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Some Unexpected Faces of the Civil Rights Movement

Worcester’s Erwin “Dusty” Miller and Carol Thompson Share Their Stories

By Bernard Whitmore

selmamarch01-022712As it has in each election year, “What’s the point in voting? These candidates are all the same…” has become a refrain.

When I hear this sentiment uttered I’m inclined to shrug in somewhat tacit agreement.  Many of us have been taught that casting our vote is our duty in a democracy, but we don’t often think of it as a hard-fought right that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Most Americans view the Civil Rights Movement as purely a fight to end segregation; however, the underlying battle was about power possessed entirely, in most Southern counties, by white people who maintained their monopoly of elective offices through laws and intimidation that had suppressed the black vote for generations.  Law enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan provided the muscle to maintain this status quo.

In fact, there were counties in the South with less than one percent of blacks registered to vote and upwards of eighty percent living in poverty, all while more than one hundred percent of the white population (deceased were often kept on voter rolls) was enrolled.

Nowhere was this unjust imbalance more evident than in Dallas County, Alabama.  Selma, the county seat, is where the Southern Christian Leadership Conference decided to take a stand. A march that was planned from Selma to Montgomery abruptly ended in the face of carnage inflicted by state police and deputized townspeople at the Edmund Pettus Bridge; the clash became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Images of the debacle played on TV and ran in newspapers throughout the world.  When a follow-up march was planned, Dr. King appealed to people throughout the country to come lend their support.  Many from Massachusetts took heed and headed south.  I met with a couple of them living right here in Worcester.  These are their stories.

Erwin “Dusty” Miller, an attorney at Bowditch & Dewey, has touched the lives of many in Worcester; in fact, he has a rich family heritage of community activism:

Dusty: I grew up in Worcester, my family was always very community involved, particularly my mom, whose mother was a suffragette and “marched for the vote.”

My mother was involved with the black community in the early sixties when things were starting to open up but there were still more subtle restrictions regarding where blacks could live or where they could work.dusty-miller1

I went to Savannah when I was fifteen.  We went by train and when we pulled out of Washington they announced, “Anyone who’s not white has to leave these cars and go to the Jim Crow car.” That’s the way it was.  When you wanted a drink or use the bathroom you had to look for the whites-only or colored-only sign overhead.  I’d never seen anything like it and thought, “This is America?

I worked summers at the YMCA day camp for kids who were very poor ~ their underwear had more holes than cloth ~ mostly people of color.  Then I went on to Yale law school.  In my senior year I was doing a major paper on the Voting Rights Act which hadn’t yet passed.  It was based on the Civil Rights Act of ‘64.

And all of a sudden we began to see on television this attempt to finally get people in the South the right to vote.  Technically they had it, there were all these impediments from intimidation and threats to tests that only PhDs could pass ~ tests that impoverished white people were not subjected to.

The African American community had no political power because they couldn’t vote enough to get their leaders elected.

On a convergent path to a common goal, Carol Thompson insists that there’s not much in her family history that could have predicted her life of activism and sensitivity to those “on the wrong side of the tracks.”  Like Dusty, she’s intelligent and fascinating to listen to, punctuating her stories with peals of laughter and self-deprecating humor.

Carol: I’ve been a resident of Worcester for the past twelve years.  Officially retired, I’m working on an alcohol, drug and tobacco prevention program for children.  It’s very exciting, a website with videos that tell stories about kids who decide to use one of those substances.  The story stops and then the viewers get to finish it using their own imagination.  It’s the “Why not stop” project (

I got into civil rights as a natural occurrence because when I was growing up in Springfield, the people in my life were very politically active.  One of the persons was Mary Lowell, the wife of the mayor.  Mary started a program for prisoners about to be released.  In those days, the 1940s and 50s, you couldn’t be released on parole without a job.

Mary prevailed upon her husband, a successful industrialist, to hire people who’d been in prison.  She asked me if I’d be willing to call on businessmen to help get more jobs. Today most of the people in our prisons are people of color.  This wasn’t the case back then, but Mary was so concerned that minorities would have a harder time getting jobs that she opened the doors for them.

That’s how I started in… well, we didn’t even call it “Civil Rights” back then.

carol-thompson2One Sunday morning in 1963, the priest announced from the pulpit that there was going to be this march for equality in Washington.  He encouraged anyone in the congregation to go.  I stopped on the way out and said I’d like to go.  I was the only person who did!

People in the congregation, after it was announced that I was going, asked me, “Aren’t you afraid to be with that many niggers?” Yes, they used the n-word!

We went by train and arrived in Washington the next morning.

That was the big march!  Can you imagine?  A million people!  We got off the train in Union Station and were going to walk to our designated meeting point near the reflecting pool.  I don’t think I’d ever seen so many people in one place!

I was so energized!  It was incredible.  At the head of the march was A. Phillip Randolph, who had organized the Pullman strike in the 30s.  A murmur went through the crowd as people recognized him.  And Dr. King, who many in the North didn’t even know of. Yet.

