt grew cotton on estates worked by thousands of black slaves. Most of them stayed after the war, outnumbering their former masters. Once wealthy, the region is now known for its poverty; even today, the average family’s income is less than $30,000.
At that time, Lowndes County’s population was four-fifths black. After the bitter years of Reconstruction up through the tumult of the 1960s, the frightened white minority held onto power by any means necessary, causing the county to earn the nickname “Bloody Lowndes” because of white violence mounted against blacks to maintain segregation. Jonathan Daniels wasn’t the first civil rights worker to die in Lowndes County; Viola Liuzzo, an idealistic Michigan mother of five, was executed while shuttling fellow activists from Selma to the airport in the state capital of Montgomery the evening that the Selma-to-Montgomery march culminated on the steps of the state capitol building. The date was March 25, 1965.
THE MOMENTOUS MARCH
Both Liuzzo and Daniels were among the thousands who heeded Martin Luther King’s call to join the momentous march in support of voting rights for African-Americans. Earlier that month, some 600 civil rights activists led by Martin Luther King had sought to march from Selma east to Montgomery to draw attention to their cause. State troopers attacked the peaceful marchers with tear gas and billy clubs as they ascended the low crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge spanning the Alabama River on Selma’s outskirts.
Daniels died instantly, Morrisroe survived, and Ruby Sales, the young African-American woman who Daniels saved, was rendered nearly mute for months afterwards.
Seventeen marchers were hospitalized, and a photograph of middle-aged organizer Amelia Boynton—beaten bloody and unconscious, lying on the road in the middle of the bridge—was printed in newspapers and magazines around the world. Television news crews broadcast the carnage into living rooms from California to Maine, arousing the conscience of a nation. Gillis was there.
On March 21, some 3,000 marchers set out for Montgomery again, this time under the protection of the federal government. They slept in fields at night and walked some 12 miles a day. By the time they reached the capital four days later, their number had swollen to some 25,000 people, including celebrities like Sammy Davis Jr. and folk singers like Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary. Liuzzo came down from Detroit, and Daniels from Massachusetts. Gillis was there, too.
Daniels, the young seminarian, joined several friends for the long trip south, intending to stay only for the climactic weekend and return for classes on Monday. When he missed the bus ride home, he reconsidered his short stay and returned to the seminary in Massachusetts only long enough to get permission to finish the semester in the South. He went home again to take his exams and visit family, then returned to Alabama in July. A month or so later, Daniels was dead.
Congress passed the Voting Rights Act on Aug. 6, ending the de facto disenfranchisement of blacks in the South. White Alabamians hunkered down even more, fearing change and resenting and blaming outsiders. Daniels was based in Selma, one of the most populous cities in the Black Belt, but eight days after passage of the act he joined a group of protestors picketing whites-only stores in tiny Ft. Deposit, some 60 miles away—in infamous Lowndes County. The protestors were arrested and spent about a week in Hayneville’s sweltering county jail. When they were released, they didn’t have any way to get back to Selma.
Stranded in the humid 100-degree heat, Daniels and three friends went to buy cold drinks at the nearby Varner’s Cash Store, one of only a few establishments serving nonwhites. An unpaid special deputy, Tom Coleman, met them at the door with a 12-gauge shotgun, demanding they leave or risk being shot. When Coleman fired, Daniels shoved 17-year-old Ruby Sales out of the way, taking a shotgun blast to the chest and crumpling to the store’s cement porch. Father Richard Morrisroe, a Catholic priest from Chicago, was shot in the lower back and collapsed in the dirt road outside. Daniels died instantly, Morrisroe survived, and Ruby Sales, the young African-American woman who Daniels saved, was rendered nearly mute for months afterwards. Later, she went on to study at Daniels’ seminary.
RUNNING AWAY FROM HOME
Gillis was there, across the Hayneville town square, which is dominated by a monument to Confederate war dead. And he was there when a jury of 12 white men acquitted Coleman, one of the county’s leading citizens, of manslaughter. Alabama Attorney General Richmond Flowers had taken over the case when a county grand jury indicted Coleman for manslaughter instead of murder. Witnesses claimed Daniels had a pistol and Morrisroe had a knife, and the trial judge refused to postpone the trial until Morrisroe recovered from his wounds. Despite death threats, Sales testified. An all-white jury acquitted Coleman after just two hours of deliberation, and jurors shook hands with him as he left the Lowndes County courthouse.
Gerry is a native of the Black Belt herself, and she says Daniels’ murderer was distant kin. Her family’s roots are deep in Butler County, just south of Bloody Lowndes. Gerry’s family was from an area known as the Ridge, an antebellum plantation community constructed by wealthy planters above the disease-plagued lowlands. An Episcopalian, she always had fond memories of attending camp at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Selma. The imposing church, built from handmade bricks, was blotted by shame in 1965 when its doors were closed to the outsiders who flooded the town. That still bothers Gerry, makes her feel some bitterness, although the Episcopal Church did take a strong stand after Daniels’ murder, and he is now considered a church martyr.
“In the Episcopal Church, there is a tradition that you always welcome the clergy, no matter what and no matter where they are coming from,” she says. “If they had welcomed Jonathan Daniels, he might still be alive.” Alabama Catholics welcomed their priests and nuns, she points out.
As for Gillis, the awful travesty of the Daniels trial left him embittered as well. Even Alabama’s attorney general could not contain his outrage. The acquittal, Flowers said, represented the “democratic process going down the drain of irrationality, bigotry and improper law enforcement … now those who feel they have a license to kill, destroy and cripple have been issued that license.” Gillis was so saddened by what he saw as the stupidity of so many of his fellow Alabamians that he decided to leave the state, accepting a job with the Milwaukee Journal deep in the heart of Yankeedom. He expected things to be different outside of his home state.
“But it seemed like the racism followed me,” he’s told me many times, shaking his head. “It was different, but it was still racism.”
So he came home, married Gerry when his first marriage fell apart, and taught journalism at Auburn University for 22 years. On Sept. 9, the Auburn University Journalism Advisory Council will honor him with the Distinguished Alabama Community Journalist award. His friends are determined to get him to the awards ceremony at the Auburn University Hotel and Conference Center, no matter what.
“Gillis Morgan converted a successful career as a reporter to an even more successful career as a professor,” then-department chair Jerry Brown said at the time of Gillis’ retirement in 1999.
“He showed the relationship between journalism and history, and now history is in his debt.”