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Living legends becoming our new memories

Commentary by Hank Sanders

“There were eight. Now there are three.” These words, voiced by Dr. F.D. Reese, jolted me in a peculiar way. I could not shake them. They lingered with me for weeks, even until this moment.

These words were spoken at the funeral of James Edward Gildersleeve. Gildersleeve served Dallas and Wilcox counties in many capacities: as teacher; as principal; as husband; as father; as church leader; as community leader; etc. Yet there was one very unique service that brought forth Dr. Reese’s phrase: “There were eight. Now there are three.”

To provide leadership for voting and other civil rights issues during the sixties was to risk everything, including one’s life. There were those in Alabama and other places who risked all and lost. In Selma, there were eight who risked all in such a unique way they came to be known as the “Courageous Eight.”

After enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, some members of the Dallas County Voters League wanted to see if black people could really eat in restaurants, use all public restrooms, try on clothing in stores, use the lower two floors of the Wilby Theater, etc. There was, however, strong resistance by many long-time members of the organization. Among those advocating such direct action was the Rev. F.D. Reese, the new president of the Voters League and seven others: Marie Foster, Amelia Boynton, James Gildersleeve, the Rev. Henry Shannon Jr., the Rev. J. D. Hunter, Ulysses Blackmon and Earnest L. Doyle. Each was a leader in his or her own right.

Let us look briefly at these eight leaders, these six men and two women: Marie Foster, a widow working in the dental office of her brother, Dr. Sullivan Jackson; J. D. Hunter, an agent for a Black insurance company and minister although he was not yet pastoring a church; the Rev. Henry Shannon, Jr., a barber and minister although he was not yet pastoring a church; Mrs. Amelia Boynton, who owned an insurance agency; Earnest L. Doyle, an interior decorator of note; Ulysses Blackmon, a teacher at the Lutheran Church School; James Gildersleeve, a principal at Lutheran Church School; the Rev. F. D. Reese, who taught for the Selma City School System and pastored two churches. They were all family folks, each a parent with a lot to lose in addition to their lives. There were eight. Now there are three.

Mrs. Shannon, widow of the Rev. Henry Shannon Jr., said, “The danger was so great we sometimes did not stay at our house. Sometimes our children could not stay at home.” These eight risked everything, including their lives and the lives of their children.

In July 1964, Dallas County Circuit Judge James Hare issued an injunction barring black people from meeting in groups of three or more to discuss civil rights. The intention was to stop these men and women from testing the Public Accommodation Act and from seeking other rights. “The injunction really put a damper on the movement,” said Dr. Reese. “But the eight of us kept meeting, trying to figure out how to revive the movement.” There were eight. Now there are three.

In December 1964, the Courageous Eight, serving as a steering committee of the Dallas County Voters League, invited Dr. Martin Luther King and SCLC to Selma, openly challenging the injunction. This took even more courage. It is one thing to meet secretly but another to participate in a public meeting barred by a court decree. The Rev. Reese does not remember exactly who coined the term, the Courageous Eight. Neither does Earnest Doyle. I think I recall Marie Foster saying she coined the term. Regardless, it was an apt term. However, they were called the “Crazy Eight” before they became the Courageous Eight. There were eight. Now there are three.

Those in power went after the Courageous Eight. For example Dr. Reese was fired from his job. It took three years to get his job back. He was falsely charged with and indicted for theft of money. It took months of struggle and a trial to defeat this attack. In the process of standing in the face of fear, all eight made history. All eight were also sources of oral history for us.

There were eight. Now there are three. Ulysses Blackmon Jr. passed in 1990. The Rev. Henry Shannon Jr. passed in 1993. Marie Foster passed in 2003. The Rev. J. D. Hunter passed in 2003. James Edward Gildersleeve passed in 2004. There were eight. Now there are three.