As a nurse in rural Clay County, Heflin said he’s become something of a historian, collecting the stories from folks who lived through the era.
“I heard about a barbecue place in Lineville, right downtown, that would serve blacks, but only if they came to the back door,” Heflin said. “I heard all about school integration, and how the vocational school in Lineville was the only black school in the whole county. That’s why so many of the black folks were uneducated.”
Heflin’s stories aren’t unusual for Alabama, but they are sometimes ignored in the larger narrative of the civil rights movement, which tends to focus on the struggles of African Americans in the state’s larger cities, such as the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963.
But Heflin wants to correct that, and on Wednesday night he’s hosting a small ceremony at Springhill Baptist Church in Lineville commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movement. The church’s pastor, Tramaine Solomon, said the idea was inspired by the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington held earlier this year.
“One of the things that came out of that was to have this recognition in the community,” Solomon said. “So that was one of the important things we wanted to do with this.”
Heflin said Wednesday’s celebration is the only such one in the county. In general, celebrations of the movement in rural areas are rare. In his essay, “Searching For a New Freedom,” Ohio State University history professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries notes studies and books dedicated to the civil rights movement, “pay scant attention to civil rights activism in Alabama’s rural counties,” and said the subject is ripe for investigation.
But the reason for the lack of historical information in communities like Clay County, might be because they weren’t as heavily documented, said Lecia Brooks, the Civil Rights Memorial director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Brooks said while rural communities played a large role in organizing civil rights groups, the large marches, protests and events that shape the history of the movement took place in cities like Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma.
“The goal was to get recognition from leaders like Martin Luther King,” Brooks said. “But if he did go to the community, the story was about King, not what the people were doing.”
Moments of the civil rights movement in rural Alabama that have lingered in history often involved the deaths of leaders and activists, Brooks said. Haynesville, for example, has become a yearly destination for members of the Episcopal Church to celebrate the life of Jonathan Daniels, a civil rights activist from New Hampshire who was shot and killed in the small town in 1965 by a part-time sheriff’s deputy.
Heflin said his event this week in Lineville isn’t about honoring any one event or person, but to celebrate the movement as a whole and, most importantly, look at how the movement needs to continue.
“We want to look at where we were 50 years ago, and see where we need to be in another 50 years,” said Heflin, who noted the event will celebrate elected black officials in Clay County, including long-serving County Commissioner Ricky Burney.
Bobby Dark, the chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference in Clay County, said Wednesday’s event is a good opportunity to look at how the civil rights movement has pushed for equality in representation, and how much more room for improvement there still is.
“We’ve come a long way here in Clay County,” Bark said. “We have black city councilmen, a black member on the board of education, a black commissioner. But there’s still work to be done.”
And while the most memorable and well-documented moments of the civil rights movement might have not taken place in the rural communities of the state, Brooks, with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said events like the one taking place in Clay County are important.
“It’s to be commended,” Brooks said. “Without the support of the rural communities where grassroots organizations really began, you wouldn’t have had this movement.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.