Interviewer: James A. DeVinney
Production Team: A
Interview Date: October 18, 1988
Camera Rolls: 1009-1011
Sound Rolls: 104
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with John Hulett, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 18, 1988, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
All right, Sheriff Hulett, to begin, what role did the Selma-Montgomery march play in organizing you in Lowndes County?
One of the things that happened during this time, SCLC, uh, peoples who worked it for them, Stokely Carmichael, and Bob Mants.
Let's start over again.
OK, some of the things that happened during that time, we had people, we had two organizations coming into our area. SCLC, which had people working here, S--SNCC, which was Stokely Carmichael, Bob Mants, Courtland Cox, and others who also came in. We, during that time had a new beginning, we decided ourselves what group we were going to work with. And the people of this county chose under what, what Stokely Carmichael and his group. And that was organization that we worked with they helped to us to organize and gave us a kind of leadership and the encouragement that we needed to go through with.
All right, why did you decide to go with SNCC, rather than SCLC?
Number one, this county, the history of Lowndes County was a, that was a name called "Bloody Lowndes County." Because of the crucial, the ways people had been treated in this area for a long time. We felt strongly if SCLC were the persons who was going to lead us through this struggle, we would not have accomplished the things that we accomplished with Stokely Carmichael and that group. Simply because, though they were non-violent groups, but they did not talk about non-violence like SCLC did there. They realized that there were some things we had to do. We had to work hard and we had to push to accomplish some of our goals. And that why we had chosen Stokely Carmichael and their group. The kind of language that they spoke, we thought that maybe it would help us move a little bit faster.
Can you just give me that last sentence again?
They, the type of language that Stokely Carmichael talked about, and the things that we had to do in this county, kind of helped, this kind of move a little bit faster than we would have, if we were talking about non-violence at that time.
You were talking about both SNCC and SCLC. Why was it necessary to get outside intervention?
Why go outside? Well, let me say this. People in this county, most of them had never worked into a movement, you know, in an organizational structure, where they really got out to struggle and do some things for themselves. And having the people with the knowhow like both the SCLC and SNCC, it would help to have those kind of people into our area. And that's one of the reasons why we chose them. I had worked within the movement, and I doubt if we'd've had like the five or six other people who have been involved in some type of struggle of this kind. And that's why it was necessary to bring in some outside sources. Who had the encouragement, who had some resources to go along with it, to help us get where we were going.
You made reference to the fact that Lowndes County is sometimes referred to as Bloody. How dangerous was Lowndes County?
Lowndes County well, ah, but, in many instances, we've had young people killed or rode around in the cars of, of the sheriff's departments. We've had people, eh, beaten out of their homes, go into the houses, drug out from their families and beaten and killed in this county in the past. And we've had peoples who've comes into Hayneville, was found aside the railroad dead, because of, just some of the little things they would do. And because of that, most White people in this county were afraid. Hayneville was one of the places, in wintertime, if I was going home, and was coming out of Montgomery, instead of coming through Hayneville, I would drive US 80 and go out the way 12 or 15 miles myself, to get home, instead of coming through Hayneville, because of some of the things that existed in this county.
OK, when you tried to get people registered to vote, what were some of the difficulties of getting Black people to want to register?
One of the things, when we first started to register people, we came here, to the courthouse, and I believe this was some time in the first part of March, the registration days in this county during that time was two days a month. The first Monday, I believe the third Monday of each month, that you could get registered. We came to the courthouse on the first Monday in March, attempted to get registered. The registrars all failed to show up, all except one. Because of our, by coming here to register, they changed the registration place, and took us to an old jail, and the place was not being moved at that time, that's where most of us registered, at that old jail. They didn't want Blacks to come to the courthouse to get registered. That was one of the things they done. But there was other intimidation. For example, while I was sitting out there, waiting for people to go in and take their tests, many of the White mens would ride by in pickup trucks with shotguns. It was just intimidation to people. And that was some of the things they--other things they had, when the weather got cool or cold, the, sometime in the summertime when it was hot, they cut the water off so we couldn't get water to drink. And they made peoples come over and over and over again, and they would turn them down. So this kind of stirred things up. And later the federal registers came into our county and started registering peoples. So most people went to the federal registers where they could get registered. But those were just some of the conditions that existed during that time. Peoples who lived on plantations and the farms, and sharecroppers, they didn't own their own land. But they're told they're not going to get registered. If they registered they could not live on the plantation any longer. And many families had to move during the summer months, especially around August, had to leave their crops and go to other places, to, to, to try to make a living.
