BESSEMER, Ala. — Just before noon on a sticky-hot Alabama morning 50 years ago, nine wide-eyed teenage boys gathered on a corner in their all-black neighborhood and walked into the heart of hatred.
The journey was a secret. They didn’t dare tell their parents, who would have been horrified. Fueled by adolescent verve and a sense of moral certainty, the boys knew they were doing something provocative. But they figured: We’re just kids; what’s the worst that could happen?
The boys, on summer break from their segregated high school, met near a shoeshine stand where they worked and hung out. Then they made their way into bustling downtown Bessemer. As they approached their destination, they noticed some men, white and carrying what looked like child-sized baseball bats in paper bags. But they didn’t think much of it.
At the corner of Second Avenue and 19th Street, they filed into McLellan's, a five-and-dime with a lunch counter where blacks were not allowed to eat alongside whites. On the white side, six seats were empty. The first of the boys broke from the pack and sat.
They were nervous, but not frightened. “I just assumed if we sat there we could get served,” one of them, Herbert Pigrom Jr., recalled.
It was July 7, 1964. Across the South, blacks had been streaming into restaurants, barbershops, buses and swimming pools to test their new freedoms as laid out in a sweeping federal law passed five days earlier. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate based on race, color, sex or national origin at schools, workplaces, voting booths and “public accommodations.” There had been pockets of resistance, some of it violent, but for the most part the implementation had gone peacefully.
Most of the testers that summer were adult volunteers supported by well-organized advocacy groups. But the Bessemer teens worked alone. Growing up, they’d shared stories of their daily humiliations, of being told they weren’t good enough to sit with white people, or look them in the eyes, or be known to them as anything but “boy.” They were inspired by civil rights demonstrations on TV and in newspapers, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent campaign in nearby Birmingham the previous year. When the new law passed, the boys felt emboldened to act.
“It was just a matter of individuals coming together and deciding that we are going to do something here,” recalled Albert Shade, who, at 17, was the oldest of the boys. “Let’s make a stand in our own community.”
Picking a target was easy. The boys shopped at McLellan’s frequently, and had been navigating the segregated lunch counter for years. They knew, or at least thought they knew, what to expect once they walked into McLellan’s.
The ladies behind the counter looked astonished.
“What do y’all want?” a waitress asked, according to Shade.
“We want to order cherry Cokes,” one of boys replied.
“You know y’all not supposed to be over here,” she said.
The boys didn’t move. They hadn’t planned what to do if they were refused. The waitress turned to a co-worker and announced, “They want to order cherry Cokes.”
An uneasy silence followed. A few minutes passed.
In the merchandise racks behind them, the boys who could not find a seat lingered, waiting for white customers to leave. Through the window they could see a half-dozen or so men with bats heading toward the store.
An assistant manager came to the door to try to keep the men from entering. “We don’t want any problems,” the manager, who asked to not be named, recently recalled telling them.
“They told me there was nothing I could do about it,” the former manager said. “They probably would have got me if I’d resisted.”
The men blocked the doors and surrounded the counter. Shade noticed one behind him and hollered, “Watch that man with the bat.” He began to raise his arm in defense. Then the men started swinging.
“We were naïve enough to think the law was the law, and things were going to change.”
A lot gets lost in a half century. Not many of those inside McLellan’s that day are still around. The sit-in remains a tiny historical footnote in Bessemer, brushed aside by authorities when it happened, then fading into distant memory.
But the boys remember.
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Five of them are alive. All spoke with NBC News, a reunion of sorts that brought some of them together at the scene for the first time in decades.
The five remain proud of what they did. But some have struggled with long-term emotional trauma, not only from the attack, but from the continued discrimination they endured for years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed.
The only thing they fault themselves for is thinking the law was enough to protect them.
“We were naïve enough to think the law was the law and things were going to change,” Pigrom said. “We were not so naïve to think that it would not cause a disturbance. I just didn’t think they would organize and equip themselves with baseball bats and beat up teenagers.”
Bessemer, population 27,000, is a small but sprawling industrial city nestled in the rolling hills of Alabama mining country, or what remains of it. Its tale of boom, bust and slow recovery mirrors that of Birmingham, its larger and more famous neighbor. But while Birmingham played a vital role in the civil rights movement, Bessemer’s relationship to the cause was largely tangential: King speaking at a church, King briefly doing time in a local jail. Blacks who participated in sit-ins tended to do so in Birmingham rather than in their own backyards.
Bessemer’s civil rights movement focused less on street-level protests and more on court battles: lawsuits that sought to open parks to blacks, challenged voting rules and forced the redrawing of political boundaries that kept the majority-black populace out of power.
Over the years, Bessemer slowly conformed to new laws and rulings. Blacks and whites could eat alongside each other, and attend the same schools. Blacks won positions of leadership. The older generation of whites who resisted civil rights gave way to younger ones who weren’t so hidebound.
But life didn’t necessarily get better. The city’s foundries and factories, including the Pullman-Standard box-car maker, closed or laid off workers. The downtown business district emptied. Many whites fled to outlying suburbs or sent their children to private academies. The decline, repeated in countless American cities, left Bessemer poorer, and blacker.
Today, downtown Bessemer remains pocked with vacant stores and faded facades. The quiet is occasionally broken by a freight train rumbling through the north end of town. There is a library and small museum, but little official recognition of local civil rights battles. One exception is an attempt to turn a part of the Bessemer County Jail where King was imprisoned into a museum.
