Interview with Rachel Nelson West
Interview with Rachel Nelson West


Production Team: C

Interview Date: December 6, 1985

Camera Rolls: 579-581
Sound Rolls: 1535

Interview gathered as part of Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965).
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Editorial Notes:

Preferred citation:
Interview with Rachel Nelson West, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 6, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years (1954-1965). 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.

INTERVIEW
FILM PRODUCTION TEAM:

(Rachel West. Sound Roll continuing 1535, Camera Roll continuing 579, 100 feet left on that Camera Roll.)

QUESTION 1
INTERVIEWER:

OKAY, RACHEL, YOU WERE 9 YEARS OLD IN 1965. HOW DOES A NINE YEAR OLD GET INVOLVED IN THE VOTING RIGHTS CAMPAIGN?

West:

Well, mostly we have our parents to depend on, plus we had many great leaders to help us understand the meaning of voting rights. My father was one of the great participants of the voting rights. He went out door to door trying to get black people to vote. He also was called the black captain so because all of his help he tried to influence many people. Also there was Dr. King who mostly led me and Cheyenne to understanding what it was for black people to get the right to vote. Yes, I was 9, I didn't understand, but 1ike I said we had many people we can depend on, we had our teachers, we had preachers, I had my uncle, my cousin, whoever.

QUESTION 2
INTERVIEWER:

OKAY, TELL ME ABOUT JANUARY 2, THAT WAS THE FIRST BIG MEETING HERE IN BROWN CHAPEL, AND CHEYENNE TELLS ME ABOUT HOW YOU ALL SAW PEOPLE OUTSIDE AND CAME BACK, TELL ME THE STORY OF THAT.

West:

Okay, uh, of course, Cheyenne, she was, she went to Clark School, I was going to Catholic school which was about three blocks away. Cheyenne and I would walk to school together; at least I would walk her as far as Clark school. Clark school is right across the street from Brown Chapel. We noticed some people was mingling around Brown Chapel and we was wondering what was going on. I had to go on to school. Cheyenne, she stayed to find out what was really happening, and she did. And that evening when I got home from school, she told me that they was planning a big march to give black people the right to vote. So from that point on we became very involved. We, Cheyenne and myself, we led freedom songs, we always greeted Dr. King when he came into the church, we would get up from in the front, go to the back when Dr. King would enter to just to sit in his lap and listen to the his main question he would ask us, And that was, what do you want, And we would reply freedom. He would always say I can't hear you, what do you want? And we would respond in a louder tone of voice, we would say Freedom and Justice for all. After that, we would come back and we would march along with the other people.

FILM PRODUCTION TEAM:

(Camera roll out 579 going to 580.)

QUESTION 3
INTERVIEWER:

OKAY YOU WERE TELLING ME ABOUT GREETING DR. KING, YOU REALLY WANT TO TELL ME ABOUT THAT AGAIN, YOU CAN IF YOU WANT TO IF YOU FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE.

West:

Well, it's alright, okay, what was I saying, oh, Cheyenne and I used to go to the back of the church just to be the first one to greet Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King would always sit Cheyenne and me on his lap and ask us what we would want and what did we want. And we would reply freedom. We would say it in such a low tone, he want us to speak up and mean what we said. He would say, what do you want, and we would reply, freedom, and justice for all. And he would always say that is the way I want to hear it. Because black people need to be free, we are not free until we set ourselves free.

QUESTION 4
INTERVIEWER:

NOW WHAT ABOUT THESE FREEDOM SONGS YOU WERE TELLING ME THAT YOU ALL SANG? CAN YOU SING A LITTLE BIT OF ONE OF THEM FOR ME, COME ON NOW.

West:

Okay, there was many freedom songs we used to sing. Freedom song at this particular time meant a whole lot. It was something like; you know singing a song to carry out a message. Like we was trying to let the people know that we meant something by these songs. It was great determination and dignity Freedom…

QUESTION 5
INTERVIEWER:

COME ON.

West:

…songs always seems like it just touches people you know because it was so much, some like spiritual songs you know. I'd say the main song we used to sing was "Come by here Lord, Come by here." And this is where we get the title from Selma lord, from this particular freedom song. And we was asking the Lord to please help Selma, "Selma Lord, Selma." The song goes like this:

Come by here my Lord, Come by here,
Come by here my Lord, come by here.
Come by here my Lord, come by here.
Oh Lord, come by here.
Selma needs you Lord, come by here.
Selma needs you Lord, come by here.
Selma needs you Lord, come by here.
Oh, Lord, come by here.

At this particular time, Selma did need the Lord. Um…

QUESTION 6
INTERVIEWER:

LET ME ASK YOU ABOUT THE FIRST TIME YOU SAW MARTIN LUTHER KING, THAT WAS GREAT, (referring to singing) JUST BECAUSE WE DON'T REACT DOES NOT MEAN THAT WE DON'T THINK IT'S GREAT, WERE NOT SUPPOSED TO TALK.

