BY EARL H. TILFORD
On Monday morning August 26, 1963, my best friend Tony Beason and I started walking 85 miles from Decatur, Alabama southward along US-31 toward Birmingham.
Two months earlier in June, Tony started his freshman year at the University of Alabama watching Vivian Malone and James Hood walk through the doors at Foster Auditorium to end segregation. Summer school behind him, Tony visited me at our home in Leighton, Alabama where my father pastored a Presbyterian church. There, the previous Friday, Tony and I hatched our plan to carry a letter from the mayor of nearby Decatur to Art Hanes, the mayor of Birmingham. Along the way we would hand out tourist information to Yankee motorists touting Alabama’s scenic vacation spots from Natural Bridge in the north southward to Dauphin Island. In our minds, a Ford dealership in Birmingham, impressed with our commitment to pushing Alabama tourism, would reward us with a new Falcon convertible for the trip home: wishful thinking by kids with a dream.
Tony arranged to have a Decatur Daily reporter and photographer present early Monday morning when we started our journey. I stressed our walk had nothing to do with civil rights or President Kennedy’s physical fitness 50-mile walk program. We didn’t share the Ford Falcon part of our plan.
Governor George C. Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door, an exercise in futility in stopping desegregation, nevertheless consummated his generational hold on Alabama politics. Although Wallace later mellowed, the conclusion of his January 1963 Inaugural Address resonated from Ardmore on the Tennessee border to Fairhope on Mobile Bay, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” While the University of Alabama desegregated peacefully that night in Mississippi, Byron de la Beckwith murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Additionally, Alabama Klansmen attempted to kill a black activist in Selma. Violence in Birmingham during the spring and summer of 1963 included black protesters, most of them kids, washed with fire hoses and hounded by police dogs.
Before interstate four-lanes existed, two-lane blacktop US-31 connected Decatur with Birmingham running through Cullman, 45 miles from where we started. With dreams of a Falcon convertible racing through our minds, Tony and I remained oblivious to the fact we were trooping through the heart of Alabama Ku Klux Klandom.
By mid-morning two things puzzled me. One involved cars loaded with black folks headed north on US-31 gleefully cheering us. The other involved pickup trucks with white men yelling obscenities often accompanied with one third of the Boy Scouts’ three-fingered salute! Nevertheless, Tony and I trudged along dreaming of the ride back in a Falcon convertible and oblivious to the summer inferno and danger swirling around us.
We planned to purchase a takeout dinner for two from one of the combination gas-station-restaurants along the highway. By late afternoon, outside Cullman we reached such an emporium. A cute waitress ran to greet us! “Y’all’ is famous!” She showed us a copy of the Decatur Daily News front page featuring Tony and me, sunglasses and backpacks in place, canteens at our hips, smiling broadly. The article stated our motives purportedly had “nothing to do with events happening in Washington.” The waitress gleefully added, “The Klan’s looking for y’all!”
With our last ounce of energy we sprinted into a nearby woods. No campfires or take out dinners that night! I lay sleepless trying to remember the second verse to “Dixie.” At dawn I sprinted to the phone booth outside the gas station to place a collect call home. Dad arrived an hour later.
Two days later, on Wednesday August 28, sitting on the floor in our den, I watched on the family’s black and white Motorola TV as Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” address. Less than three weeks later, on Sunday, September 15, 1963, Klansmen bombed Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killing four black girls and severely injuring another. Three months later an assassin killed President Kennedy. August 1963 was the last summer of my youthful innocence.
When I entered the University of Alabama a year later Tony, already a sophomore, had spent the summer at a radio announcer’s school in New Orleans leaning to talk like the man on the six o’clock news. After working as a Tuscaloosa disc jockey, Tony became the news anchor at NBC’s KY3 TV in Springfield, Missouri before retiring in 2005 to play bass guitar in his wife Carrie’s country rock band. I served in the military and then taught history at a Pennsylvania college before retiring to Tuscaloosa in 2008. Neither of us ever owned a Ford Falcon convertible.
Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, Dr. Earl H. Tilford, is a military historian and Fellow for the Middle East & Terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.
Used with the permission of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.
The views and opinions expressed herein may, but do not necessarily, reflect the views of Grove City College.