When you think of the powerful Civil Rights Movement in the fifties and sixties a number of cities come to mind; Birmingham Alabama, Selma, Alabama, and Albany, Georgia are all well known for their contributions to the larger struggle for equality. All of these places hold a well-deserved place in the history of the struggle for equality for African-Americans in the United States. Did you know that in the early sixties Americus, GA played an incredibly pivotal role in the Civil Rights movement and the events in Americus, that played out over a relatively short period, have been credited with spurring congress to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and the Voting Rights Act. To commemorate the people who gave so much to the struggle and their sacrifices, the Americus-Sumter County Movement Remembered Committee (ASCMRC) is working and planning to create a space that will permanently honor those that gave so much to the movement. I had the opportunity to have a conversation with long-time civil rights activist and Americus native Juanita Wilson about the Center and the important place Americus and Sumter County have in the history of the movement.
Mrs. Wilson grew up in the movement. Her father was a baptist minister and she remembers that their house was always alive with with people coming and going. She remembers the deep commitment she, her family, and their community had, and still have, for the movement for equality and justice. “We always lived around the civil rights movement. Our house was an office to civil rights workers. Our home was a shelter when we marched to sleep people that came in from up north to help us.” There were other places in Americus that housed civil rights workers as well including the Barnum Funeral Home.
When she was just fifteen Mrs. Wilson, then known as Juanita Freeman, was one of a group of thirty-three girls who were taken to the abandoned Leesburg Stockade in the dead of night without their parents knowledge. She, her sister, and many other girls had been picked up by the police during a protest to integrate the movie theater in downtown Americus. She was held for over forty-three days sleeping on concrete floors, sharing one toilet, and eating whatever meager food her jailer brought them. They were harassed by men who would congregate outside the jail and, one point, someone outside the stockade threw a rattlesnake into their cell. When asked how they got through it Mrs. Wilson explained, “For us it was a cause. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a cause that could let you move mountains and do things that were not humanly possible, but that is the way it was back then”. She also pointed out that there were other children who were taken to other rural facilities in the area and that their stories are important as well– their treatment was not an isolated incident and all of the children who suffered “they should not be forgotten.”
Mrs. Wilson feels progress has been made in the struggle for true equality in Georgia, but that there is still a long way to go. When I asked her about the continued struggle for black people to access their right to vote, she said “We are always going to find a way”. She went on to say “Once you have this kind of momentum is stays there.” She went on to say “I feel like it has steadily grown. You have people like John Lewis who continued to fight– and John Lewis came to Americus also– you had a lot of significant people who died or lived or walked and they never let it die. It has always been there in the background”. She said that education is the key and that bringing African-American teachers into the classroom is critical in the continued struggle for true equality and cultural diversity.
The Center is about half way to its funding goal– it has received two $500,000 grants and they are seeking another million dollars to complete the abatement of lead and asbestos and the construction of the museum. Much planning and fundraising has been done, so now it is time to take it to the next level. In the next few months Cafe Campesino will be releasing a special coffee to help raise funds for The Center. Mrs. Wilson is excited about that partnership. “It is important to me. It shows that people can get along” and shows that together “we can do what we need to do.”
The Center is looking for donations from the Americus community and beyond. They will soon have a donation portal on their website where people can give through credit cards. Until then they ask that interested people donate by sending a check to: ASCMRC, PO Box 1383, Americus, GA, 31709.