How Geography Drove MLK's Fight for a Ferry in AlabamaWatch the videoSee the video and lesson plan
TEXT ON SCREEN: March 7, 1965
NARRATION: It happened half a century ago: Bloody Sunday, a massacre on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama – Blacks getting beaten for daring to demand the right to vote.
A recent movie called “Selma,” dramatized the prominent role that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. played in that cause.
But there’s another story, not as well known, about segregation in the south, and Dr. King played a part in that too.
ARCHIVAL (1965): MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR: For to come to Gees’s Bend and see you out in large numbers it gives me new courage.
NARRATION: Three weeks before Bloody Sunday, Dr. King urged the people of Gee’s Bend, Alabama to go to Camden to vote. His visit fed a continuing fight over a small ferry that rode the Alabama River, a fight that would last for decades.
MAX BAGGETT, JR. (MAYOR OF CAMDEN, ALABAMA): I think relations are at a good point now, I really do.
JO CELESTE PETTWAY (DISTRICT COURT JUDGE, WILCOX COUNTY): It’s two societies in one location, separate and still unequal.
THE FERRY: A LONG TIME COMING
NARRATION: They came as slaves more than a decade before the Civil War and never left, generation after generation made a home on Gee’s Bend, a small peninsula on the Alabama River. Across the river was Camden, the seat of Wilcox County, which in the 1960’s was as segregated a place as any other in the south.
When Dr. King made one of his visits to the county in 1966, Rosetta Anderson, a young mother at the time, went to the Antioch Baptist Church to see him.
ROSETTA ANDERSON (CAMDEN RESIDENT): We had gotten rumors that if he came here they were gonna bomb the church.
NARRATION: She says Dr. King never did step inside the church. He stood outside on a raised platform.
ROSETTA ANDERSON: You’ll see me standing over in the crowd like this. And I was trying to let it all soak in… Most important thing he spoke about, what this was all about, was for us having the right to vote.
NARRATION: But allowing Blacks to vote – that’s what white segregationists feared the most in the 1960s and had been fighting against for years with literacy tests, poll taxes and violence.
EARL HILLIARD (U.S CONGRESSMAN, ALABAMA 1993-2003): There were no elected Black officials.
NARRATION: Thirty years later, Earl Hilliard became the first African American elected to Congress from Alabama since Reconstruction.
EARL HILLIARD: And they were afraid that Blacks would outvote them eventually and vote them out of office, so they did everything they could, used every type of device or vehicle to keep Blacks from voting.
NARRATION: Some time in 1962, in the midst of the protests, white segregationists in Camden resorted to what seemed to be a dirty trick.
EARL HILLIARD: The only way they could get those African-American citizens from protesting, and to keep them from protesting, was to get rid of the mode of transportation which was the ferry and they did that.
NARRATION: It was just an old creaky raft —something out of the pages of Huckleberry Finn — but it was the quickest way to cross the river to Camden. Yes, you could drive, but few people on the Bend had cars then. So when the ferry vanished from the river, it further isolated them, kept them from their jobs, from shopping, made it more difficult for kids to get to school. Even, when local quilts earned the Bend a national reputation, there still wasn’t a doctor or an ambulance on the Bend.
EARL HILLIARD: When you realize you’re talking about, in some cases an hour, or an hour-and-a-half, before you can get medical services, you can realize the impact that that had over a period of years.
NARRATION: After Hilliard was elected to congress in the 1990s, he fought to bring the ferry back. He found an unlikely ally in Camden newspaper editor, Hollis Curl. A vigorous segregationist for most of his life, Curl did an about face. Claiming he realized racism was wrong, Curl, who also owned property along the river, lobbied hard for the return of the ferry. The story made national news.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 60 MINUTES II, 7-4-00): HOLLIS CURL (NEWSPAPER EDITOR): There’s a lot yet to be done to heal the divisiveness of the past, and I like to think that the ferry is a step in that direction.
NARRATION: Nevertheless, it was a long time before the ferry service was restored… four decades.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, EVENING NEWS, 9-18-06)
KATIE COURIC: A change has finally come to a small town in the Deep South.
NARRATION: They joined in celebration – Blacks and whites together – when the Benders finally got a new ferry… this time a real one.
CHURCHGOERS (SINGING): We’ve come along way…
NARRATION: But after such a long delay, what difference does a ferry make? The fact is, Blacks are the majority in Wilcox County, and they’re largely in political control now. One exception: Max Baggett, Jr., Camden’s mayor. Baggett is sanguine about race relations here.
MAX BAGGETT, JR.: I don’t think there’s that terrible a relationship between Blacks and whites ever, particularly the ones on Gee’s Bend.
ALICIS FOSTER (CAMDEN RESIDENT):You know, the white people hold most of the land. They have most of the money. And the Blacks – we still have to go to them for everything.
NARRATION: Ferry or no ferry, not much has changed here. The schools, segregated back in the day, are still largely segregated. And more than 39 percent of the predominantly Black population in the area live below the poverty line. There are few jobs and very little industry.
Jo Celeste Pettway, the first Black female to be appointed a district court judge in Alabama, says there’s still a lot for young people to overcome.
JO CELESTE PETTWAY: It’s something you have to teach your children that you don’t wanna have to teach ‘em. I had to teach my child, “When you’re stopped by a policeman, put your hands on the steering wheel. Don’t make any sudden movements. If they ask you something, it’s, ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, sir, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ ‘No, ma’am.’” And you speak kindly to get through that incident, that situation. White parents don’t have to teach their children that.
NARRATION: The sun sets over the Alabama River. The Gee’s Bend ferry crosses over, making its last run of a long day. On the Bend, Tanna Pettway, a preacher and school teacher, shows the way to the gravestones of the original Pettway family. Mark Pettway, a white man, migrated to Gee’s Bend in 1846 with a caravan of 100 Black slaves. Despite its seclusion, and small population of 275, Tanna Pettway has plans for Gee’s Bend.
TANNA PETTWAY (GEE’S BEND RESIDENT): I truly believe that the future of Gee’s Bend is still gonna be great.
NARRATION: He wants to see it turned into a tourist attraction. Perhaps then the ferry could find its place in history.
EARL HILLIARD: There were some things that were accomplished. There were some things that were left undone. In many ways, I feel that the ferry is symbolic of the story of the civil rights movement.