October 2018
Homeplace & Community

A Real Hall of Famer

 

Louretta Wimberly holds a copy of the latest Alabama Senior Citizens Hall of Fame program.

Louretta Wimberly is recognized for a lifetime of service and dedication to the cause of civil rights.

Mention voting rights to Louretta Wimberly and you’ll get an earful from an outspoken woman who once dug deep into her cash reserves to pay a $9 poll tax.

She came up with the money years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became the law of the land and white registrars did all they could to keep black citizens off the rolls.

Wimberly grew up in a house on the "other side of the tracks," needed every penny she could muster to get through college and begin her teaching career.

She has never forgotten those modest beginnings or her family’s financial plight, but her drive to excel helped to propel her through college, become a registered voter and, one day, establish herself as one of America’s most respected civil rights leaders.

"I was determined to vote and that was that," said Wimberly, a no-nonsense retired educator who is known and admired throughout Alabama for her many accomplishments.

Now, at the age of 85, she can look back on an eventful life that shows no signs of slowing down even if she needs a cane to get around.

When someone needs help, she doesn’t hesitate to step forward to do what she can. Race has never mattered, either.

Feisty is a good word to describe the energetic woman who doesn’t believe in wasting time. She understands her time continues to dwindle and is anxious to accomplish what she can do to meet her latest goals.

She’s been a fighter for equal rights for as long as she can remember, especially during the time when blacks were considered second-class citizens in a segregated society.

"I’ve never been a turn-the-other-cheek kind of person," she said recently. "You hit me and I’m gonna hit you back. My mother taught me at an early age that we’re all made in the image of God and have the same abilities if we just use them."

Segregation tested that "lesson" and, as a young girl, she quickly learned the "ground rules" of Southern society as she grew up.

"When we went into town we were taught how to conduct ourselves," she remembered. "That meant we had to move over and give white people room to get by on the sidewalk."

It was a time when blacks had to drink from "colored" water fountains and could not use restrooms in white-owned stores.

"My friends and I decided one day that we wanted to taste ‘white’ water, so we tried it," she said, with a laugh. "We made sure nobody saw us, of course, but we found that the same pipe carried water to all the water fountains and the taste was the same."

She closely followed changing times as she matured, and Montgomery’s yearlong bus boycott gave her hope that the same thing would happen in Selma.

Voting would turn out to be a different story, however, and it took more time to accomplish much-needed results.

Her family’s good reputation in Selma helped her get her foot in the door at the Dallas County Courthouse and she easily answered the toughest questions white registrars tossed in her direction.

She had already studied Alabama’s Constitution and was ready to recite part of it if asked, but that didn’t happen. Her familial "references" helped, too and since family members were among the most respected residents in town – white as well as black – it certainly helped.

The first time Wimberly was able to vote for governor was in 1958 and she cast her ballot for a man who became a symbol of segregation in Alabama. His name was George Wallace.

"Wallace was a liberal back in those days and I wasn’t going to vote for the other man because he was a segregationist," she said, referring to John Patterson, who defeated Wallace in a bitter election.

Wimberly was such a strong Wallace supporter that she campaigned for him in 1962 when he was finally elected governor.

That changed in a hurry, especially with Wallace’s "segregation forever inaugural speech."

Although she is a loyal Democrat, Wimberly said she avoids straight-ticket voting because "I vote for the person I think will do the best job."

As a young woman she was on a first-name basis with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was no stranger when he arrived in Selma in January 1965 to lead the voting rights movement.

These medallions were presented to “Foot Soldiers For Justice” as awards for their participation in the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965.

 

"We all knew each other because of family relationships," Wimberly recalled. "That helped because it was as though we were all from the same neighborhood."

Wimberly wasn’t in Selma when "Bloody Sunday" occurred March 7, 1965. She was on her way to a small Florida town where she was a teacher.

She had her car radio on and could hear reports about what was happening on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The closer she got, the angrier she became and wanted to turn around and head back to Selma.

When she called her relatives, they told her to stay where she was and cool down because "they thought I’d be in jail by the time the sun set."

"My mother said it would be too dangerous for me to come back home right then," Wimberly said. "I was angry and upset because they were hurting people and then I remembered that anger doesn’t get you anywhere."

What she did was take an extended leave of absence from her teaching position and stayed in Selma to help with plans for the Selma to Montgomery march.

She said her mother made biscuits for the marchers and she spent much of her time driving protesters back and forth between the two cities.

She met Detroit housewife Viola Liuzzo who did the same thing and was killed the night the march ended when Ku Klux Klansmen shot her on U.S. 80 near Lowndesboro.

When the voting rights movement ended she resumed her teaching duties and launched a personal mission – documenting historic black edifices.

One was Selma’s black First Baptist Church that was all but destroyed by a tornado.  The church played an important role in Selma’s voting rights efforts and she wasn’t going to allow it to die.

Wimberly also helped establish the Black Heritage Council, which is an arm of the Alabama Historical Commission and focuses on preservation of African-American historic sites.

As chairwoman of the council, Wimberly worked to nominate the route from Selma to Montgomery as a National Historic Trail.

Frank White, former director of the Alabama State Historical Commission, said Wimberly was a "passionate preservationist" who continues to work to preserve historic sites because they hold special meanings to her.

It dates to her previous involvement in Selma’s teacher movement of the 1960s.

Wimberly has received numerous awards for her humanitarian efforts and they keep her going as time drains her energy at times, but it seems nothing can cause her to completely retire.

"It’s something I’ve been doing for years, documenting the culture of the civil rights movement as well as contributions by Alabama’s black population."

Wimberly sees a parallel between what happened in Selma and the founding of America "because the pilgrims came here for freedom."

"It’s as though God has devised a special plan for us," she said. "The movie about Selma couldn’t come at a better time because it reminds us of the importance of our democratic way of life."

Wimberly may be cutting back a bit on her workload, but she has no plans of hanging it up, not with "more to do" if she’s needed.

Alabama hasn’t forgotten her, either, because a few weeks ago she was selected for inclusion in the Alabama Senior Citizens Hall of Fame. It’s quite an honor and well deserved.

Wimberly and other honorees were honored at an induction ceremony at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery.

The program distributed at the event noted that since her retirement in 1991 she has dedicated her life and work to community service.

Former Selma Mayor George Evans nominated her for inclusion in the Hall of Fame and it was pointed out that she has served as a Red Cross volunteer for veterans and families for more than 10 years.

The Citizens Hall of Honor was created by the Alabama Legislature July 28, 1983, and, in 2008, it became a part of the Alabama Department of Senior Services.

The purpose of the Hall of Fame is to honor and recognize Alabamians for their outstanding accomplishments, service and contributions in the lives of older Americans.

It’s a requirement that Louretta Wimberly passed with ease.

 

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.