Paul Simpson | Elkhorn, WI
“My family only had one mule; that’s how we did all our farming. I thought if I had one, I could help my granddaddy, and my family could make twice as much, and that might make things better.
My mother and father separated when I was three years old, and that’s when Mom took us back to her family’s farm. My grandaddy was busy with the farming, so I always say I was raised by three strong women: my grandmother, my aunt, and my mother. They gave me an understanding of a woman’s perspective, and a lot of respect for women, and I’m better for that.
At the farm we had usually about 18 cows, sometimes pigs. There were five of us kids: two sisters, three boys, and I was the oldest boy. There was one main house where we slept, but the kitchen was separate. You cooked out in one house, and then you brought the food into the other house. It looked basically like the old shacks you see in the books. Everybody had outhouses. The closest house to us was five miles, so we didn’t see anyone, we were separated pretty good.
We owned our own land. That was different than many of the other families around who were sharecroppers. They had to move from plantation to plantation. I would get to know other kids, make friends, and then they would just disappear. Bam, they’re gone.
When I was young, my mom got a job as a housemaid for a nearby family, the Hawkins. She made $15 a month, and that was the first cash we saw come into our house. The Hawkins had two kids, and we would play as much as they let us. But there were barriers there—for safety for me and the other kids. A black man could get hurt bad by interacting with a white, especially if they were girls. So they were very, very cautious, and they watched over us. But we were kids, and we would find ways to play.”
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“When my father passed at age 39, he left everything to us. My mother wanted us to move into town, and so she got a job up there. With the money that my dad left us, Momma was able to buy two houses in Marion. She was renting out one of the houses, and we lived in the other.
As it turned out, Momma ended up renting out the other house to many of the Civil Rights workers in town. This was the early ’60s. Albert Turner, Hosea Williams, James Orange…suddenly, as a young kid, I had access to all of them. The room would be full of adults, organizing. I’d just sit on that floor and listen to them talk.
But all I wanted to do was march. I wanted to have my chest right up against the police. I wanted to be there. I wanted to be in front. So, when the other kids would be in school, I would be Uptown with some of the older kids, with my sign, marching.
I felt I could protect myself. I was always aware, looking around. You don’t want to get trampled, and you know that some people don’t have the heart that you have, so you have to be able to protect them. But I’m still a 15-year-old kid. I would watch the older boys; I’d watch how they protected themselves. They never seemed to be running in a panic. So I would watch them, learn, and I would follow suit.
Marion had pretty courageous people when it came to marching. When they arrested James Orange—who was one of the lieutenants of Dr. King—and put him in jail, we wanted to do something. We decided, let’s do a night march.
Night marches, to my knowledge, weren’t being done in the movement. Everything was done in daylight. I knew then, ‘Okay, this is different, this could get some attention.’ That day, all of the police cars were parked in the football field at the white school. You couldn’t see grass, there was so many cars there.
As I walked home from school, I saw more state trooper cars driving to town. I knew something was going to happen that night.”
“Everything was building up that night to be intense. The sheriff down in Selma, James T. Clark, had a reputation for beating people and poking them with a cow prod. He was a mean guy, and that’s the way he displayed himself. He used to say, ‘It’s segregation now, and it’s segregation forever.’
Not only was he tough in Selma, but if the opportunity came, he and his posse would go to another county, so he was there that night. I was one of the few people that recognized him.
My brothers and sisters and my mother and all of us went up to church that night. I can’t recall which news station that was there, but I can remember a news camera. Finally, we’re getting ready to go out and do this march. I can remember some of the people outside saying, ‘Come on out, come on out, come on out!’
We spilled out of the church. Me and the pastor of that church, Mr. Lankford, and his daughter, Katherine, were together. When we came out, Reverend Williams was being grabbed by the cuff of his pants and pulled up. I can still see the vision, that’s how they grabbed him—snatched him up with the cuff of his pants and held him upside-down and beat him all the way to the courthouse.
Others reached into the crowd and grabbed a white guy that was with us, pulled him out. Whites that came down to march with us were called ‘outside agitators,’ and that’s how they were treated. I found out the next day that they put him on a bus and told him not to ever come back down here again.
The camera crews had these big, hot lights to illuminate the area. I heard some noise, then you heard the light pop—we weren’t being filmed anymore. When that light went out, they charged us.
There were a lot of state troopers, but there were civilians in the group, too. They’re doing like they did in the old west—they were deputizing people.
I’m with Katherine and a group of kids and they started hitting us. She let out a scream that I’ll never forget. She was trying to get out, ducking between a bush and the church. But as she’s trying to get away, there’s a man reaching through and he’s trying to strike her. When he drew back to hit, I stepped in front of her. We got out of the way, really the man just brushed the side of me. It was her scream that hurt. It just…it ripped my soul. And Katherine, her spirit got hurt that day. Some people can take stuff like that. But some people just can’t.