That sort of brings us around to Tent City. Why don't you tell us how Tent City came about?
Tent City be, came about--we had peoples who lived, ah, share, sharecroppers. And they was told not to get registered. If they got registered, then they could not live on their, the property. Many of them got registered to vote, and when they got registered to vote, they were, put off the plantations. They had no place to go, they had no jobs. And we got together, and a--along with Stokely Carmichael and others, bought some property for Tent City, this, Tent City, named it Tent City. And we put tents out there, bought lumber make the flooring and whatnot, and we moved about six or seven families on the, in the Tent City area. And they stayed there for a year, but, almost two years, some of them did, until they was able to find land and build their own houses.
What was the effect of that? Did other people begin to come out to register, knowing that you'd take care of them?
This was, actually it was, was a turning point. When people found out that they would provide a place for those of Tent City, that was other families we helped secure land, found peoples who owned their land, who would allow them to move on their property. And people then began to rally around what we was doing. If an individual owned land and could sell lots, we went to those people and said, "Look, share it with these peoples who are being, being evicted." And they did. They sold them lots at a reasonable price, where they could build houses on them themselves. Or move trailers on it.
So this was really Black people beginning to stand up and take care of business themselves.
For themselves, this is true.
Can you talk about that just a little?
Yes, I, I could. That was everything that encouraged us a lot when we had, needs and things of this type, for a family that didn't have jobs. Most people during that, those days, especially if he was a tractor driver, and worked on a plantation, they was paying four to six dollars a day. And they got it for the best tractor drivers. We'd start looking for jobs in Montgomery, Selma and other places to provide them with jobs, so they could, would have a job, they wouldn't have to go on these farms for little or nothing.
So last night, Carol asked you a question, "What did Black Power mean in Lowndes County?" And I don't necessarily want you to use the phrase Black Power, but give a nice answer in terms of what it really meant.
Well, when you talk about Black Power, Black Power mean that when people can provide jobs for their own peoples and they can, they can assist them in whatever the problem might be, and we had many of them during that time, and some of our problem was about education. We moved to try to get people into the best schools they had, which was predominantly White during that time, we had problems. We was able to get a few of them in, for the first year. Then later, the White moved out, and went into private schools. Those were just some of the minor things that we was doing. You know, getting jobs for peoples, seeing that people should get a better education, and let them see that peoples being able to own their own land in this area.
What was it like when the federal registrars finally came in in August of '65?
When the federal registrar came in in August we was able to get, go into the communities, and, and, notify people that the federal registrar were available, they would register them without having all the, going through all the red tape that they was going through, with our county and state registrars, and we was able to carry peoples to the poll by the hundreds. Especially on Saturdays, started off on Saturdays. And we would have as, as many people we could just have lines of peoples standing by, waiting to get registered. And they finally started doing it maybe more than one day out of the week. That's what most of our peoples in this county, Black especially, registered on the federal registrar. The kind of questions and things that they was asking, the state registrar was asking, most people could not answer those questions, and even if they answered them, they'd still get turned down. And, and this was one of our major problems. And we felt that this was a victory for us, having these federal registrars come into the Lowndes County and register peoples here in our county.
You offered to have SNCC come in and work with you. What made Stokely Carmichael so appealing?
