The memory that haunts me

This column by Gillis Morgan was first printed several years ago in The Auburn Villager and won first place for commentary that year in the Alabama Press Association Better Newspaper Contest. I am reprinting the column in honor of Gillis’ receiving a 2016 Auburn Journalism Honors award this month.


By Gillis Morgan

Sometimes I can think of more reasons not to write about a heavy thought or a dark memory, and I have found that not to write about something is simply a way of running away from it.

But it always catches up with you.morgan

So right now I have decided to write about the darkness of a memory I have been running away from for 58 years.


The man fell to his knees, about three or four yards from me. For a second or two he stared at me, and I could see the fear and terror in his eyes.


It was in June of 1952, about a week or so after my high school graduation from Evergreen High in south Alabama.

My plan was to join the Navy, get the GI Bill and then attend college to study journalism. My father was lobbying for chemical engineering, but we would have more time to think about that after four years in the Navy.

“You’ve got about two weeks before you join the Navy, so you have time to get a job,” Dad said. “Try the bus station. They’re always looking for somebody to pump gas.”

Dad was always saying that “a man without a job is not a man,” so I got the 8-to-midnight shift at the Greyhound bus station pumping gas. A character named Slim was the night manager. He was over six feet tall, lean and wiry, and had tattoos, which back then left a man’s character open for question.

I had been there a week, when about 11 p.m. on a Friday night the bus from Montgomery roared in, air brakes pumping and loaded with passengers. Evergreen served as the rest stop between Montgomery, 94 miles on north on U.S. Highway 31, and Mobile 113 miles south.

As the passengers were unloading to make their way to the station café, I was walking away from the pumps. Slim was standing outside the café door, and I was walking toward him when a young black man got off the bus, stretching and yawning his way to the café door.

I saw Slim reach into his pocket to grip a leather scabbard that held his ticket puncher.

At the black man approached the door, Slim snatched out the scabbard in his right hand and then slapped the young man on the left side of his mouth, and I could hear Slim saying something but I could not make out the words because of the roar of the bus motor.

The man fell to his knees, about three or four yards from me. For a second or two he stared at me, and I could see the fear and terror in his eyes. As he tried to stand, Slim charged again and slapped at him with the scabbard as the man backed up and began to stumble his way back to the open bus door. He got on the bus. The bus driver and the passengers were still inside the café.

Slim opened the café door and went inside. There was no one else out front.

I looked at the bus, and I turned away. I didn’t check out from my shift. I just started walking home, all the while thinking: “I didn’t do a damn thing.”

All these years, and I still feel guilty.

§

I never told anyone about what happened that night at the bus station—not my folks, not anyone.

After I joined the Navy, went to college, majored in journalism and started working, I never told anyone. Even when I was covering the Selma-to-Montgomery march I never told anyone.

It was only after I came to Auburn in 1977 that I told someone.

This past week was the first time I have ever written about it, and I rewrote it at least three times.

I never saw Slim again. Nor in all my visits to my hometown did anyone mention that night. I don’t know if anyone else knew about it.

And I figured the young man who got attacked then got back on the bus just went on to Mobile or Pensacola. It was 1952, and I don’t think he would have gotten much attention with his story.

Was I scared of what I had seen? Of Slim? I think I was scared, but I didn’t run home that night. I walked.

And after thinking about it while writing about it I think what I felt was mostly shock. And I have always felt guilt and pain. A whole bunch of guilt and pain.

After I decided to send this in to Jacque, my editor, I sent a copy to a friend who grew up in Evergreen but now lives in Huntsville. I asked him if I could include his letter and use his name—James Daniels.

It is a beautiful letter, and it made me feel better. Here is the letter.

§

Gilly: Thanks for that painful, heart-rending story. I know that, like all of us in our younger years in older times, you suffered from shame at your own inaction. But also, as we all did, there was the inertia of the soul that kept us from reacting in accordance with our conscience in black-white relations.

It was just the way we all were, like our parents, like our neighbors, like our friends, like the whole white South…and yes, like the blacks themselves, just bogged in our cultural swamp. As youths in that overwhelming noxious atmosphere of white adult prejudice, we felt the absolute helplessness of any overt response that would be counter to the norm.

I, too, saw acts similar to the Slim incident on a number of occasions, even among my own king. And, of course, I was hypersensitive to the constant lesser incidents, where I did not speak up or express my own evolving sentiments. I don’t excuse myself, Gilly, for not acting, for not standing up for my own conscience.

And, today, I don’t dwell on regrets and self-flagellation for my guilt. Yet, like you, I still can’t erase from memory such childhood failures to protest prejudice. But I find some solace in the fact that I did at times at least raise objection to my parents and some few adults.

And I know that in my adult years I have stood up for my convictions on a number of occasions. Of course, the climate of change and the protection of law had become prevalent by the time I started openly holding my stand.

Gilly, we need never regret nor dwell in self-condemnation for the timidities of our youth. Be proud, good friend, that in the soggy, foggy environment of our birth and childhood that we saw the light of right, anyway, and threaded our way through childhood thickets and found the dry hummocks through swamps of our youth toward the brightness. And that, today, though shadows still fall all around us, we live in the light.

And don’t forget that “the child is father of the man.” And you are today a product of all that you experienced as a child and a youth—the good, the bad, the indifferent. And, be grateful to the Creator for the cards he dealt you. You have played them well, my friend.

Now, my children, my sermon next week will be on sin and all the pitfalls therein!

The Auburn University Journalism Advisory Council presented the annual awards during a luncheon at the AU Hotel and Conference Center on Sept. 9. Also receiving awards were Rick Bragg, David Housel, Philip Marshall and Ken Hare.
Artwork by Natalya Kochak

 

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‘…and now history is in his debt’

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.

Gillis and Gerry
Gerry and Gillis Morgan on their wedding day.

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 reGillis and Gerryporting 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.

THE MURDER

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.”