The present stands on the footsteps of the past, on the struggles and sacrifice of those who came before us. We call them history makers now, but 50 years ago, they were college students, energized and mobilized, making demands to change an unjust system. They marched then, and walk among us now and their experiences help bring into focus the long-standing and deep-seated racism and structural inequalities that plague the United States. Some of their stories are told in books and movies. Others became the faces of a movement, each mugshot and march captured on film. But there are hundreds, if not thousands of people, whose stories of determination you won’t find in a textbook. My cousin Benjel DuBose is one of them.
DuBose was a sophomore at Alabama State University in the spring of 1968. He had grown up on his grandfather’s farm in Enteprise, Ala., and knew all too well what racism looked, sounded and felt like. Coming of age in the 1960s, he and his classmates were bearing witness to dramatic social change, and as college students in Alabama’s capital city, their actions would have a hand in that change, too. A few hundred miles away in Memphis, Tenn., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was organizing a march among the city’s sanitation workers, demanding better wages and working conditions. The students at Alabama State, believers in the cause, organized a local march to support the efforts in Memphis.
“I believed in standing up for our rights,” DuBose said, emphasizing that he knew he wanted to get involved. It was a decision that was risky, and for some students, could have resulted in retaliation against their families from white employers.
“A lot of the kids from the city weren’t involved, or it wasn’t known they were involved,” he said.
But his mother lived in Indiana, and his grandfather was a self-sufficient farmer in Enterprise. His actions wouldn’t endanger their livelihoods.
DuBose was among the hundreds who marched from the Alabama State campus through downtown Montgomery, down Dexter Avenue toward the state Capitol building. As they
approached the Capitol, they were surrounded by police. Then the arrests came. Police hauled the students to the old city jail, which had been sitting empty since the construction of a new jail.
“I stayed in jail for four days,” DuBose recalled. He shared a cell with three other students, “afraid as all get-out.”
“I wasn’t there when it happened, but one of the police officers came in and told my friend, ‘Nigger, get out of that bed! That bed is for prisoners, not protesters!”
As the days passed, a rumor began that Dr. King would be coming to get the students out of jail. Though the students expected to be arrested, few anticipated spending multiple nights in jail. “My grandaddy told me, ‘One of these days you gonna be eating grits and gravy and proud to get it’ . . . Every morning that’s what they gave us. You were skeptical about it though. It wasn’t fit for dining.”
Noted civil rights leaders Hosea Williams and Rev. Ralph Abernathy– also an Alabama State alumnus– got the students out of jail. (Weeks later, during Alabama State’s spring commencement exercises, Abernathy would tell the graduates of the need for militant protest).
When the students appeared in court, it was even more reason to be scared. Standing in line before the judge to enter a plea, DuBose saw two of his classmates fined $104, regardless of saying guilty or not guilty.
“I was the third person in line and the judge said, ‘How do you plead?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘What you mean by that, boy? Why were you up there in the first place?'”
“I was thinking, ‘I gotta get out of this,” DuBose said. “My grandaddy is gonna kill me.”
A quickly spun half-truth saved him a $104 fine. It just so happened that he had a check in his pocket that his mother had sent three days earlier.
“I told the judge I came downtown to go to the bank,” he recalled. “I told him I went downtown to cash it and I saw my classmates standing in line, so I went to see what was happening.”
The judge demanded that DuBose show him the check. When he pulled it from his pocket, the judge saw that it was an out-of-state check.
“The judge said, ‘I’ll let you go this time, but if I catch you protesting again, I will throw the book at you,'” he recalled. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that tale I told would work.”
Meanwhile, DuBose’s mother– one of my grandfather’ younger sisters– had called the Alabama State dorm expecting to speak to her oldest son. One of the students told her what happened and that her oldest son wasn’t in his room, but was in in jail. She called her father (my great-grandfather), J.E. Nance, who drove from his home in Enterprise to pick him up.
“I thought he was gonna raise all kinds of Cain,” DuBose said. But his grandfather’s reaction surprised him.
“He asked me why I was protesting, and I said, ‘Grandaddy, you always told me to stand up for what I believe in, and that’s what I did,'” he said. “He said, ‘OK,’ and never said anything more about it.”
DuBose returned to campus and remained involved with student organizations. But his experience forever changed his perspective and formed the basis of a kinship he feels with protesters now, more than 50 years later.
“I believe in it wholeheartedly” he said. “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. It’s something that’s well overdue. Every black man has had a bad experience with the police. These are things that have been going on for a long time. This is just a boiling point.”
And it is because of the aftermath of spring 1968 that DuBose knows the power of protests. The sanitation workers in Memphis received the better wages and working conditions they fought for.
“If you sit back and do nothing, I don’t think you can feel good about yourself,” he said. “I thought it was the right thing to do. My roommate and my classmates thought it was the right thing to do, and we did it. I don’t regret a day of it.”