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By WVUA 23 News Reporter Karris Harmon
Tuesday, June 9, 1964. That’s the day an organized march in Tuscaloosa for desegregation starting at First African Baptist Church ended in horror as participants were set upon by an angry white mob.
Decades later, Bloody Tuesday serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come as a community. And how far there is to go.
The marchers that day had a goal: make it to the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse, where they’d protest the injustices that remained in the county and its buildings. At the time, basic utilities we take for granted nowadays including water fountains and bathrooms were split between whites-only and minorities.
But word of their nonviolent march caught the attention of white men who liked things just the way they were and would not stand for others seeking equality.
“Anybody who said they weren’t afraid that day, they must not be telling the truth,” said longtime District 2 Tuscaloosa City Council Member Harrison Taylor. “Because it was a fearful day.”
Taylor was just 17 when he was among the marchers.
“When we come out they had billy clubs, sticks and things, and they tried to beat us down,” Taylor said. “But we were fired up. They could’ve had alligators out there and it wouldn’t have made a difference. We were ready.”
Danny Steele was even younger than Taylor, a mere 13 when he defied his school administrators and even his own mother to be part of the cause.
“This church was completely surrounded by deputized white men,” Steele said. “They were not policemen. Any white man that could carry a billy club, they deputized them. It was said that there were over 300 out here, and two streets over they had another 200 waiting. When we came out of the church, one of the cops said ‘Let’s get them n******,’ and that’s when they attacked the church.”
When the mob first began attacking protestors, Steele said many of them retreated back into the church. But their search for sanctuary was another opportunity for the mob of white men to dole out more pain on the marchers. They tossed canisters full of tear gas through the windows, smoking out those who were inside.
“All of a sudden, you hear glass breaking and you see these tear gas canisters coming through the windows,” Steele said. “You’re confused, you can’t breathe, your eyes are running, your nose is running. We didn’t know what to do.”
After everything was over, 94 marchers were arrested, and 33 were hospitalized.
Fifty-eight years later, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox says the city has come a long way.
“The progress was made off the courage of those who took part of Bloody Tuesday in Tuscaloosa, and you see this progress across this community,” Maddox said. “Right here in City Hall when I took office only 6% of our department heads were African American. Today that number is nearly 40%. The day I took office in 2006 only 6% of our department heads were women. Today that number is close to 40%. Those achievements would not have happened if not for the courage of people that took place on Bloody Tuesday.”
While the event was led by Rev. T.Y. Rogers, who was instrumental in Tuscaloosa’s civil rights movement efforts, a large portion of the marchers were young people. If progress is to continue, those marchers still alive today say those who are currently in their youth must do their part.
“I’m glad to tell the story,” Steele said. “I don’t want to be put up on a pedestal or anything like that, but I just want to tell the story and let young people know that you can bring about change.”
“That’s what I hope the young people realize today,” Taylor said. “Don’t give up. in ’64 we were getting beat down, knocked down and tear-gassed in this church.”
But like the story of David from the Bible, big things come from small beginnings.
“A couple seasons later I’m the president of the city council,” Taylor said. “David was a shepherd boy in the woods tending to his sheep, and a couple seasons later he was a king, so don’t give up. You never know what’s coming. Keep the faith.”
Because Tuscaloosa is so rich in Black history, you don’t have to wonder what the streets would say if they could speak. All you have to do is listen to those who experienced it and changed the lives of generations to come.
First African Baptist Church is Stop 16 on the Tuscaloosa Civil Rights History Trail. It’s on the corner of T.Y. Rogers Jr. Avenue and Stillman Boulevard, just a few blocks from the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse.
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