One block away from the old jail, signs still mark the front and rear entrances of McLellan’s. At each door is a plaque marking the spot as a historical site, but no indication why, or what happened there 50 years ago.
"I was thinking, ‘I’m just not going to die here.’"
The boys fought like hell.
“It wasn’t like we were going to sit there and take a beating,” Pigrom recalled.
The bats landed on their backs, arms, heads. The boys hurtled for the exits, knocking people over, upturning racks, throwing objects and their bodies at their attackers.
“I was determined to get out of there,” said Tommy Bouyer, who’d been seated at the counter and ended up on the floor, crawling for daylight as bats crashed on his body. “I was thinking, ‘I’m just not going to die here.’”
Herman Williams, who’d been the first to see the men come into the store, threw fists at anyone in his way. He provided cover for two friends as they barreled to the front door.
One of those friends, Desmond Wright, slipped and fell. A bat connected with his skull, hard enough to cause a concussion. Adrenaline pumping, he got up and followed the others.
They sprinted down alleyways and side streets until they found each other near the spot where they started. Only then did they realize that one of them, Eddie Harris, was missing. He’d slipped into a corner and had taken a vicious beating. The next time his friends saw him, a cast covered most of his body.
The melee drew reporters to downtown Bessemer, where authorities said little, according to archival news reports. Harris gave an interview from his hospital bed. The story made papers around the country. The next day, Mayor Jess Lanier called the attack a “flare-up situation” and announced he had sent officers from the all-white police department to maintain order. A group of blacks assembled downtown, but police made them disperse. Police Chief George Barron said there’d been no charges filed, or arrests made, and that the attackers had not been identified. The story disappeared from the newspapers.
Earlier this month, Bessemer officials attempted to locate a police file but could find nothing.
The boys lay low after the attack, afraid that they would be taken into custody, or killed. Some of their families got threatening phone calls. Men sat outside with guns across their laps. Shade hid at his aunt’s house, and didn’t emerge for three days, until an FBI agent came looking for him. He told the agent what happened.
A few other boys got visits from the FBI. Even then, they didn’t know if they were being investigated as victims or perpetrators, and never heard from the agency again.
“We suppressed the memory immediately afterward,” Wright said. “We were just happy to get out and not be hurt and not be going to jail or prison.”
But the agent filed a report. It outlined the incident but concluded that the attackers could not be identified, according to notes on the FBI file taken by Gavin Wright, a Stanford University professor who wrote a book on the economic impact of racial integration.
To this day, some residents who remember the incident suspect the Ku Klux Klan, which had a chapter in Bessemer.
Most of the nine boys left Bessemer soon after high school. Many served in the military, had successful careers and raised families. But many found it hard to release the anger, not only at what had happened, but at the slow pace of change. The law may have made discrimination illegal, but it did not erase prejudice.
“I had a lot of bitterness because of what I saw,” Shade, 67, said. He went to college, became a salesman, and in his 30s became a pastor at a church in Birmingham, where he remains. “I had to really grow in grace, and when the Lord entered my life I began to see things a whole different way: that we all got to love each other.”
“It was one of the many things I saw growing up that inspired me to do well,” added Pigrom, 66, who retired outside Atlanta after a career in sales and marketing in the chemical industry.
Williams, 64, is a retired truck driver and the only one of the group who still lives in Bessemer. “We got a lot of things we wanted, but a lot of things we didn’t,” he said.
Bouyer stayed in Bessemer just long enough to get his high school diploma. The next morning, he caught a bus to White Plains, New York, to live with a relative. He went on to become an account manager in the pharmaceutical industry and never returned to his hometown, except for an occasional visit to see his friends.
Remembering the attack, and his painful Bessemer boyhood, brings tears.
“Things have changed in Bessemer, but there’s still something in me that hurts, and I can’t spend more than a little time there,” Bouyer, 66, said.
Bessemer’s current challenges don’t hinge on civil rights. New generations have grown up there not knowing Jim Crow or the overt racism that defined life in 1964. The mayor, police chief and many other government officials are black.
But systemic discrimination has been replaced by what some call de facto segregation. Bessemer, 57 percent black in the early 1960s, is now 71 percent black. Its schools are 92 percent black. The median household income for white families is $37,621, and for black families it is $24,463. About 14 percent of white families are under the poverty line, compared to 37 percent of black families, according to the U.S. Census.
“Bessemer in a lot of ways in terms of racial relations is much better. In terms of economics, it’s gotten worse,” Wright, 65, said. He moved to Birmingham eight years ago after retiring from the U.S. Veterans Administration, where he worked as an addiction therapist. “I don’t know how you separate the two. But that’s just America, period.”
Lately, Bessemer has showed signs of a rally, attracting manufacturing firms that set up shop on the outskirts of town. The unemployment rate dropped from 15.5 percent in August 2009 to 8.6 percent in April 2014. A new recreation complex is under development, the first such project since the 1960s, when the city filled in its public pools rather than integrate them. Mayor Kenneth Gulley said he hopes to build a modern city hall that will reflect the town’s rebirth.
Ask any of the surviving boys how their sit-in impacted others, and they’ll pause. The answer doesn’t come easy.
Most look to the younger generations, who can’t imagine a world as brutal as the one they grew up in. The men share their story and hope it inspires.
“I tell my grandson: ‘Man, you don’t have to look down on yourself. Pick yourself up in dignity,’” Shade said. “’Respect yourself and other people. And don’t let nobody look down on you.’”