By DONNA THORTON, The Gadsden Times
GADSDEN, Ala. (AP) – The United States Civil Rights Trail identifies several areas in Alabama where pivotal events in the civil rights movement occurred: Scottsboro, Anniston, Birmingham, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Selma, Tuskegee and Monroeville.
His maps do not include any Gadsden locations, but the people of Gadsden were active in the movement, and crucial events in the town’s civil rights struggle occurred here.
Much has changed since then, including the local landscape, which is changing, as is the quest for equality. Yet important sites from the days of protests remain and need to be remembered.
Here are just a few of the places in Gadsden where the city’s civil rights history was written, as they stand today.
GADSDEN DOWNTOWN SHOPPING DISTRICT
Commercial businesses in Gadsden town center remained segregated into the dawn of the 1960s, resulting in a number of marches and demonstrations on Broad Street and sometimes in these businesses. The New York Times reported the arrest of more than 450 protesters on June 18, 1963, after they defied an injunction banning sit-in protests. About 200 people were arrested at a downtown variety store where they lay in the aisles and on the sidewalk outside the store. Those arrested, many of whom were children, did not resist arrest. This part of Broad Street is roughly the same spot where the 1963 demo photo was taken, with the Pitman Theater sign in the background.
DR. JW STEWART’S SKYLINER BUILDING
This building at the corner of Sixth Street and Meighan Boulevard, still standing today, housed Dr. JW Stewart’s Skyliner restaurant and dance hall, as well as a pharmacy for years. It was the site of many prayer meetings before the marches and protests in Gadsden. Gadsden Movement foot soldiers recalled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visiting the Skyliner in 1963. The building later housed the Watson and Sons Funeral Home and now houses a tax office.
BUNK RICHARDSON LYNCHING MARKER
The railway bridge behind this marker, placed by the Equal Justice Initiative, is the site of the 1906 lynching of Bunk Richardson, a Gadsden man. The marker indicates:
“In the middle of the night of February 11, 1906, a large white mob abducted Bunk Richardson from the Etowah County Jail in Gadsden and lynched him. In July 1905, three men were charged with the rape and murder of a white woman. Bunk Richardson was not involved in the crime but knew one of the suspects and was also arrested. After the four were taken to Etowah County Jail in Gadsden, a mob of 300 gathered to lynch the suspects. The mob was successfully held back and the four prisoners were taken to Jefferson County the next day. Two of the men, Jack Hunter and Vance Garner, were later tried, convicted and executed in Gadsden for the crime. The third, Will Johnson, was also found guilty and sentenced to death, but Alabama Governor William Jelks doubted Mr Johnson’s guilt and commuted his sentence to life in prison. Mr Johnson was returned to Jefferson County to serve his sentence. The commutation of Will Johnson’s sentence sparked outrage in Gadsden and a mob responded by grabbing Bunk Richardson from jail despite never having been charged with the crime. The mob dragged Mr Richardson down the street and hung him from the trestles of the train crossing the Coosa River. Those close to Mr Richardson were forced to leave town and abandon thriving businesses while the entire (black) community lived in fear. No one has ever been charged for the lynching of Bunk Richardson.
At this June 18, 1963 demonstration where more than 450 protesters were arrested in the downtown business district of Gadsden and at the Etowah County Courthouse, more than 250 people lay on the lawn and in the street in front of the courthouse. Cattle prods were used to lead protesters, The New York Times reported, causing part of the crowd to run towards the jail and several people being trampled. Others, it was reported, withstood the shock and were dragged to jail, then located on the top floor of the courthouse. The courthouse has been extensively renovated since then, following the construction of a new jail on Forrest Avenue.
Union Baptist Church on Henry Street was one of many local churches meeting during the civil rights struggle in Gadsden. The late activist Mildred Williams wrote that she went to a mass church meeting in 1963 and saw actors Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Anthony Franciosa and Virgil Frye. They traveled to the city to defend civil rights, and Brando showed a cattle prod during the march in Washington a few days later, claiming that a Gadsden law enforcement officer had used it on black protesters.