Civil rights activist dies in Selma

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 28, 2004

There is more to James Edward Gildersleeve’s story than Selma, the 1960’s and the Civil Rights Movement.

Gildersleeve, who died on June 17 at the age of 86. lived the life of an American hero before he became President of the Dallas County Voter’s League (DCVL) and a member of the Courageous Eight.

The father of two and the grandfather of four, Gildersleeve served his country as an MP in Japan during World War II. In addition, he served 41 years as a teacher and principal in both public and private schools. But it is the resolve that Gildersleeve showed in the early ’60’s that will keep his name in the history books.

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“I grew up during the Civil Rights Movement,” his daughter, Linda Gildersleeve Blackwell said. “I know the things they risked, they risked their lives and the lives of their families to achieve the freedoms that all the other Americans enjoyed.”

Gildersleeve was the seventh of 11 children.

He was born in Marengo County in 1918, the son of Edward and Alice.

His father was a blacksmith, making good money for a black man in those days, according to Blackwell. Because of that, her grandfather could afford many things that most blacks and many whites couldn’t.

The family believes it caught up with him.

Edward Gildersleeve was shot and killed by a white man in a dispute at a filling station in Pine Hill.

Blackwell said the man claimed Gildersleeve had driven off with the gas nozzle still attached to the car, so he shot him.

The family thought, the white establishment simply couldn’t accept the success of a black man.

“Nobody really knows the truth,” she said.

Blackwell said that event, along with his service in WWII, shaped her father into the man that was able to withstand the intense pressure of fighting the system of oppression in the south.

“One of the things I really remember was my dad and his commitment to the struggle,” Blackwell, who about 11-years-old at the time said. “It was all at the risk of life and limb and injury.

I was afraid for my daddy. (But) He would never listen to us, we were frightened for his life.”

Blackwell told of late night calls, police harassment, constant threats and watching her father get arrested on the evening news, but one other event stood out.

“We were down at the Circle Inn, that was the only time I have personally seen the KKK,” she said describing the cars rolling down the road with their inside lights on so people outside could see them dressed in their whites sheets. “To see it made an impression on my mind.”

But, Gildersleeve would not be swayed.

As a member of the Courageous Eight, he helped fight against segregation in Alabama.

“I have always been proud of my dad,” Blackwell said. “My sister and I understood.”

With Gildersleeve’s death, only three members of the Courageous Eight are still alive.

Amelia Boynton, the Rev. F.D. Reese and Earnest Doyle.

Marie Foster, Ulysses Blackmon, the Rev. J.D. Hunter and the Rev. Henry Shannon were the other members.

The group banned together to fight segregation in Selma.

They fought for the right to earn a fair wage, equality in education, the right to elect leaders, and other basic freedoms.

“He was truly a great warrior and a friend to me,” Reese said. “He was a very determined civil rights fighter.

He was very dedicated to trying to improve the lives of blacks and all Americans, really. He had great courage.”

In 2000, President Bill Clinton honored the members of the Courageous Eight at the 35th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

Gildersleeve was recognized by the DCVL and the National Voting Rights Museum as President emeritus of the DCVL.

His daughter said the work being done and the museum to preserve the legacy of the movement is crucial.

“I have been impressed to see the numbers of tourists that are coming through the facility,”

she said.

“That’s one way we can continue the legacy that the people like the Courageous Eight Started.”