Annie Pearl Avery
Raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Annie Pearl Avery–whose civil rights work spanned decades–did not come off a college campus. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, she was sent to live with relatives in Pittsburgh when she was 9 or 10 years old. She returned to Birmingham when she was 14, no longer used to segregation. She found life “traumatic” and wanted to flee her hometown. “But we were ‘po’ and I couldn’t,” she explained, “And there is a difference between being ‘po’ and being poor.”
Continuous violence seemed to surround her life. Before she started high school, police barged into her home looking for her brother. She had heard adults whisper about Emmett Till’s murder in Mississippi as well as acts of violence in Birmingham. Her uncle was lynched.
When Freedom Riders were mobbed in Birmingham in May 1961, she went to the bus station to see what was happening and perhaps help or at least meet the riders. She could not get through police barricades, but she met SNCC organizer Wilson Brown who invited her to attend a SNCC conference in Georgia. After the conference, Brown, Avery, and a young white woman got lost while driving back to Alabama and stopped at a bus station in Marietta, Georgia seeking directions. Immediately, the police were notified that a mixed race group was in town. It didn’t take long for the police to arrest Wilson Brown and impounded his car.
They waited in the station for hours while white customers swore at them and threatened their lives. At one point, they locked themselves in phone booths and called the Atlanta SNCC office. Julian Bond and Jim Forman rushed to Marietta, and with their assistance, the three made it back to Alabama. After the incident, Avery always questioned the effectiveness of nonviolence.
Annie Pearl Avery had a habit of pushing the limits of what the movement establishment thought was appropriate. She planned to bring a gun and a knife to her first protest, a sit-in organized by the SCLC’s Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. On the way there, her godmother took her weapons, but Avery still went to Woolworth’s ready to protect herself. At the lunch counter, a white man spat and splattered ketchup on the protesters. Avery had enough and said, “Lord, if that man sits and pours ketchup on me, I’m just gonna have to go off.” Reverend Shuttlesworth was concerned that Avery could not practice nonviolence and gently asked her to leave the counter. As Avery continued to work with SNCC, she found more organizers who shared her beliefs about self-defense. When she worked in SNCC’s Natchez, Mississippi project, she and the other field staff carried guns.
Eventually she became SNCC’s project director for the voter registration effort in Hale County, Alabama. After working with SNCC, Avery never abandoned her commitment to civil rights struggle. In October 2014, she was arrested at the Alabama State Capitol for protesting the state legislature’s refusal to expand Medicaid. She made a statement after her arrest and said, “When you stand up for right, right will prevail. I was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during Bloody Sunday in 1965, and I am still standing up for right today.” And although she often feared for life working in some of the most dangerous places in the South, her response continued to carry relevance: “You get motivated to do something, and that fear thing is overcome.”
Annie Pearl Avery, “There Are No Cowards in My Family,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited Faith S. Holsaert et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2012), 453-459.
Interview with Annie Pearl Avery by Joseph Mosnier, May, 31, 2011, Civil Rights History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
Interview with Annie Pearl Avery by AmarLab, November 2013, AMARC.