Joe Williams was a year out of high school in 1965 and had just been drafted in to the Army when the Forrest City police arrested him and hundreds of other youths and detained him in the drained Civic Center swimming pool. Williams and others who still live in Forrest City will talk about the student marches and subsequent detention that distant September at "The Roll Call" event at 5 p.m. Monday, Feb. 21, at the Forrest City Civic Center.
The Observer found out about the event during a visit to the Butler Center, where we ran into event organizer and history buff Shirley Harvell. Harvell was looking for documents on the Sept. 17 arrests of nearly 200 students and supporters and subsequent arrests of 120 or so more who were marching on City Hall to protest unequal education at the all-black Lincoln High School.
After Forrest City police filled the city jail with students, they decided to put the rest in the fenced-in swimming pool. The students were held in the pool from 4 p.m. on Friday to 6 or 7 p.m. the following day, Harvell said.
Williams — who knew that the Army would be whisking him up and over to Vietnam soon — joined a second group of protestors on Sept. 21. That group of 60 or so were arrested, put in a cattle truck still coated with manure and hauled to the pool, where they spent four hours. His group was later moved to the dressing rooms at the pool, where cots were provided. Police "treated us like we were less than dogs," Williams said. The National Guard provided meals, he recalled. Some of those arrested were sent to a prison farm at Luxora in Mississippi County, Harvell said.
In telling the story, Williams laughed. The pool was for whites only. "We weren't even allowed to look at that pool," he said.
Black farmers borrowed money against their land to bond the students out, Williams said. John Walker, the activist African-American lawyer who now serves as a representative in the Arkansas legislature, tried to get the case against the students moved to federal court, but federal Judge Gordon Young remanded it back to Forrest City, saying that authorities there had not violated the plaintiffs' civil rights.
It was not the first time Williams, a retired welder, took part in the civil rights movement. He and a group tried to integrate the Forrest City bowling alley in 1964. "We got spit on and one guy threw a [bowling] ball," he said. "I ain't seen so many white folks in all my life ... we don't know how we got out of there." He said the bowling alley later burned down. He figures white folks didn't want to bowl there any more.
So how are things today in Forrest city? "Totally different from what it was back then. We got a black mayor, there are black people on the city council and different boards ... things are better."
Not perfect, he said, better.
Harvell is still searching for records generated during the arrests. The St. Francis County Courthouse, the police department, the sheriff's department and the prosecutor's office have none.
The name of the event — Roll Call — Harvell explained: She's honoring the "unknown heroes" of the civil rights movement "and pulling them into the light."
The Observer tends to get in ruts when it comes to clothing. Example: the last few years, we've been wearing the same shoe — same color (saddle brown), same style (smooth toe, six eyelet), same brand. We do swap out with a black shoe, but mostly it's old brownies. We've been through three pairs now.
Junior recently bought a pair that are pretty much identical to his Old Man's. The other day, after The Boy had shuffled off to school, The Observer tore the house apart looking for our shoes. Finally deciding that the elves had taken them away for repairs, we settled for black. That night, when we got home, Spouse told us why they were missing: Junior, in his rush for school, had inadvertently put on Pop's kicks. It should be noted that he wears a size 10, while The Observer wears a sizeable 13. It tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Junior that when we asked if he noticed, he said he did eventually, but assumed his feet had somehow mysteriously shrunk in the night.
Ah, to be young, and still live in a world with magic in it!