There was a boy marching that night named Jimmie Lee Jackson. I didn’t know him well, but I went to school with his sister. That night, Jimmy Lee stood up to protect an older man. Jimmy was always that way, always held to his position. That’s what cost him his life in the end, is that he was such a fighter. The state troopers, in that confrontation, they got him down. They killed Jimmie Lee that night.
The news of Jimmie Lee’s death went to Washington. Our leaders there knew we had to do something. I’m just a little kid around the kitchen table, and they can’t run me away, so I’m listening and hearing the struggle.
James Bevel down in Selma said, ‘Well, maybe we should try to put together this march on Montgomery. That’s what we need to do.’”
“It started near the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma. We lined up and start walking. From the start it was very intense, very charged, but also very quiet. There’s a stillness over the whole, but you can hear the footsteps of people walking. You might hear people struggling with walking, breathing. But it’s quiet. It’s real quiet.
We didn’t have permission from Washington to do this first march. All the time there was communication going on between Washington, Dr. King, and all them. All of the marches didn’t just spring up. It was orchestrated—a movement. King was doing different things; he was pushing, pushing, pushing Washington as much as he could, and they were saying no. But there were some people who wanted this march to go on whether Washington said so or not.
The day of the first march, we went down to Brown’s Chapel. I marched with Deloris Mitchell. She was in the ninth grade, and I was in the tenth. I liked her. We had a little friendship.
We were marching, and we came around the corner. That bend is so steep that you can only see the Edmund Pettus Bridge. We have to climb up a bit to see the land. When we are high enough to see, suddenly there are so many around us. I think I’m looking at all the white supremacists that were in America.
I got to the apex and I looked down. I could see the police standing across the road down there, and we just kept coming. We just kept coming off the bridge until they’re crying, ‘Stop!’ and by that time, I had gotten just about off the bridge to where the police were.
I was close enough to hear them say that this march is not going to go forth, and I saw them charge a few leaders at the front, so we just kneeled down. We only went across the bridge and kneeled, and prayed. What seemed like about five minutes later, they start popping canisters and throwing them on us.
I had put a handkerchief in my pocket, and wet it up well before. That was the way we were taught to make our gas masks. I held it up to my face, but I got overcome and I tried to roll out. But rolling out meant I rolled out into them. As soon as I rolled out from under that gas, they just kicked me and whooped me until I got back in the gas. When I looked up into the sun, through those clouds, I saw the man who was kicking me. He wore a patch of the American flag on his shoulder.
I never forgot that flag. For me that symbolized something about what I was doing, what I was up against…that I wasn’t fighting a foreign country. This was America that I was going up against, and behind that flag, that man felt he had a right to do what he was doing to me.
Finally, our leaders gave us the okay to turn around, and we got up and started to going back toward the church. And they followed us, whooping, beating, trying to ride us down with their horses. They beat us all the way back to Brown’s Chapel. That day became known as Bloody Sunday.
Dr. King wasn’t with us that day, but he came for that second march. It took three attempts, and at the last, they really came ready. They federalized the state troopers and some National Guard and made them protect the marchers as they went on to Montgomery.
I wasn’t able to go on that final march. They said I was too young, my mother was very afraid for us kids. But my mother, she was able to go all the way. That’s 51 miles from Selma. She was part of the movement, and she walked all the way.”
[Following Paul’s work in the Civil Rights Movement as a youth, he was drafted and served in the Vietnam War. Afterward, he went to school on the GI Bill. Job opportunities were markedly better up north, and Paul’s work as a medical equipment designer brought him to Illinois.]
“I was living in Illinois, and one Sunday I followed a friend of mine up to Waukegan to fish. I never forgot it. I said to myself, if I ever get a boat, this is where I’m going to come. I loved it up here, the lakes, the bikes. No one bikes down south like they do up here. It was all so peaceful.
Later my wife and I came to Elkhorn to see some houses that were being built. My wife, Phyllis, she was so excited she got out of the car while it was still rolling. She said, ‘Yes, this is it!’ We signed the papers and watched our house get built. We both had to drive 1.5 hours into work, but we didn’t mind, we loved it up there.
While we were living in Elkhorn, Congresswoman Terri Sewell wanted to honor the foot soldiers of the movement. So two years ago, I went to Washington to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor. I was in Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s district, so I came out from behind a curtain and walked onto the stage with him, and with Nancy Pelosi. There were about seven or eight politicians who sponsored it on the stage that day. They met myself and the others, greeted us, and gave us these medals.
We wanted to—we need to—get to where we can have representation. We wanted to be mayors, be on city councils, be involved in our community, and not be put out because of our color. I still want more participation in that area.
The work continues, and I applaud the youth of today that are doing it. When something’s not right, we must count on our communities to walk up to that line and demand that we change things. I believe that if we’re strong enough and stay at it long enough, people will listen. Sometimes things are slow. They do not happen to everyone’s satisfaction. But every generation has its role. And the first step is being involved in your community. You have to get involved in your community. It’s my feeling that we live in the greatest country on this planet, and if we get involved I feel like it’s going to, over time, get better. My hope is that we learn from our past, learn from our mistakes, and we know our own power to make change.”
-Paul Simpson | Elkhorn, WI