Class of ’65 to finally walk graduation line
In 1965, the national Civil Rights Movement came to Demopolis. Students at U.S. Jones High School left the classrooms a couple of months before Graduation Day to take part in the local and regional protest marches, including the famed walk from Selma to Montgomery that March.
“We were the only class in the history of U.S. Jones High School that did not have a graduation, prom or anything,” said class member Ella Thomas Jackson.
Seniors at U.S. Jones High School did not have a graduation ceremony, although they did receive their diplomas in the mail. This Wednesday at 10:30 a.m., the Class of 1965 will make their ceremonial walk at the Demopolis Civic Center — 45 years after graduating. The public is invited to attend.
“The Civil Rights Movement had already begun at that time, and (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) had lieutenants coming out, trying to get people involved in different cities,” said class member Fred Williams. “We made a decision, being the senior class, that we were going to be involved.
“We came out of school and took to the streets. We were organized at the old Morning Star Baptist Church. A lot of the meetings and gatherings took place at that church. I’m certain that some of us were not totally involved in it initially, but as time grew, more people started talking to the students from the movement, and we became very active at that particular point and got involved in terms of demonstrations and marches in the town.”
“We all just marched out,” Jackson said. “We marched across the street to the Morning Star Baptist Church, and we stayed there. We went to jail, and we got sprayed on.”
“We just shut the school down in April and May,” said class member Ephram Byrd. “We just started demonstrating. The NAACP and Dr. King came to Demopolis to the Morning Star Baptist Church. We were so afraid that they might put a bomb in the church, so all of the kids stayed around the church that night. We slept around the church that night.
“They didn’t put a bomb, but they drove a truck up to the church and threw out a rattlesnake. They had killed a rattlesnake and threw it up on the steps.”
Byrd said some of the resistance that they faced was violent, and a lot of people were hurt trying to escape it.
“They tried to stop us,” he said. “A lot of kids got hurt running from the tear gas. As a matter of fact, I’ve got a spot on my arm where the tear gas can hit me and exploded on my arm. It knocked me over into the ditch.
“My girlfriend — I don’t know where she got the strength from — but she picked me up, she got me on my feet, and we ran to the first house we came to.”
“We marched, and we continued to march, regardless of how much they threw us in jail, sprayed us, beat us with billy clubs,” Jackson said.
Many of the demonstrators were jailed for their actions.
“They put 25 or 30 of us in a little two-man cell in Demopolis,” said class member Jesse Ware. “They transported us from there down to Linden, and from there, they sent us to Camp Thomaston, which was a prison camp for hardcore prisoners. I stayed there for 21 days; some of us stayed longer. We had to drink water out of the back of a commode.
“One morning, we decided we were going to go on a hunger strike before breakfast. We ended the strike on a Tuesday, and the same breakfast that was served for us on Sunday was served back to us on Tuesday. I’m very proud to have come out of those times and to know that I’ve got a daughter who graduated from the University of Alabama.”
“Being black, we could not go to the jail, because we were with the march,” Jackson said. “They had what they called the Stockyard, and this is where they would put us. The NAACP would get us out, and we would march again and it would happen again. It was very tedious.”
“When we began protests and marches, we were stopped by the police on several occasions and prevented from going downtown,” Williams said. “We were told to break up this march. So, there were some anxious moments. There was the intimidation factor, because we saw some of the things that were taking place on television in Montgomery and other parts of the South, and we had no reason to think that that wouldn’t happen to us as well.”
The students march for equality among the races, to have the same opportunities that were not allowed to them.
“My purpose (for taking part in the demonstrations) was to have equality,” said Ware. “My mother worked in a place called Cherokee Restaurant for most of her life. She could cook and feed people, but if you were black, you had to go into the back of the restaurant. I didn’t think that was fair.
“Years ago, I used to caddy for white guys at the country club. You go by their houses, and they’ve got nice houses and beautiful places. At that time, you were not allowed to walk the street. My home is on a street where we were not allowed to walk back in 1965.”
“We could walk into the drug store and get an ice cream cone, but you couldn’t sit down at the counter or anywhere in terms of being served in those facilities,” Williams said. “Even the city park, at that point — you could walk through on the sidewalk, but you couldn’t do anything in the park.
“There were a lot of regularly segregated places there: separate restrooms at some of the gas stations, we had to sit in the balcony at the Marengo Theater, go through the side and into the balcony.”
Sixteen people from Demopolis went on the famed Selma march, marching from Demopolis to Selma, from Selma to Montgomery and from Montgomery to Washington, D.C.
The mock graduation ceremony on Wednesday will provide the class members with something they missed out on during those times.
“They said that if we had our graduation, that they would blow up the whole school,” Jackson said. “Therefore, Mr. Rowser opted not to do it, and the way that we got our diplomas was in the mail.”
The legacy of the actions of the U.S. Jones Class of 1965 is apparent to its class members.
“Because of what’s going on down there in Demopolis now, with the equality, that is because of the Class of 1965,” Jackson said.
“When you see what’s happened in the larger society, you see changes with respect to women holding office and blacks holding office in Demopolis — that is evidence of change,” Williams said. “That is a positive things, and I am glad to see that. I don’t see a turning back to old attitudes ‘in the main,’ so to speak. There will always be those attitudes, but in the main society, it has taken a turn for the better.”