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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, October 16, 1975. Interview G-0023-3. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Violence against activists

The activists who came to the South to fight poverty and discrimination faced violence and censure. Many of them were labeled Communists, jailed, and abused.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, October 16, 1975. Interview G-0023-3. 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

In any case, these people who-one of them I met years later; I met him in-it was a strange coincidence. He was Don West's brother-in-law. He was married to one of Don West's sisters. And he had come down here as an early Communist organizer and was thrown into the jail in Bessemer and beat up terribly and had tuberculosis. And then he was sent out to Colorado. And I forget even how I met him. It must have been at some meeting I met him, at the Southern Conference or something. I met him on the street in that short time we lived in Denver. I remembered him and I couldn't remember his name. I spoke to him and told him who I was and asked him about . . .He may have known me, but that was a part of his life that he had wiped out and he didn't want to even remember-he didn't want to even be reminded of it. He must have suffered terribly, and he just wanted to be completely free of it. They were tortured, I'm sure. He couldn't even get in contact with anybody..a doctor I don't know how many of them died. This was all over the South. A little later when I'd got to know Miles and Jim through the Southern Conference and would go to the Highlander, they'd come to the Highlander all beaten up and bleeding. Miles has all of that. And John L. Lewis was coming down to see; he was the-what do they call it in the last chapter of Revelations when the monster comes out of the sea and the world and all. They were all preaching that, you know, and John L. Lewis was the monster. Well, anyway, Joe Gelders was down here. His wife wasn't with him at the time he got beat up. [Now this is the late 30's?] No, no, this is about '36 or '37. [Why do you think Gelders had not heard more about the Party since the Party did have people down here during that time?] He came from wealthy, rich people-his father made a lot of money. He was a very successful businessman. He hadn't ever come in contact with any radicals in his life, I don't suppose, just like me. And you see I was all confused about Communism and Bolsheviks. They called Hugo Bolshevik all the time because he represented the labor unions, and I just took it as a matter of course that if you belonged to the labor union you were a Bolshevik. All the time Hugo was running for the Senate, you see, in '26 he was being called the Bolshevik, and all the people were coming around trying to tell Daddy and Mother not to let Sister marry him because he was a Bolshevik-he represented the labor unions. So I just naturally assumed that anybody that was a union member was a Bolshevik. I didn't know what a Bolshevik was exactly. He [Joe Gelders] had no contact with steel workers or coal mining people or working people. You see we lived on the South Side there around Birmingham-now of course the best residential districts are over the mountain in Birmingham. Five Points was the good residential district and around Highland Avenue. We never came in contact with any working people, except Negroes who worked in the house or a plumber maybe or somebody to fix the furnace. The town was just divided. He came back to Birmingham and in the meantime Bull Connor had been made head of the Birmingham Police Department. And they got the head of the National Guard; he was head of the Steel Police-his name was . . .It'll come to me, too. I miss Cliff so much because he could always remember names so much better than I could. He was head of the Alabama National Guard, so we can get his name. But he was at that time head of the Steel Police. Gelders was walking home one night and this car stopped and picked him up and took him over the mountain and they drove way into the woods and they stripped him and they beat him. And not only did they beat him, they stomped him, and they left him for dead. And he acted like he was dead. I think they left him for dead, way off in the woods over the mountain. We.ll he wasn't dead, but he was naked. They had taken his clothes off and they had whipped him and they had stomped him. And when he died, they did an autopsy on him-he died fairly young; he was in his fifties-and they found that all the bones in his chest had been crushed into just one mass of ligaments and bone because of the stomping, and kicking and all.