The things that made Stokely Carmichael, ah, I think most, ah, ap--appealing to people, he was able to speak the kind of language that people, that gave encouragement to most of his people, especially old and young. You know, Stokely could stand up and entertain a congregation, that people just liked to hear him talk. And not only that, but Stokely had the ability to go into the communities and work with people from almost every level. But that was one of the key things, Stokely had had a lot of experience with the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi and other places. And I think that was one of the things that, ah, everybody seemed to love Stokely, it was like having a son to come in. And which, he had done so much, I think to help the peoples in Lowndes County.
What made Stokely so appealing?
Well, it, some of the things that made him so, so appealing to the people of our county. Number one, people felt strongly that they'd learn about Stokely that he was a person who related to the community real well. He lived in the community with the people, and he spoke the kind of language that most people like to hear him speak. He gave a lot of encouragement to those who had fear in a, in ah, about getting registered to vote. Stokely was able to, ah, live in our community with us and work with us in trying to develop many of the things that we were trying to do. And, and people liked what he was doing and what he was saying, and the kind of message he would speak to. He, especially in our mass meetings, Stokely could stand up and talk to us, especially one of the things was, he talked about the system itself. What we need to do is tear this system down and put people in office, he's talking about Black people, that would relate to the people and that would do the kind of job that need to be done, and we didn't, had, the, the people in our county that we could take over, the political aspects of our county and do what need to be done. And then we needed to look at the economic problem, and work, and, ah, also in that direction.
You mentioned the mass meetings. What were those mass meetings like? Can you describe them for me?
When we first started off in our mass meetings, people were fearful of coming to mass meetings. We would, especially because they thought maybe the White would come out then and try to break them up within that time. So what we got, we got our own bodyguards and placed them outside of the buildings, and we didn't have a church in this county that would hold the people. Every Sunday night they would go to these mass meetings. They went up by the hundreds. Each church, and then we would have singing, praying, and things of that type, and have several guys that'd speak. We started off with Stokely Carmichael may speak tonight, and Bob Mants, then we started our own local people to speaking. Which gave a lot of encouragement to people, and I think that was, was a key to the whole thing. And when they started moving out of our county, our own people was able to take over and do what needed to be done to continue the movement.
We heard about a mass meeting where a number of state troopers came and gathered outside the church. Do you remember that particular evening?
I, I do, on several occasions, they've done this.
There's one night when I guess a woman named Mary Jane Jackson came out with her rifle. Can you, were you there that night?
Yes, I was.
Can you describe that for us.
Well, what would they do, this was a form of intimidations, with that, the, Mount Gillard Church in Trickem, where it was meeting. The troopers came and gathered on our side and around the highway where you had to come in, where the highway's at. And when people were starting coming out, they would stop them or start writing tickets, and we was kind of go together in a car pool. It didn't disencourage our people from coming, we kept moving on together. You know, and, uh, they never threatened us or say anything, but they just come out and start stopping a lot of people, checking driver license, and things of that type. But it gave a lot of encouragement to us, and we got even more people started coming out, to counteract what they was doing to us.
I'd like to continue though and go up to the part where Mary Jane Jackson decided that she had to go out.
I don't remember exactly the time that she had to go out, but it, we, we know that during that time, most of them had been inside, but when Mrs. Jackson would go out, she would, if people was out there who tried to hinder people, she was real strong, and one of the strongest persons we almost had in this county. And she would just tell them to their face, "You all can go home, because we're going to have our meeting and we're going to do what needs to be done to, you know, to survive." And that's the kind of, her husband was a strong person. He was kind of one of those, those bodyguards for us. And there were other neighbors in this area who would do that.
When did you make the decision to form an independent political party? How did that come about?
