I’ll Be An Activist Until I Die: A Talk With Civil Rights Veteran Jimmy Webb

posted by Vic October 10, 2016
I’ll Be An Activist Until I Die: A Talk With Civil Rights Veteran Jimmy Webb

Editor’s note: Jimmy Webb recently passed away at a family member’s home on Wednesday, Feb 8th, 2017, according to his son Waverly Kelly. He was 68. This interview is to be one of the final ones he ever did.

 


 

Sir, are you saying that if I have a quarter and I’m black and you have a quarter and you’re white then my quarter isn’t worth as much as your quarter?

With that question, a young activist became a historical part of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, as it was uncommon for any kid, let alone a black kid at the time, to stand up to a white cop during this unsettling time in America.

16-year old Jimmy Webb was leading a group of marchers to the Selma courthouse in March 1965 when he was stopped by the police, led by deputy sheriff L.C. Crocker. Instead of turning away, Webb confronted the officer, showing the bravery and intelligence developed from his training in non-violence from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and others.

My wife and I saw the video clip while watching the 1987 Emmy-winning documentary Eyes On The Prizeand thought it would be great for our team to show the clip of Webb and sheriff Crocker on the Unstripped Voice facebook page.

7 million views later (as of the writing of this story) , it has become one of our most watched clips on our page.

This led to Webb’s son Waverly Kelly reaching out to us and connecting us to Webb.  During our talk, we spoke on his activist beginnings, what happened after his famous Selma confrontation that we didn’t see, and his advice to Black Lives Matter. Below is the full transcript of our conversation, from us at Unstripped Voice to Webb, in his own words.

An INTENSE convo between a young black activist & a police officer in Selma, 1965. #Freedom #AmericaUpdate: He recently passed away at a family member’s home on Wednesday, Feb 8th, 2017, according to his son Waverly Kelly. He was 68. Here's one of his final interviews he did with us: http://unstrippedvoice.com/980-a-talk-with-jimmy-webb/

Posted by UNSTRIPPED VOICE on Sunday, September 11, 2016

 

Unstripped Voice: I know that conversation happened in Selma, but let’s go before that. Where were you born?

Jimmy Webb: I was born in Nashville, Tennessee.

How long were you in Nashville?

Until I was about 16, 17. 

You mentioned that you were born in Nashville. I do understand there was another protest that happened around that particular time to integrate the lunch counters, which ultimately led to the formation of SNCC (The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Were you there during that time?

Yes I was. I was arrested for the first time when I was 12 years old at a sit-in lunch counter in Nashville. 

From what I remember, during the first 2 weeks of the lunch counter protest, nothing happened. Then afterwards the police started arresting people. So you were a part of that group?

Yes.

Interesting. So what happened after you were arrested?

Since I was a juvenile, they allowed my mom to get me. They took those of us who were still underage to juvenile detention. The college students who were older were taken to jail.

Who got you involved in the sit-ins at such a young age?

Well, I guess that was sort of inherited. My father had a saying: “If you see a good fight don’t run from it, run to it”. So I grew up knowing that a some point, I would be involved in the social change movement. I did not know the nature of it or anything like that, but I knew that eventually, I would be involved in social change.

The kids as Fisk University were pulling together people for demonstration, and we often participated. 

We were all student activists. We would go support each other without a proper organization, very much like Black Lives Matter today. They got a good cause, but not very organized like we were initially.

Were you recruited?

We were having mass meetings at First Baptist Church with senior pastor Dr. Kelly Miller Smith. He was very active in the movement. There was a mass meeting, and I just went to the mass meeting.

Okay, so lets fast forward. Nashville ended up integrating the lunch counters, which lead to the formation of SNCC. Is that how you got involved in SNCC?

Yes, that’s how I got involved. It was just a natural movement from the national student movement to SNCC. John Lewis was one of the leaders of the National Student Movement, who became the first chairman of SNCC.

While you were in SNCC leading up to Selma in ’65, what were you doing during this time?

Well, we were part-time students, and full-time educators. Whenever there was a movement going on somewhere, some of us would go to participate and support. That’s really how SNCC came into being. We were all student activists. We would go support each other without a proper organization, very much like Black Lives Matter today.  They got a good cause, but not very organized like we were initially.

Yes, and we’re about to get on that later on because I definitely want to hear your take on that. So you were protesting when Selma happened, which was for voting rights. Can you walk me through how you ended up in Selma?

I was on my way to Florida for the New York Mets training camp. I stopped in Atlanta, and Martin Luther King asked me if I would first come to Selma and train the kids the principles of non-violence, then I can go on to Florida. I came to Selma to train kids in non-violence social resistance, and really for all practical purposes never left the movement.

Were you in the first Selma march that happened (which ended up being Bloody Sunday)?

No I was not.

Were you in Selma at the time?

No I was not in Selma.

Did you come after the first march?

I came after the first march. In fact, I came to Selma with Martin, Ralph Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth.

You then staged a protest afterwards from the beating of the first march…

That is correct. 

Once you lose the fear of death, EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE. There’s nothing impossible if you’re not afraid to die for a cause.

