As part of SNCC’s expanding efforts in Southwest Georgia, “sidekicks” Ralph Allen and Don Harris began organizing voter registration and direct action in Sumter County in early 1963. Their efforts quickly led to emergence of the Sumter County Movement, an umbrella for all local organizations active in the freedom struggle.
Allen joined SNCC’s Southwest Georgia project in the summer of 1962. He was among a handful of whites working with the project, a project that was unique for being an integrated effort. “When [Charles] Sherrod decided to do voter registration in southwest Georgia, he decided he was going to do it integrated,” explained Allen, “which meant that it was direct action.” Between 1962 and 1963, several white college students, like Allen, took time off from school to work for SNCC full-time.
When Allen first joined SNCC’s Southwest Georgia project, he worked in “Terrible Terrell” County. Also known as “Tombstone Territory” because of its racial violence against Black people, Terrell marked SNCC’s first foray into the rural, majority Black counties surrounding Albany. SNCC’s efforts were met with intense police intimidation and extralegal violence. After Carolyn Daniels opened her home up to SNCC organizers, it was shot into twice, once while Allen was staying there. Later, it was destroyed by a bomb.
Nonetheless, “we kept going,” Ms. Daniels recalled, “kept taking people to register, kept getting people to vote.”
Allen encountered similar violence and intimidation in Sumter County. In July 1963, more than 100 people were arrested mainly for protesting the segregated movie theater in downtown Americus, the county seat. “We were marching at least once a week and every weekend,” recalled local high school student Emmarene Kaiger, and mass meetings were held nightly.
In August, more than thirty young girls were arrested while protesting and sent to a stockade in neighboring Lee County. On September 14, the Chicago Defender headlined a story that read: “Kids Sleeping on Jail Floor: Americus Hellhole for Many.” Pictures accompanied the story. The photographs had been taken by SNCC photographer Danny Lyon, who snuck into the stockade when several of the imprisoned girls distracted a guard.
That same month, after a mass meeting, Allen joined a group of local Blacks who were protesting police harassment. Allen, Harris, and fellow SNCC organizer John Perdew were “trampled by police and beaten” and then arrested and charged with attempting to incite an insurrection–a felony punishable by death in the state of Georgia. In a statement of protest, SNCC chairman John Lewis decried “the police-state atmosphere that prevails in Americus today make that city a little South Africa for Negroes.”
Allen and his SNCC comrades remained in prison for three months as their case snaked its way through local and federal courts. The “Americus Four”–as they were nationally known–were finally released in November 1963, after the federal court outlawed Georgia’s insurrection law. Allen, however, was still tried and convicted for attempted murder of a police officer and sentenced to two years in jail. The conviction was later overturned due to the “systematic exclusion” of Black people on the jury.
G. McLeod Bryan, These Few Also Paid a Price: Southern Whites Who Fought for Civil Rights (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2001), 52-54.
Carolyn Daniels, “We Just Kept Going,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith S. Holsaert, et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 152-155.
Peter De Lissovoy, ed., The Great Pool Jump and Other Stories from the Civil Rights Movement in Southwest Georgia (Lancaster, NH: YouArePerfectPress, 2010).
James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 247-262.
Prathia Hall, “Freedom-Faith,” Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, edited by Faith S. Holsaert et. al (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 172-180.
Wesley Hogan, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America (Chapel Hill: University of Carolina, 2007), 72-77.
Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 1964), 123-146.