It was sometimes, we decided to form the independent political party because, Stokely Carmichael and Courtland Cox and others who got together and told us, according to the Alabama law, if we didn't like what the Democratic party was doing in this, in our county, or the Republican party, we, we could form our own political organization, and it could become a political party**. We looked into the aspects of it. We asked them to do it. And then we came up with a symbol. And during the time, we was trying to come up with a symbol, we had asked Stokely Carmichael, I believe Courtland Cox and some other peoples from our county to, to look at some type of symbol. And when the group came back, they came back with the panther as their symbol. Then we began to, start putting an organization structure together. During that time, I was a, president of the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights. This was our original organization we had, had for about a year, and then I, I accepted that, you know, they asked me would I take over the political aspects of it. And the, resign from this Lowndes County Christian Movement, and I did. And we were able to pull our people together in both organizations and work together to form our own political organization.
What did the Black Panther mean?
Well, the Black Panther meant to, maybe to the peoples Lowndes County a little bit different of what it did in California.
The Black Panther party in, in, well, the Black panther itself as a symbol to the organization, was a symbol of the same thing that the rooster was to the Democratic party. It was a symbol that we thought that it was a vicious animal, and who, if we was attacked, it would, it would not back up. That we would fight back if we had to do it. We would move back if we had to move, but we wasn't going to go back into a corner and just stay. And that's why we chose that symbol as a Black panther. We knew that the White people in this county feared the panther also. They didn't want, ah, people to fight back. As long as in a political organization, or as long as people would not fight back, they thought they could just do them like wanted to. But if we decided to fight back, people would take their hands off us. And then, when we chose that symbol as the Black panther, then many of the peoples in our county started saying we were violent during that time, you know, the, now you've got a violent group in Lowndes County who is turned out, who is going to start killing Black pe--White folks. But it wasn't that, it was a political, just a symbol to our organization that we was here to stay and we were going to do whatever needed to be done to survive**. And that's what that symbol meant to us.
Well, even though SNCC was a non-violent organization, during this time, many of you did start carrying guns and things. How did that work?
We, we carried guns for our own protection, those of who carried guns. One of us who was by ourselves, we would travel by ourselves, and those of us who carried guns, not to bother other peoples, but in case we were attacked by other peoples to protect ourselves. And that's what the purpose of that idea was, to carry a gun. White peoples carry guns in this county, and they were, the law didn't do anything to them about it, so we started tricking out our pickup trucks. Putting our guns in to carry too. And I think they felt that we was ready to, for war, and they decided not to bother us anymore.
But you didn't see yourself as violent.
No, we wasn't, we wasn't violent. We wasn't violent people. But we were just some people who was going to protect ourselves in case we were attacked by individuals.
I'm going to ask this question one more time, because yesterday you were kind of talking about the fact that just because you carried guns didn't mean you were against SNCC's non-violent thing, that it wasn't quite the same thing. I'd just like to give you another chance to kind of restate that along those lines if you could. Do you know what I'm saying?
SNCCs were not about, non-violent organization, I don't think they were ever violent. You know, they was arrested, they never fought back. On once occasion I can remember there, there was some things happened where they had to shoot back. But, there was not a, a violent organization, but they was a group, an organization who would stand up and look a person in their eyes, and tell them what they thought and how they felt about what was going on. They know, they knew what was happening to us was wrong, and they would come to a courthouse and, and be able to tell the system that you was treating peoples wrong and they should not, that should not exist in, in the, in our counties. This was just some of the amount of thing that went on in this area.
That primary day on First Baptist Church, yesterday when you showed it to us, you described it as the best day of your life. Can you tell me what was so great about that day?
It was great because This was the first time that the Black peoples in this county came together to make choice of their own candidates for public office. And that's why it was important. It was important also because the numbers of peoples that turned out to that election that day, and voted for their candidates and felt that they had done something for themselves to, to start making changes, the kind of changes they wanted to see happen in the system**. Even though in the general election we were unable to elect our peoples to office, but it gave the kind of incentives to our people that was, they ought to turn out to the polls on election day and vote.
What are some of your outstanding memories that day? Any particular things happened that day that you think about?