Is it in this particular protest that you had the confrontation with this officer?

This was in-between the marches’ attempt to go to Montgomery, Alabama. What most people don’t know was that there were actually three (3) marches in Selma.

That’s right.

Somewhere between Turnaround Tuesday, and the actual march where we were able to go to all the way through, this confrontation took place with the sheriff.

So in this confrontation, the group that you were with, you guys were trying to go to the courthouse and were stopped by the sheriff. What was going through your mind at the time because you were asking some very deep questions. Did you think you were going to be arrested?

Well, by the time it had gotten to that confrontation — I DECIDED THAT I WAS GOING TO DIE — because I was sure some sheriff, some Klansman were going to kill me. I lost all fear of death. Once you lose the fear of death, EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE. There’s nothing impossible if you’re not afraid to die for a cause. My only concern was those kids who were with me whether or not they were that committed.

So when I got to the conversation with the sheriff, one of the principles of non-violence, and people have to understand that we were not fighting against people, we were fighting against a system that enslaved all of us. When black people were free, white people were free also.

The 2nd principle of non-violence is that we seek to create friends out of our enemies rather than destroy our enemies. We’re not interested in destroying people, we were interested in getting them on the other side of the line with us.

Wow. So you were willing to die for the cause, which is something that I feel very few people today are doing. Obviously, this is a different time.

But you see we also had training and philosophical discussions about what all of this meant. Rev. James Lawson, who was really the architect of the non-violent movement of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), taught us how to participate in social action movement. 

The other thing that we learned was how to listen to what your enemy is saying. Sort of like Judo — using the strength of your opponent to defeat them.  People asked me all the time about the “quarter idea”.  

Yep, the famous question.

I was listening to the sheriff, and the sheriff said in answer to my question “did he believe in equal justice for all”, he says “I don’t believe in any two things equal — no two peas, no two pieces of money”.  When he said that, it clicked in my head, cause I was listening to him. 

Most people don’t listen to other folks. They just be quiet and let the other person finish, so they can say what they want to say. You have to listen to what other people are saying in order to formulate your arguments, and use their own words in order to defeat them.

I was told that the officer in the video (L.C. Crocker) passed away just 2 years ago. Did you know that?

Yes he’s now deceased. 

As he started to walk away, I started to step on his shoe heels, which forced him to turn around and arrest all of us. It made him mad, but him arresting us probably saved the lives of the kids who were with me.

One thing that’s interesting, after showing the conversation between you two, the video just cuts off to another scene. What happened after that which we didn’t see?

The officer started to walk away. Very interestingly, he then turns to the crowd as he’s talking to me and says, “I don’t have enough men to protect you”. There’s a crowd out there with angry whites, and he started to walk away.

I then started to step on his shoe heels, which forced him to turn around and arrest all of us. It made him mad, but him arresting us probably saved the lives of the kids who were with me.

So you’re saying knowing there was a mob outside, you stepped on his heels? Was that instinct because you knew it would save the kids lives?

I knew that if he walked away with the police officers who were there, the crowd was going to attack all of us.

Wow. How long were you guys arrested for?

Ah just a couple hours, long enough for processing.

Here’s one thing I think people would want to know: In the moment of a large crowd of people getting arrested from a protest, do you guys get released all at once? Do the parents come pick you up one by one?

All circumstances were different. It depends.

Were you ever able to see that officer again since that conversation?

No. As a matter of fact, Alvin Benn, who was a reporter from the Montgomery Advertiser, tried to get us together several times, but he refused. 

The difference is we in SNCC had older people advising us (such as SCLC). Sometimes we took their advice, sometimes we didn’t — but they were available to advise us on how to get done on what we said we wanted to do.

I heard that you are a retired preacher. Is this correct?

Yes, I am a pastor now. 

Where are you currently located?

In South Georgia at a little town called Quitman since March.

How long have you been a pastor?

For more than 50 years.

Earlier you kind of alluded to Black Lives Matter and what they are missing. You mentioned it was non-structured. What differences do you see from the movements in the 60s to Black Lives Matter today? What can BLM do to be more effective? 

First of all, BLM is a student-led movement very much like SNCC. The difference is we in SNCC had older people advising us (such as SCLC). Sometimes we took their advice, sometimes we didn’t — but they were available to advise us on how to get done on what we said we wanted to do.

They understood things like “how the system worked” that we did not understand, and therefore we needed something negotiated — the land mines of the system. I do not see that in Black Lives Matter. Our goal was to covert them from the position they were in, to a position of openness. You can not do that if you don’t communicate.

So pretty much communicating and having an open dialogue with the people you are targeting, which in today’s situation is the police.

That is correct.

Last question, do you plan on getting involved in activism now, or on a advisory role?

I’ll be an activist until I die.

Any last words for the people today?

I want to encourage the young people to keep the fight up and to stay on the battlefield, but to organize a little more closely so that they can get the desired results. Sit down and put together your goals, because you don’t know if you accomplished something if you don’t have a goal.

I want to encourage the young people to keep on keeping on —- and to keep our legacy alive.