West:

Okay.

QUESTION 7
INTERVIEWER:

TELL ME ABOUT THE FIRST TIME YOU SAW MARTIN LUTHER KING, WAS IT MAGICAL, WAS IT SPECIAL, THE VERY FIRST TIME YOU WERE 9 YEARS OLD AND YOU SEE THIS MAN.

West:

Oh, yes, because all the people was gathering and they was all whispering saying, this great man coming to set the black people free. To help them get the right to vote. Equality and justice, equality and justice for all men. And Cheyenne and myself were just wondering, who is this great man? Matter of fact we used to see him on television, hear him on radios, and finally we was getting to meet this particular man. When Dr. King came to the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, it was just like, oh, like the Lord has come. He was a man of great dignity and pride. He was a man of great admiration. A man in which all people believed in and loved. Dr. King overcame all of this for black people. I don't think, I think without, Dr. King power and concern, for black people, I don't think we would have overcome. Back then, my parents, they couldn't vote. Matter of fact no black people could vote. Black people could not go to public places. We could not go into theatres, movies, libraries. We could not even use the water fountain of our choice. We could not go into the courthouse. Just imagine not being able, I mean just free to do these things. If you can't vote, you ain't free, and if you ain't free, well then, you're a slave.** So therefore we were slaves. We didn't have our freedom.

QUESTION 8
INTERVIEWER:

LET ME ASK YOU SOMETHING. PRETEND THAT IV'E NEVER SEEN A PICTURE OF DR. KING AND DESCRIBE HIM FOR ME THE WAY YOU SAW HIM THEN, YOU KNOW LIKE WHAT DID HE LOOK LIKE, SHORT, TALL, BIG,WHATEVER, HOWEVER HE LOOKED LIKE TO YOU AT THAT TIME.

West:

Dr. King was a man with a deep voice, when he spoke, it touches you, everything he said, had a meaning to it. Dr. King, he was a dark complexioned man, black is beautiful, he was black. He was medium height, Kinky hair, beautiful eyes. He always wore a suit, when he presented himself to come here to speak. He always had on his marching shoes. Dr. King was a man I could never forget. He is a man I will always remember, even today, as we sit here in Brown Chapel Church, I can remember him standing up there speaking telling each and every one of us, one day children will walk together and say free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we're free at last.

QUESTION 9
INTERVIEWER:

LET ME ASK YOU ABOUT YOUR HOUSE, YOU'RE PARENTS UNLIKE CHEYENNE'S PARENTS WERE VERY MUCH INVOLVED AND LOT OF PEOPLE STAYED AT YOUR HOUSE. CAN YOU TELL ME ANY OF THE STORIES OF THE PEOPLE STAYING THERE?

West:

Oh, yes, one morning I woke up, and it was many people there, both black and white. People were sleeping on the floors behind the couches, anywhere they could get. It was an enjoyable time, it was a good experience for me, you know it was eleven of us, and we lived in a five bedroom apartment, right next to the church. My father was the first to take in shelter for the civil rights workers; our home was called the second freedom house. We, my parents, I did, we influenced other project people to take in these people.

QUESTION 10
INTERVIEWER:

THAT WOULD BE THE FIRST TIME THAT A LOT OF WHITE PEOPLE HAD STAYED AT YOUR HOUSE THEN.

West:

Right, right. That's the first time white people stayed at my house, yes, indeed. And you know, of course I was wondering what was going on. But like I said, we had, there was Johnson Daniels, there was James Bellville, Jose Williams, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, Dick Gregory, Ralph Abernathy, all these people stayed with us, just to name a few, there was many of them. Jonathan Daniels, he helped with the voter registration drive. He was killed, shot down in Haynesville, Alabama, Jonathan Daniels had a lot of influence on black people, He had, I could recall the times when he used to just sit down and talk to Cheyenne and myself, play games, we prayed together, we ate together, we walk and talk together. Not only naming Jonathan Daniels but there were many, many other leaders. I could recall this particular person, Frank Sirocco, Sirocco, he was one of the many leaders, he was one of the first- four white leaders that came down to help support this drive. I could recall, Bloody Sunday, the postman, they was trying to track him down. At this particular time I was headed back toward the housing project to my apartment and Frank he grabbed me with one arm, carried me straight up to the stairs of my mother's apartment where the postman was after him trying to kill him. I turned around and noticed that there was a state trooper on horse running right, right after me, and if this particular man hadn't grabbed me, I think I wouldn't be here today. So, it's just, you know something I can just never forget.

QUESTION 11
INTERVIEWER:

I WANT TO ASK YOU ABOUT ANOTHER TIME, THE DAY OF THE TEACHERS MARCH.

FILM PRODUCTION TEAM:

(Camera roll 580 gone, going to 581.)