Well, there was, there was, two things happened, there was, peoples who was, especially the elder people, older peoples who was 70 and 80 years old, came out and voted, that's the most encouraging thing to me. To see peoples come out, for the first time in the history of their lives, to vote for candidates that they, could do something for them. And second thing, there were, other peoples there to try to stop us. Was put there by the White community to try to stop us from having it, people would block the roads, would block the streets and, and try to create a problem for us. These were the other Black folks who didn't like what we were doing. But those were the things existed on that day, around the primary. And after we finished with our primary, we came into Hayneville and back up here to see what the White was doing with their primary, along with a few Blacks. But we felt real good about it because we had an opportunity that day to pick our own kind of sheriff, person who run for sheriff, without having the problems to deal with the system, and other offices that we were seeking in that time.
I'd like to go back just a little bit in time, even before SNCC came in, even before you started forming the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, just give me a kind of a picture of what Lowndes County was like?
Lowndes County was considered as a total rural county. Real, very poor. Bad roads, you know the school system was very bad, about the worst almost in the nation. There were no jobs available here in this area except farming and sharecropping. Most of the young peoples who finished school, ah, ah, went to school, once they came out of school, they immediately left the South and went, and went North, to try to live, and even to survive, they'd have to care of the families then at that time. So the, the, Lowndes County was not a good place for young people to live in. Most of the, the adults who lived here, you know, were, were kind of lived under fear most of their lives, because of the some type of treatment, treatment that was given. At a certain age you just didn't go into, if you lived here, and that was just a few people in the county who caused many of our problems. But because of those people were not stopped by other people, it, it caused a, most Black peoples had to live in fear. We had a sheriff during that time, ah, I can never forget, that at night time, and a young man, if he walked the road at night, if you see a car light coming, everybody would just run in the bushes and hide until they come by, it was raining, whatever it was, you stayed out there and waited until that car passed. They thought the sheriff was coming by and maybe would do something to them. There were peoples who had beaten in a numbers of cases, and because of this type of things.
When SNCC came in, I asked you what it was like to have Stokely here, and you gave me a very vivid portrait, but what about SNCC, the organization, what was it like to have all those people from SNCC here?
It, it was good to have them here, because we had peoples from almost every walks of life who had different talents and who could do a lot of things to help. You know, ah, some was, was tutoring and teached, and teaching classes, and wherever, wh--speakers like Stokely Carmichael, Bob Mants, yet, Courtland, Courtland Cox and others who would do it, it, little different ways, it was good to have them here. Because it gave a lot of incentives to people, young peoples all over would have a chance to sit down with these people, see what they were doing and make them want to be like most of those good men and women.
We're going to put this on so that a national audience will see these shows and learn about Lowndes County. Is there some story that you've never had a chance to tell, that most people don't know about Lowndes County that you could tell us right now? Something that was really special about that time or the Lowndes County Freedom Organization?
Well, let me say this, number one, to have a Black--
There, there were no Black registered voters in this county in 1965, in February, not a single Black registered voter. And to have them, to come in, and to start registering folks to vote, that's really helpful, that's one of the key things. Number two, our kids, Black kids went to the worst schools that we had. And they was given the worst treatments, and they were not allowed to have the kind of equipment in our schools that the White schools had. They rode buses, and our kids had to walk to school. That was, something else that made a lot of changes into it. And, not only that, but it, began, things began to change all the way around with us, Black kids, who would finish school would be able to get jobs in this area, where they could not do it before. Teachers who taught school here in this area, many of them had to, if they bought an automobile, they had to buy it from a certain dealer. One of the men on the school board here, who had a car lot, and most people had to buy cars from that individual if you worked in the school system. So these were just some of the things that started changing when we, we were able to get our peoples in the school system. And today, and since that time we were able to have our own school board people who would look out for our kids and, and it's made a lot of changes since that time.
And during that time, what did John Hulett do that he's most proud of?
Well, I'm, I'm glad I was part of the movement and a part of the progress that was made here in that kind of--you know, ah, I never thought about running for public office. I was drafted into it by the members of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. And ever since I've been elected, I, I feel good about it. I think I've been helpful in some minor way to our young people.