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Willy Leventhal

By Willy Leventhal

Plains, Ga., where I now sat, seemed so peaceful…but the images of the gunshots a few weeks earlier in Americus, Ga. were still vivid. It had happened so fast—but at the same time, it was almost like a freeze frame slow motion film in the glare of the afternoon sunlight. The Klansman’s gun six feet from my face, the gunshots, the rush of adrenaline when I dropped to the floor beneath the steering wheel instinctively hitting the brake—and the car skidding to a stop. Then, the confused relief when the bullet holes and the blood I checked for were not there. My mind went blank for a few seconds, and then came the realization that I hadn’t been hit.

The images faded and the reality of Plains—closed down for the day—came back into focus. The sun’s final tapestry of colors began to fill the horizon. Plains, known for peanut farming, was a few miles down the road from Americus, the county seat. Plains would become a national dateline years later as the hometown of President Jimmy Carter, but back then it was nowhere of note.  This little Sumter County hamlet was where I spent this mid-August 1965 day trying to encourage local blacks to do something that had in the past been almost exclusively “white folks biznez”—registering to vote.

My work for the day was done, and I was waiting for a ride back to Americus as I watched a couple of kids down at the train depot who were playing hide-and-seek around shipping crates filled with peanuts. Across the dusty tranquility of the town oval—Plains being too small for the quintessential southern town square—was a stocky young blond man at a service station in a baseball cap, drinking a few beers as he tossed a stick for his dog.

He paid me no attention.

It was past dinnertime, and the sky was now beginning to turn darker shades of orange and purple. The southern Georgia heat had begun to subside, and the shade of the porch made it less oppressive.

The ’55 Dodge pickup, a little on the raggedy side, with Judson Ford at the wheel, pulled to a stop, raising some sticky red dust from the clay-laden Georgia soil. David Bell, riding shotgun, leaned his head out the window and smiled a broad grin. David had an attractive ebony face that was a contrast between his adolescent mirth and apparent deep concentration beyond his years. David’s family had become my movement family, giving me a bed to sleep in, and meals…as had the Simmons’ back in Macon, Ala., beginning in mid-June.

“Hey, Willy,” David called. “Get in, brother. My mom be holding dinner for us. And, those collards be gettin’ …coe-lll-ddd (c-o-l-d).” With a smile, he continued: “I know they’re not your favorite, even when they be steaming.”

“OK,” I called back, picking up the voter registration leaflets, “and, big brother David, you’ll be glad to know that a nice elderly lady, not more than a mile out in the country, promised me that she would go down to the courthouse in Americus and ‘reddish’ [register]. And, even without you watching out for me, I got through another whole day without being shot at.”

A few days earlier, David had been trying to get new voters scheduled to go to the courthouse, when he and white volunteer, Bill Rau, had been attacked by two white men in a car who threw bricks at them, hitting Bill in the face, opening a wound that took thirteen stitches to close. As David tried to give aid to Bill, the two men got out of the car and attacked Bill with clubs. Had Bill not gone into the fetal position with his hands covering his head, as we had been taught at orientation by Hosea Williams and other movement military vets, he might have had a fractured skull, rather than broken fingers.

David gave me another big grin, and said: “None of those bad white dudes been chuckin’ rocks at you?” Judson, David and I laughed as I climbed into the pickup, still smiling.

Judson nodded at me, with a soft smile. He was twice David’s age of 17, but just as lean and hard. Judson Ford had served in Korea, and the day before, at Barnum’s Funeral Home, the hub of the movement in Americus, I saw him stick a .38 revolver in his belt as we were getting ready to go out in the country to pick up some movement folks who had been trying to solicit new voters among the few residents in the tiny villages of DeSoto and Leslie.

Surprised, I said: “Judson, what’s the gun for? I thought we were nonviolent?”

Judson had gazed blank–faced at me for a moment. And then, he had a long silent look that said, “I’m not sure if you’re for real, young white boy; or, if you can understand the implications of what I’m going to tell you, or about what’s really going on down here for that matter.” He then spoke without emotion:

“Oh yeah, we are nonviolent, little brother…Andy Young, even Willie Bolden and Big Lester, as tough as they are. All of Dr. Martin Luther King’s staff…J.T. Johnson, and Lula Williams, too. And, the good Lord knows Dr. King, our leader, is. But, Willy, this ain’t no demonstration we’re fixing to leave for right now. No TV cameras to help protect us, and I plan to get me and you, and the other youngsters back alive. There’s been more reports of heavy gunfire down in terrible Terrell County. I decided after Korea, even if I couldn’t vote when I got back, that I’d be a target for no Kluxer, or anyone else. You comin’?”

I had still been trying to wrap my mind around what Judson said as I drove our Dodge pickup—Judson riding shotgun beside me—from Barnum’s on down the hill to Lee Street, and then south on Highway 19. The gun didn’t bother me, and, in fact, it made me feel less afraid. That trip was one of more than a few times when my idealism and my faith in Dr. King’s teachings of nonviolence came face to face with the reality of southwest Georgia in the summer of 1965.