QUESTION 12
INTERVIEWER:

TELL ME ABOUT THE DAY OF THE TEACHERS MARCH; WHAT IMPRESSED YOU MOST ABOUT THAT?

West:

Oh, well, just to see the teachers participating in the marches. Simply because back in the 60's the teachers would not march. We gave them a name. We called them Uncle Toms. And Reverend F. D. Reese led about 125 teachers from Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church to the Dance County courthouse. The teachers influences a lot of other teachers. A lot of other people. Mainly they influenced the students. We had a lot children marching also and it was teachers, then was somewhat like up in the upper class you know. People looked up to teachers then, and looked up to preachers. They were somewhat like leaders for us back then.** But once they got out, seems like more black people start, you know taking part in the movement.

QUESTION 13
INTERVIEWER:

WHEN YOU SAW THEM COMING DOWN THE STREET WHAT DID YOU THINK?

West:

Well, I guess they was tired of being called Uncle Tom's, because it just seems, that, that is the way they were. You know, we out trying to get the black people the right to vote, and they, I guess the main thing they was concerned about was losing their jobs. Most of them was afraid of losing their jobs. Mainly they was just afraid. You know simply because of the riots, and what may break out and everything. So it was good to see them once participate in the marches.

QUESTION 14
INTERVIEWER:

NOW YOU KNOW THAT WAS A REAL DANGEROUS TIME THEN DURING THE WHOLE VOTING RIGHTS CAMPAIGN. PEOPLE GETTING BEATEN ALL THE TIME, FEW PEOPLE GETTING KILLED. WERE YOU SCARED?

West:

Of course. Sometimes, I was and sometimes I wasn't…

QUESTION 15
INTERVIEWER:

LET ME ST0P YOU. START YOU AGAIN, AND JUST TELL ME, BECAUSE PEOPLE WON'T HEAR MY VOICE…

West:

Yes, I was afraid. Sometimes I was and sometimes I wasn't. Because this particular time Dr. King always led peaceful nonviolent marches. This is the main reason I wasn't afraid until Bloody Sunday, yes indeed. I was afraid. My parents was afraid, black people, people in general. There was gossip about there was going to be a riot break out. There was going to be tear gas, billy clubs, people was going to get killed or what have you. My parents told me not to march although my father, he participated in it. My father was sprayed with tear gas; he was beaten with billy clubs. Cheyenne and I went to M. Petis Bridge, there when I turned around and left Cheyenne, simply because I'm telling you, I was afraid.** I was on my way back when I turned around and heard all the yelling and screaming, people running and shouting. People was hollering tear gas, run, run for your life, people are being killed. And this was the time when I was almost ran over by this postman. And this was the time when Frank Sirocco picked me up and carried me to the house. John Lewis, Jose Williams, Abbot Turner, these was just some of them who was beaten.

QUESTION 16
INTERVIEWER:

YOUR FEAR OF WHAT WAS HAPPENING…

FILM PRODUCTION TEAM:

(Sound roll 1535 roll out. sound roll 150 -6, camera roll 581)

QUESTION 17
INTERVIEWER:

OKAY, I WANT TO TALK TO YOU BACK BEFORE THE MOVEMENT PEOPLE CAME AND THE ACTIVITIES STARTED, WHAT WAS IT LIKE JUST TO BE A KID HERE IN SELMA? WAS IT FUN?

West:

What was it like being a kid? Well,

QUESTION 18
INTERVIEWER:

IN SELMA, START THAT AGAIN AND TELL ME IN SELMA.

West:

What was it like being a kid in Selma? In Selma in the 1960 being a kid I would say well back then they treated you just like you were adults, simply because my sister who was twelve at the time was put into a sweatbox. My two older sisters was thrown in jail. Even myself, I was almost ran over. When we used to march, they wouldn't take the smallest kids in, but some they would. Seems like to me they was going by their heights or.

QUESTION 19
INTERVIEWER:

I'M GOING TO INTERRUPT YOU BECAUSE I WANT YOU TO TELL ME [ BEFORE THE MOVEMENT. ]

West:

Oh, before, ok. Before the movement, being a kid in Selma was nice, it was fun, but like I said we couldn't go into place, puppet places. If I needed to go to the dentist, I could not go, my parents couldn't take me. If I needed to go to a doctor, my parents couldn't take me. If we went, we had to go to the back door. We couldn't go to the schools of our choice. Children in Selma well, its just like it was for our parents, we wasn't free, but it was good to live here in Selma.

QUESTION 20
INTERVIEWER:

WHAT IF THERE HAD BEEN NO MOVEMENT?

West:

If there hadn't of been no movement, we wouldn't have been free. To me, I was going to a catholic school. Going to a catholic school at this time was great, we had white nun teachers, but the movement made everything possible for better life, for all people in Selma. It could be better, it's much more that need to be done, but yet there still, I feel, personally, my feelings is, my pa-rents are free. When they are free, I feel I am free. Therefore the movement made a better life.