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Press Conference: SCLC and SNCC

On July 20, 1965, Mary Kate Bell, Lena Turner, Mamie Campbell, and Gloria Wise challenged voter registration laws in Americus. They stood in the white women’s voting line during a special election for a justice of the peace. In this WSB clip, Hosea Williams and John Lewis hold a press conference a few days later in Atlanta on July 26, 1965, to address the escalating racial tension in southwest Georgia.

Local authorities asked the women to move and arrested them for resisting.  Members of the Americus Merchants Association agreed to post bond, but, after consulting their lawyer C. B. King, the women decided to remain in jail until the city dropped all charges and released them. 

As the representative for the SCLC, Williams calls attention here to racist voter registration procedures in Sumter County. He states that a massive integration effort combining demonstrations and pickets will occur in Americus until the city meets their demands. In addition to securing the women’s release from jail, he asks city officials to reschedule the special election, to appoint a black voter registrar, to provide police protection for all citizens, and to create a biracial committee. 

Following a mass protest meeting, the activists launched an all-day, all-night vigil around the Sumter County Courthouse that began Tuesday, July 27, 1965. Later, over two hundred people turned out for a nonviolent demonstration through Americus to the courthouse, to increase the pressure on local authorities to take the marchers’ demands seriously. 

As a result of Williams’s press conference and the demonstrations, the city of Americus released the four jailed women on Friday, July 30, 1965. The city eventually formed a biracial committee to address the mounting racial tensions.

In his effort to challenge segregation, Williams unified the activists in Americus with national Civil Rights Movement organizations. Like the Reverend Dr. King and the Reverend Ralph Abernathy in Albany, he helped to bring the country's focus to the struggle in Americus. This clip also demonstrates the important role that women played on the front lines of the Movement. Women activists often worked behind the scenes--typing, making phone calls, organizing mass meetings, hosting visitors in their homes. The events of the summer of 1965 in Americus showed how women participated at the forefront of the Movement too.

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Discussion Questions

1. When you think of prison inmates, what images come to mind? What kinds of crimes do you think about? How did the marchers of Americus challenge stereotypes about prisoners and instead suggest how jail could be a transformative experience?  Read our story Barbwire Theater Comes to Atlanta in the Freedom on Film Atlanta pages and discuss what needs to be done in your community to counter negative attitudes towards released prisoners and reform conditions inside such institutions.

2. Read Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963). How does King describe his imprisonment as an effective form of civil rights activism?

3. Visit the SCLC's web site. The organization's home page invites readers to "Join Our Beloved Community." What was Dr. King's concept of the beloved community? How does this story about the four women activists and the SCLC in Americus model King's concept of the beloved community?

Take it to the Streets!

On March 21, 1965, a few months before this incident occured in Americus, Matt Herron snapped a photograph of civil rights marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in protest of the lack of voting rights in Selma, Alabama. This has become one of the most famous photographs of the Movement. Visit the photograph at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. Talk about the kinds of emotions and attitudes that the image evokes. Compose a scrapbook of several pages using images you have selected from current magazines and newspapers that suggest such feelings.

 

Writer: Lauren Chambers 
Editors: Christina L. Davis, Deborah Stanley, and Diane Trap 
Researchers: Lauren Chambers, Aggie Ebrahimi, Courtney Thomas, and Professor Barbara McCaskill   
Web Site Designer: William Weems              

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