Make no mistake, the National Guard, the United States Army, and the Marines lined the entire route, elbows set, guns at the ready.  I said, “My God!  This, our nation’s capital! And here’s the military out in full force with loaded rifles!’

But here was our chance to change what was wrong in America.   It was so clear!

We got onto the mall, halfway down the reflecting pool.  When Dr. King started his speech the crowd went absolutely quiet.  Everyone focused their attention on him:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

And there was a great rise of applause when he was finished.  It was a life changer!

When I came back, I joined the local chapter of the NAACP.  There I got to know people who organized events and [I] met Dr. King when he came to Boston.  We exchanged addresses and that’s how I received his telegram inviting me to Selma.

I also knew Charles Evers, brother of Medgar, who was running Medgar’s organization in Jackson, Mississippi.  When I told him I was going to Selma, he said, “Come to Jackson!”

So I flew into Jackson and we were going to drive to Selma.  Come to find out, that’s a twelve hour drive!  And we had to travel at night because I’m very white and everyone else in the big sedan was black.  If noticed, there would have been big problems.WAS2003082109701

So we left after dark and everyone had to take turns driving.  When it came to my turn they started talking about what would happen if Highway Patrol found us.  [Here Carol laughs.] I had to peel my hands off the steering wheel when my turn was finished!  Because of flooding, those highways are raised up with a deep ditch on both sides of the road.  They would have just pushed us off the road into the ditch and shot us all.

We got to Selma and immediately went to Dr. King’s headquarters in the basement of a church.  He barely knew me at the time; later we became great acquaintances.  Charles Evers was my entree into the group.  That’s where I met John Louis who is now, of course, a congressman.  John wore overalls.  And here I was, ready to walk [54 miles] from Selma to Montgomery in little flat ballerina slippers and a silk dress.

“Well, you had to look like a lady!” [Carol shook with laughter.]

A week before that they’d been shot at trying to get over the Pettus Bridge.  This time there were snipers on all the rooftops. Their orders were: “See any trouble, shoot!”  So I thought this would be no problem.  There were five hundred of us and all along the way there were groups of white people shouting outrageous things like, “White whore!’ because I stood out.  But I felt perfectly safe for the week-long march.

The issues were very clear to me: people were being beaten and burnt out of their homes. Beaten!  …If this kind of thing could stand in the United States, any group could be next.

Dusty also heard the call:

Dusty: President Johnson was getting more political pressure as Martin Luther King, Jr. planned the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.  By then there was concern that the march would go ahead without the cooperation of the state.  So people from all over the country were asked to come join the March to Montgomery.

Here in Massachusetts, several planeloads of people were chartered by the Mass Council of Churches.  My mother was going and I felt, “All right!  Let’s see what the real thing is!”

We landed in Montgomery at dawn on March 25.  Planes from every airline were parked everywhere.  And trainloads of people from more-liberal southern cities like Atlanta were arriving.

Everyone was assigned to a group; each had a leader equipped with a walkie-talkie who staged us on St. Jude’s field.

Eventually we started our march and as we got closer to Montgomery, first we reached the poor black section of small neat houses.  As we got closer, we reached the equally poor and similar-looking white section.  But at that point the federal troops appeared.  From there on, the March route was lined by troops.  Behind them were angry people yelling and throwing stuff.
In spite of that protection, later that day a Michigan woman was killed and people from Boston were beaten.

Dusty emphasized, “The march on Montgomery was symbolic; it was a very clear demonstration that there was national interest and support beyond just the South.”

The Selma to Montgomery marches began a sea-change that eventually transformed the country; consider the election of our president.  But, the transformation was slow and difficult, as Carol continues:

Carol: When I got home a reporter came to see me about how it was for a white woman in the March.  The day after the article was published someone threw a big rock through the front window.  I called the police and when an officer arrived, he asked, with a bit of a sneer, “Can you think of a reason why someone would throw a rock through your window?”

It was terrible, but it stood my children in good stead. The oldest, twelve at the time, was very angry.

Later on, Charles Evers asked if I’d help with voter registration in Clinton, Mississippi.  A black family put me up for two weeks.  One day we visited an old man ~ white beard, rocking back and forth on his rickety porch…the only thing missing from the stereotype was a straw hat.

We explained that we’d accompany him to voter registration.  He looked at me and said, “Honey, ‘twas this way before you came, gonna be this way after you leave.”

You see, fear of the hatred doesn’t leave.

These personal accounts, and even the Civil Rights movement, may seem like faded history now, and many of us think our “better world” is guaranteed.   But not Carol.  She repeatedly admonishes, “Nothing changes!” She’s concerned that the gains made by women are much more fragile than once thought.

That old man on the porch could be any one of us: Why vote? What’s the point?

Well, the very act of voting is important.  It sends a message to those in power: ‘We’re watching!’

It’s such a small price to pay for living in a country whose course can be corrected by a few non-violent protestors.  And if the candidates are really that bad, get involved in the process ~ Carol and Dusty can show you how.

Pictured: Top Left: The Selma to Montgomery March; Top Right: Erwin “Dusty” Miller; Bottom Left: Carol Thompson; Bottom Right: The Civil Rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963.


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