But quilting belongs more to Gee’s Bend’s past than to its present. The hamlet itself has shrunk, with an official population now at 275, well below the 900 or so who lived there in the mid-1960s. That was when no less than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came calling to tell Benders that, yes, they were isolated and, yes, they were impoverished and, yes, their grammar was less than perfect, but their lives mattered. There in Wilcox County, he told them, they were “as good as any white person.”
This was in February 1965, three weeks before Selma’s Bloody Sunday. On a cold, rainy night, Dr. King made his way along muddy roads to the rickety Pleasant Grove Baptist Church. The planks that served as pews were filled. “I come over here to Gee’s Bend,” he said, “to tell you: You are somebody.” A year later, he returned to that area, speaking outside Antioch Baptist Church in nearby Camden. It was part of a swing that he made through heavily black Alabama districts to urge people to not be afraid and to make the most of the voting rights enshrined in federal statute.
But even with the new law, voting was not easy for Benders. Their ferry was gone.
The ferry had enabled them, in a matter of minutes, to traverse the 600 yards of river separating them from Camden, the seat of Wilcox County. In the ’60s, Camden was as white as Gee’s Bend was black. It was where Benders went to shop and to sell their produce and to see the doctor. It was also where people registered to vote and cast their ballots. White people, anyway. Before the Voting Rights Act, not a single black man or woman had been deemed eligible to vote. Those who tried to register in Camden, or to join protests against racial discrimination, failed.
In 1962, the Gee’s Bend-Camden ferry stopped running. Whites who held power said the old flat-bottom boat simply wasn’t up to the task anymore. Blacks suspected that the true reason was to keep them removed from demonstrations and the cries for racial justice blowing across the land. Indeed, once the ferry disappeared, Gee’s Bend was more cloistered than ever. Getting to Camden now required driving a circuitous 40-mile route on back roads that took well over an hour. That is, assuming any Bender owned a car. Back then, almost no one did.
For more than 40 years, Camden was effectively a distant shore. But at long last, in 2006, a new ferry went into service, a modern vessel capable of carrying cars as well as passengers. Perhaps no one worked harder to bring it about than Hollis Curl, the white owner of a small Camden newspaper whose personal transformation was symbolic of changes across the South. Mr. Curl, who died in 2010 at age 74, used to be as fervent a segregationist as there was. Somewhere along the line, he felt a call to atone for his bigotry. As part of his penitence, he campaigned for restoration of the Gee’s Bend ferry, an appeal that eventually came to fruition with financial help from Washington.
Did a spanking new boat mean splendid times for Gee’s Bend? Hardly. Its residents remain mostly poor, as does much of rural Wilcox County, with its predominantly African-American population, modern Camden included. Federal statistics show that nearly half of all personal income in the county comes from various government payments. Nor have black-white divides magically disappeared. “It’s two societies in one location,” Jo Celeste Pettway, an Alabama District Court judge from a Gee’s Bend family, told Retro Report. “Separate and still unequal,” she said. Then again, the same could be said of many communities, up North just as much as down South.
But no matter how deep or shallow their pockets may be, Benders know something that is more important than money: Each of them is somebody. A man came to town 50 years ago and told them that. And the people who heard his words applauded and said: “It’s true. It’s true.”
CLYDE HABERMAN, a regular contributor to Retro Report, has been a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The New York Times, where he spent nearly 13 years based in Tokyo, Rome and Jerusalem. Subscribe to our newsletter here and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.
This article first appeared in The New York Times.