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October 25, 2014

The Death of Willie Brewster: Finding strength in the pain

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Posted: Wednesday, March 25, 2009 3:00 am

Four-plus decades does little to blunt the pain that Willie Brewster's widow, Lestine Easley, feels today.

There is little doubt she lost a special soul that night in July 1965, when he was gunned down by nightriders at the height of the civil rights movement. He was, she says, a man so devoted to his children and dedicated to anyone in his reach, that he's still in her presence today. She holds a faded snapshot, fighting back a wave of sadness and straining to look into the horrors of that hot summer night so long ago.

It was Jeremiah Adams, one of the men riding with Willie in the car, who came to the door that night, she said. He was carrying a box of groceries Willie had picked up earlier that night. The box was, she said, "covered in blood."

That is when reality hit her, when she realized the gravity of the situation, when she understood that her husband had been shot on a lonely stretch of Alabama 202 outside Anniston on his way home from work with Adams and two other co-workers.

Months later, Hubert Damon Strange, a 25-year-old gas jockey in the employ of a local Klan leader, would be convicted of manslaughter in the case.

Two others charged with killing Brewster were Johnny Ira DeFries and Clarence Lewis Blevins. DeFries was acquitted, and charges against Blevins were dropped by the local district attorney before the case went to trial.

"I miss him so much," she said. "He was a good man, an innocent man."

And it was a long time before she started finding hope again, in herself and in her society. But slowly it did begin to come back.

A few years ago, she traveled with her family to Montgomery to the unveiling of a memorial to people killed during the civil rights movement. It was then, she said, when she started believing that the South and the nation had started to change.

"I do believe, as bad as it was, that he did have something to do with making things better," said the 71- year-old Easley, who lives in Munford.

She was surrounded this February day by a roomful of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her granddaughter, Tieshia, 31, and her grandson, Willie III, sat at the kitchen table with her, nodding in agreement.

They feel the same, that their grandfather's death, however painful, served some good in bringing about a better Alabama and a better nation.

"His death did make a difference," said the family's youngest Willie, Willie III, age 24. "In the end it made a big difference, for the South and for the nation. I've no doubt about that."

On a personal level, those were some difficult times for Willie Brewster's son, Willie Jr., he will tell you. But they were also times that eventually made him stronger.

"I've studied on this for a long time," said Brewster, 50. "People always say I'm strong, but I've not always been strong. I was angry for a long time. I couldn't get along with people."

Willie Jr., who held his father's hand as a boy of 7 and spoke to him that night just before he died, said, "I only got strong when I got married and when I had kids. That's what made me strong. I wanted to give my children what my dad gave me before he died: a lot of love and attention."

That he was an angry young man is confirmed by his old high school principal at Munford, James Coleman, a man Brewster credits with chasing some of his demons away.

"Yes, Willie certainly was an angry young man to begin with," said the 63-year old Coleman, now retired and living in Oxford. "I remember he was sent to my office more than a few times, for I don't know what. But, you know, the office is sometimes a good place to talk, and we had some good talks about where he was gong with his life. About being angry with the world and how that was not getting him anywhere but into trouble."

Told that Brewster had a career in the Army before going to work at the Anniston Army Depot, Coleman said, "well, I'm proud to know he turned out so well, but I'm not really surprised."

Willie Brewster Jr. holds a smile most of the time, especially when his family is in reach. It breaks even wider when wife Doris starts going on about his passion for gardening, something he shared with his father.

"He grows some wonderful tomatoes," said Doris, "but he really grows everything and a lot of everything. With a family like this he has to."

She sits passively by mostly, listening to Bug speak, as most people call Willie Jr.

After the subject of gardening is talked out, however, the question of justice served and unanswered questions bubble to the surface once again.

First and foremost in his mind is the topic of forgiveness.

"I don't hold a grudge against anyone or any color," Brewster said.

What is most indictable, in his mind, is the ignorance that dominated this corner of Alabama in the 1960s.

Quietly, however, he will also tell you that he doesn't think that justice was entirely served in his father's case.

Told that at least one of the men accused of being in the car with Strange that night, Lewis Blevins, who was never tried, is still alive and currently in prison, Willie Jr.'s daughter, Ti, drifts into a moment of silence, then says, "I would like to ask him [Blevins] how he feels about things today. Has he repented? Does he have any regrets? I would like for him to put himself in my grandmother's situation. I would like to ask him, how would he feel if someone took his father away from him when he was just a boy? Took his father away from him and his family?"

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