‘You’ve Just Got to Pray:’ A Civil Rights Movement Veteran’s Story

| November 30, 2015
H.C. Story

H.C. Story

Part 3 of 4

Editor’s note: The following piece centering on local coach and youth advocate H.C. Story was originally written by student Rebecca Dorrill for Professor William F. Hall’s Politics, Religion and Mass Social Protest Movements in American Democratic Society class at Washington University in St. Louis in 2005. While many know Coach Story’s work as a youth advocate and coach in the Fort Wayne area, many might be unaware of his deep involvement in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s in Alabama. It was brought to our attention by Patricia Eber, chair of the Department of Human Services at IPFW. Ms. Eber was alerted to the work by one of her best friends, Arlene Story, a therapist who also teaches in the department, who is wife of H.C. Story.

Ms. Dorrill’s piece is presented here nearly in its original form with occasional changes merely to adapt the work to newspaper format. Here original annotation is left intact and we will publish her bibliography the conclusion of the series.

This paper later was turned into a film documentary, “Veteran of the Movement.”

By Rebecca Dorrill

Special to Frost Illustrated

While most of the direct action campaigns he took place in were coordinated efforts, Story did not always wait for leadership directives before acting. In one case, he took it upon himself to “test” the segregated bus system. He stated that he did not need to take a bus, but a lot of African Americans did and it especially distressed him that older women returning home from a hard day of work would be required to stand even if there were seats left in the “white” section of the bus. So, he decided to ride the bus.

Story boarded the bus and took his seat in the front. This facilitated objections from the bus driver, who told Story, “You can’t sit in that seat.” Story looked around and asked the driver, “Are you talking to me?” The driver repeated his admonishment, stating that the seat he was in was “only for whites.” Story boldly informed the driver that “I don’t see any whites on here, and I paid my money to get on this bus, so I’m going to sit right here until I’m ready to get off.” This led to the driver issuing the obligatory threat the he would have to stop and call police. Story said he told him to go ahead and call. The driver did get off and make the call and before the police arrived Story disembarked voluntarily, being not only brave but also wise. There was no media there to document the situation. Story said he knew that if he went to jail he was “going to get beat up.” In fact, that could have been the good outcome, as it was just a few years earlier in Montgomery, before Rosa Parks’ famous and symbolic action, that United States soldier Thomas Edward Brooks was killed for entering the front instead of the back of the bus (Cose).

Story was most of all interested in reporting his deed to the Rev. Rogers so other members of the church could join in the boycott.

Journalist George Curry, a Tuscaloosa native, remembers that during the boycott the community pulled together and organized car pools (Curry). Drivers drove along the same routes the buses took. Since the drivers did not collect fares, people contributed money to First African Baptist and the Rev. T.Y. Rogers, who then reimbursed drivers for their gas expenditures (Curry). Curry recalled the pride and empowerment felt from achieving their goal.

“I’ll never forget the looks, the sense of accomplishment by everyone when the boycott turned out to be a success” (Curry). The Tuscaloosa Bus Boycott lasted two weeks with the original bus company going out of business.

In addition to voter registration, sit-ins, protests, demonstrations and boycotts, Story also participated in many marches in Tuscaloosa, being made a marshal for the marches early on. This is where his non-violence training was really put to the test. Story said that it was very hard to remain non-violent under these circumstances. He said that many people told him that they would like to join the non-violent movement, but they didn’t think they could be non-violent.

“It’s very difficult when people are throwing rocks at you, and using baseball bats, not billy clubs, but baseball bats, and cattle prods… they would use cattle prods to shock you. It’s very hard when that is going on to remain non-violent. But if you were in that movement, you had to be non-violent. They told us many times, if you don’t think you can be non-violent, then don’t join this movement.”

I stated that it’s hard to imagine how any person could have the strength to handle that situation. Story summed up his strategy simply: “You’ve just got to pray.”

So Story did pray and he felt a deeper responsibility, not only for his own safety but for the safety of others. He said in his role as a marshal he would try to be the eyes and ears of the marchers, constantly looking around, watching for a possible sniper on a roof or any other sign of imminent danger. One time when he was trying to “get some people across the street,” he said that a car came barreling toward him and just barely missed him. The driver was not shy about his intentions.

“He gave me the ‘n’ word and said he would kill me.”

Story did not let these intimidation attempts push him out of the movement. As he became increasingly more committed to the movement at any cost he rationalized the risk with the King philosophy that “A man with nothing worth dying for has nothing worth living for.” Story said he eventually came to the conclusion, “So what if I get killed? Then there will be somebody else here to take my place.”

When Story talked about his role as a marshal and even when marching in the Selma marches, it seemed to me that he carried the responsibility for others as much as possible, being not only a member of the movement, whose specialty was leading the young people, but in a role not unlike that of a soldier or law enforcement officer. He felt especially protective of women marchers. When explaining to me how they lined up for the Selma march, Story noted that “You always try to keep your ladies in the center. That way if something starts to happen you can try to cover them or get them to safety first.” This desire to protect others as much as possible may just be part of his personality, and it is an admirable trait. It will be interesting to find out how this characteristic may have come into play when he later joined the secret defense organization. Regardless, the experience he gained in numerous marches in Tuscaloosa helped to prepare him for the historic Selma to Montgomery march.

The voter registration efforts taking place in Tuscaloosa were mirroring activities throughout Alabama. Because, as described earlier, blacks were denied voting rights throughout the state and the entire South, the racial makeup of geographic areas did not reflect voter rolls. Even in the Black Belt counties of Alabama, where African Americans comprised at least 80 percent of the population, there were almost no black voters (Alabama). According to King, “Out of 15,000 Negroes eligible to vote in Selma and the surrounding Dallas County, less than 350 were registered” (King). This led to a plan to march from Selma to the capitol of Montgomery “to petition for a redress of wrongs by the State of Alabama” (Alabama). There ended up being a total of three marches, with the third march finally being the successful effort that went all the way from Selma to Montgomery.

The first attempt to march to Montgomery came just weeks after Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot to death by police in Marion, Ala., who tear gassed the site of a demonstration for voting rights on February 18, 1965 (Selma Discussion). This scene was marked by brutal violence on the part of police and their “supporters.” State troopers viciously beat demonstrators and reporters alike using clubs and cattle prods (Selma Discussion). According to movement veteran Willie B. Wazir Peacock, Jackson’s death was a turning point. “…from that point, there was no going back. Things got hot” (Selma Discussion). This memory of Jackson, who had been trying to rescue his grandmother, was never far from the minds of many of those during the first Selma attempt.

As history has recorded, the first attempt to march was met with incredible violence and has been termed “Bloody Sunday” for this reason. King was not present for this march, stating in his autobiography that he felt that he needed to be at his church since he had been gone so much (278). Story was also not present for “Bloody Sunday.” The marchers knew that Alabama Governor George Wallace had declared the march illegal, but according to Andrew Young, there was more of an expectation of getting arrested than of what actually happened (Young qtd. in Citizen King). King also assumed that Wallace’s declaration would lead to numerous arrests and he apparently deeply regretted this over confidence.

“I shall never forget my agony of conscience for not being there…” (279).

About 600 marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge, stopping to pray when the front of the march crossed. State troopers wearing gas masks, some on horseback charged into the peaceful crowd, spraying tear gas and beating people with clubs.

Footage of “Bloody Sunday” was broadcast on all the news, both nationally and internationally.

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Category: Civil Rights, History, Local, National, People

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Frost Illustrated is Fort Wayne's oldest weekly newspaper. Your Independent Voice in the Community, featuring news & views of African Americans since 1968.

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