Martin Luther King’s Call for Voting Rights Inspired Isolated Hamlet

Weeks before Selma’s Bloody Sunday in 1965, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. urged residents of Gee’s Bend, Ala., to vote, and fed a continuing fight over a small ferry that would last for decades.

By Clyde Haberman
An image from RetroReport

To find Gee's Bend on a map of Alabama, you would do well to put your finger on Selma and trace an imaginary line roughly 35 miles to the southwest. Selma is famous, of course, especially on this 50th anniversary of events that earned it an indelible place in civil rights history.

Half a century ago, peaceful protesters seeking voting rights for disenfranchised blacks tried to march from Selma to Montgomery, the Alabama capital, but were mercilessly clubbed and tear-gassed by white men with badges. That state-sanctioned violence on March 7, 1965 — Bloody Sunday — sickened the nation. More marches followed, ultimately under the protection of federal troops, and that summer, Congress passed a Voting Rights Act to sweep away practices that had long deprived blacks of equal partnership in the American democracy.

The hamlet of Gee's Bend is not so well known, but it commands its own niche in civil rights memory. In part, that is because of an old ferry that crossed the brown waters of the Alabama River. Even calling it a ferry lent it a grandiose air. It was more like a wooden raft. But for “Benders,” nearly all of them African-Americans, it was their main connection to the larger world.

Suddenly, during the protest era of the 1960s, it was taken out of service, deepening their isolation. What happened to them afterward shapes this first installment in a new regular season of Retro Report, a series of video documentaries that examine major news stories of the past and their consequences.

Officially, Gee's Bend is known as Boykin, a name slapped on it in 1949 to honor a long-serving congressman from Alabama, Frank W. Boykin. The locals, descendants of slaves in the main, did not take to the name. That was no surprise. Frank Boykin, who died in 1969, was an ardent segregationist, like most white Alabama politicians of his generation.

Not that “Gee's Bend” had a nobler provenance. The name harked back to Joseph Gee, a slave owner from North Carolina who packed up his household and settled in 1816 in a cul-de-sac of the coiling Alabama River, surrounded on three sides by water. In the 1840s, the Gee plantation fell to its last slave owner, Mark Pettway. Even today, Pettway is one of the more common surnames for blacks in that area.

By any name, the hamlet was poor. It had a notable distinction, though. Women of the Bend produced stunning quilts with distinctive geometric patterns formed from old sacks, faded dungarees and bits of corduroy. When the Whitney Museum in New York held an exhibition of the quilts in 2002, Michael Kimmelman, then this newspaper’s chief art critic, described the designs as “eye-poppingly gorgeous,” and said they were “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”

But quilting belongs more to Gee’s Bend’s past than to its present. The hamlet itself has shrunk, with an official population now at 275, well below the 900 or so who lived there in the mid-1960s. That was when no less than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came calling to tell Benders that, yes, they were isolated and, yes, they were impoverished and, yes, their grammar was less than perfect, but their lives mattered. There in Wilcox County, he told them, they were “as good as any white person.”

This was in February 1965, three weeks before Selma’s Bloody Sunday. On a cold, rainy night, Dr. King made his way along muddy roads to the rickety Pleasant Grove Baptist Church. The planks that served as pews were filled. “I come over here to Gee’s Bend,” he said, “to tell you: You are somebody.” A year later, he returned to that area, speaking outside Antioch Baptist Church in nearby Camden. It was part of a swing that he made through heavily black Alabama districts to urge people to not be afraid and to make the most of the voting rights enshrined in federal statute.

But even with the new law, voting was not easy for Benders. Their ferry was gone.

The ferry had enabled them, in a matter of minutes, to traverse the 600 yards of river separating them from Camden, the seat of Wilcox County. In the ’60s, Camden was as white as Gee’s Bend was black. It was where Benders went to shop and to sell their produce and to see the doctor. It was also where people registered to vote and cast their ballots. White people, anyway. Before the Voting Rights Act, not a single black man or woman had been deemed eligible to vote. Those who tried to register in Camden, or to join protests against racial discrimination, failed.

In 1962, the Gee’s Bend-Camden ferry stopped running. Whites who held power said the old flat-bottom boat simply wasn’t up to the task anymore. Blacks suspected that the true reason was to keep them removed from demonstrations and the cries for racial justice blowing across the land. Indeed, once the ferry disappeared, Gee’s Bend was more cloistered than ever. Getting to Camden now required driving a circuitous 40-mile route on back roads that took well over an hour. That is, assuming any Bender owned a car. Back then, almost no one did.

For more than 40 years, Camden was effectively a distant shore. But at long last, in 2006, a new ferry went into service, a modern vessel capable of carrying cars as well as passengers. Perhaps no one worked harder to bring it about than Hollis Curl, the white owner of a small Camden newspaper whose personal transformation was symbolic of changes across the South. Mr. Curl, who died in 2010 at age 74, used to be as fervent a segregationist as there was. Somewhere along the line, he felt a call to atone for his bigotry. As part of his penitence, he campaigned for restoration of the Gee’s Bend ferry, an appeal that eventually came to fruition with financial help from Washington.

Did a spanking new boat mean splendid times for Gee’s Bend? Hardly. Its residents remain mostly poor, as does much of rural Wilcox County, with its predominantly African-American population, modern Camden included. Federal statistics show that nearly half of all personal income in the county comes from various government payments. Nor have black-white divides magically disappeared. “It’s two societies in one location,” Jo Celeste Pettway, an Alabama District Court judge from a Gee’s Bend family, told Retro Report. “Separate and still unequal,” she said. Then again, the same could be said of many communities, up North just as much as down South.

But no matter how deep or shallow their pockets may be, Benders know something that is more important than money: Each of them is somebody. A man came to town 50 years ago and told them that. And the people who heard his words applauded and said: “It’s true. It’s true.”

CLYDE HABERMAN, a regular contributor to Retro Report, has been a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The New York Times, where he spent nearly 13 years based in Tokyo, Rome and Jerusalem. Subscribe to our newsletter here and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.

This article first appeared in The New York Times.