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CMU’s first lady shares firsthand account of Civil Rights March

 

Contact: Heather Smith


Elizabeth Ross was a young teen in Alabama 50 years ago as marchers made their way from Selma to Montgomery seeking the right to vote.

Her family's farm was along the final leg of the route, and Ross' parents, Robert and Mary Gardner, allowed march ers to camp on their property the last night of the journey.

The story also was included in a Washington Post article last week.

As the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights March is celebrated, Ross has written an essay reflecting back on the role she and her family played in this historic event.


Thanks and Honor: Reflections on the Civil Rights Movement

By Elizabeth Ross

As the nation comes together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights March, I am compelled to write this article in honor of my late father, Robert Gardner, my mom, Mary Gardner, and the other two property owners whose land the marchers rested on during their journey from Selma to Montgomery.

The events and instances I share are based on my personal experience and stories shared with me by my parents. 

I remember the "White" and "Colored" signs.

When my mother took us shopping in Montgomery, I vividly remember passing the "White" food counter on the main floor of H.L. Green's Department Store to go downstairs to get a sandwich at the "Colored" food counter for my brother. 

As a young teenager, that did not seem right or fair to me.  I could not and did not eat food from the "Colored" food counter.

I remember like it was yesterday, my mother along with her sister and friends studying on our front porch to take "the test" in order to exercise their right to vote.  They were all educated and teachers in the county.

I watched the massacre of March 7, 1965, broadcast on television as "Bloody Sunday." For a 13 year old, it was a scary scene.

After the "Turnaround Tuesday" event, the organizers had to regroup and make plans for another attempt.  They held meetings at The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Alabama. A.G. Gaston was one of many sponsors of the movement and my father's brother-in-law. 

After securing protection for the marchers, organizers lined up campsites for the marchers to stay at night. Uncle A.G. told the men when they entered Lowndes County to ask for directions to Robert Gardner's property along Highway 80 in hopes the marchers could camp there on the last leg of the march before reaching St. Jude in Montgomery.

When the organizers got to Lowndes County, they stopped at the Canaan Hill Primitive Baptist Church where the members were having a meeting and asked for directions to our home.

The following Monday, the men came to the house and told my father who they were and that they wanted permission for the marchers to camp on our property. My father told the men to let him think about it and to come back.

Daddy and Mama talked about it and decided that they would let the marchers camp. The organizers told my parents that we would be protected by the troops.

When the news spread that the marchers were camping on the property, three white men came to the house one night and told my Daddy they would give him any amount of money to change his mind and not let the marchers camp.

Daddy told the men the marchers were going to camp, and no amount of money would change his mind. He also told the men no one could tell him what and what not to allow on his property. The men left.

A few days before the march, the troops began securing my Daddy's property by walking the 140-plus acres. They turned over rocks, cow droppings and dirt mounds looking for anything that posed a threat.

Tuesday, March 23, when I left home for school my parents told me that the marchers would be camping on the property that night and would probably be there when I returned. 

Winston Pringle, our neighbor, would meet me at the bus stop to identify me and bring me home.

When the bus approached my stop, I saw a sea of people, military men, guardsmen, tents, trucks and cars up and the down the main road and in our driveway.

Winston met me as I got off the bus and identified me as the daughter of Robert and Mary Gardner.  He, along with guardsmen, escorted me home. 

As I walked toward the house I saw guardsmen in the yard, at the front door and in the backyard. They were around the perimeter of the property and they were inside the house — they were everywhere. 

Some of the marchers were standing in the yard, others were sitting on the porch, and some were using the bathroom.

The ground was wet — it had rained earlier in the day.  Daddy and other farmers in community donated hay to cover the wet ground.  There were two tents, trucks with food and many porta potties.

Among the marchers was a one-legged white man who had walked all the way from Selma.  He had worn out his shoe.  My uncle took him to Montgomery and bought him a pair of shoes.

One of the guards came inside to make a call to the Attorney General's Office in Washington, D.C., to report progress.

During that time, we had a three-party telephone line that we shared with two white families.  While the guard was talking to the Attorney General, the telephone went dead.  In a matter of minutes, the phone line was back on and the two white families' phone lines were temporarily cut off until the marchers left the following morning.

My parents had been given the phone number directly to the Attorney General's Office to call at any time if needed.

Around 9 p.m. our neighbors began to go home.  At 10 p.m. no one was permitted to come down Caffey Road unless they lived in the area.

After the singing, praying and speaking it was time to bed down, everyone except the troops.  When the troops changed guard, they rested in the barn on bales of hay.

The marchers were up early the next morning, and I was off to school.  On the afternoon of March 24th the marchers reached the city of St. Jude, a complex on the outskirts of Montgomery.

When I saw the movie "Selma" it brought back memories.  I remembered being afraid for my ​parents, not so much myself and my siblings, but for my parents.  Tension was high.

For the next six months or more, helicopters were constantly flying over the house and property.  FBI agents were seen parked up and down the road on which we lived.

One day, a guard in a helicopter spotted our neighbor, Holmes, whose property adjoined with ours.  The guardsman saw Holmes with a rifle that had a telescope on it pointing toward our house.  The guard took a picture, landed and asked Holmes what was he doing. Holmes denied any wrongdoing. 

The guard told Holmes if anything should happen to Robert or his family, he would be the first one they would get. 

Many people lost their lives while fighting for the right to vote, respect and human dignity. It saddens me to hear and read about the low voter turnouts during elections. 

What my parents and the other property owners did took courage.  They did not know what retaliations might occur as a result of their actions and involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.  But it was the right thing to do.  Those who participated in the march showed tremendous courage even after what happened on "Bloody Sunday." 

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Voters Right March, I celebrate and honor my parents and all the other Negroes, Whites, Latinos and Asians who stood up and took a stand against discrimination, oppression and intimidation.  In the words of Dr. King, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

There is still much more to do in regards to equality for all races.  While the old "Jim Crow" days are gone, discrimination and inequality are still prevalent in our society.  

I am hopeful that one day the dream of Dr. King will come true — that young black children and young white, yellow, red or brown children will be viewed as Americans and treated equally and respected as individuals contributing to this great country we all call home.


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