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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Edith Mitchell Dabbs, October 4, 1975. Interview G-0022. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Risks of battling racial injustice and secretive measures for organizing

Dabbs testifies to the danger surrounding the work she and her husband did in terms of social justice during the 1940s and 1950s. Dabbs begins by describing their friendship with Cliff and Virginia Durr and the work they did together in organizations such as the Alabama Council on Human Welfare. In particular, she recalls the secretive nature of the meetings this group held and describes the great degree of precaution activists had to take in hiding their activities. In this regard, her comments become quite revealing of the risks some southerners took in trying to battle racial injustice.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Edith Mitchell Dabbs, October 4, 1975. Interview G-0022. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
You got to know Virginia Durr through the United Church Women?
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
Yes, I got to know her through the United Church Women. I got to know the most liberal women that I have ever met through the United Church Women.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
So, is that how James got to know Clifford Durr? Through your contact with Virginia?
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
I think not. I think that he got to know him through the Alabama Council on Human Relations, who asked him down there to speak and the Durrs were members. The Durrs and the Moreland Smiths, and the Smiths later went to Atlanta after he got kicked out of his business, went to Atlanta and settled there. They had a lovely place in Atlanta, and he had worked a lot with the Southern Regional Council and did extremely well. But those people were the sort of people who belonged to the Alabama Council and I believe that it was that council … weird things happened to us in lots of places, but I think that it was the Montgomery Council that met … nobody knew where it was going to be ahead of time, you didn't talk about it ahead of time, but when it was time, we were taken to the place where the meeting was. It was a Negro church in a very rundown section of the city. I never saw the church, it was a dark, dark night and the streets were extremely ill lit and you couldn't see the building at all and I had to hold on to James and somebody else who was with us. Maybe it was Cliff Durr. I had to do it not to stumble, I couldn't see where I was walking. We got out, we were told to park the car sort of back of the church on a side street. The bigger street ran in front of the church and down a little piece, there was a street light hanging, naked bulb. We were to park back here where there were some trees and it was in shadow and the light wouldn't reach. Then we were to walk down to the front street, come in by the walk and come into the front entrance of the church. Well, we did that, but there was no light anywhere. When you got to the front door and reached out to open it, it opened itself and we went inside and the vestibule or whatever we went into was black dark. Then we were taken to a dimly lit next section and from there into a back room where the windows were all heavily draped and it was brightly lighted. It was a small room and was jammed full, people were standing around the walls. It was packed. Aubrey Williams was there, I remember that. That was before we had lunch with him that time and I didn't know him. James had known him for a long time.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
This was in Montgomery?
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
Montgomery, yes. He had been there for some time. I knew that he was very, very ill. Virginia said that he had been getting worse steadily. I happened to notice a time when he reached into his pocket and put something into his mouth and I knew that he was taking medication and was very ill, but he was there, still fighting to the last breath. Well, anyhow, we went back into that room and James talked to them and they talked about their problems. We knew … I don't know how we learned these things, where we learned them or from whom, but while we were meeting back there, the police were patrolling the area trying to find where the meeting was. They had heard there was such a thing planned and they meant to find out and break it up.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
This was the Alabama Council on Human Welfare?
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
Yes. The Alabama Council on Human Relations. It was a purely voluntary thing, a personal sort of thing that was not connected with any . I remember that when we were all through talking, several people went out a few at a time. Aubrey was among the first. I remember that Aubrey couldn't stand to be around people. He couldn't hide the way he felt. So he just eased out like he was going to get a drink of water or something and didn't come back and then somebody else did and that was the end of the meeting. After James talked, they asked him some questions and they exchanged problems and that, sort of thing and it got real quiet, the room began to thin somewhat and I thought it was a little bit odd. Because I hadn't seen a meeting sort of dissolve like that, but it was carefully done. No crowd of people left that church that night, you see. They just disappeared into the night a few at a time or one at a time in different directions. We didn't go out the way that we had come in. When we went out, all we had to do was step out of the back, that was a corner room of the building that they met in as it turned out and the lights were cut down very, very low and we were almost the last people out. We were let out the back door. I remember the man who showed us out cautioned me …I don't know who he was, he was a black man, he was very courteous and thoughtful, I don't know whether he was the minister or the chairman of that group. Anyway, he was very active in it. Anyway, as James and I went out to go together, he said, "Now, be careful, Mrs. Dabbs, there is a step right there." And he reached out as though he were going to steady me, James was on the other side and we were holding on to each other, and the man reached out and said, "Be careful, Mrs. Dabbs." Then, he pulled his hand back. He realized, I suppose, that in case anybody was watching, he wouldn't dare reach out and be kind and thoughtful to a white person. He wouldn't dare touch somebody.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
Surely not a white woman.
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
Certainly not a white woman and certainly not if the police were watching because that was all it would take. He said, "I'm sorry not to give you a light on that step. Just go very slowly and be careful." There was a light right overhead, but he didn't dare turn it on. We could barely see the outline of our car just fifteen feet away at the edge of the curb. He took the safest way out for us. I don't mind telling you that I was relieved when we got several blocks away and were sure we weren't being followed.
ELIZABETH JACOWAY BURNS:
Were you aware of the danger?
EDITH MITCHELL DABBS:
Yes. Scared half to death.