U.S. News and World Report named Huntsville, AL the 2022-2023 #1 Best Place to Live. They cited NASA and their diverse work force as factors in this exceptional rating. However, before NASA landed in the 1960s, Huntsville was governed by white supremacist laws that made Black people second-class citizens.
In response, the Community Service Committee (CSC) was founded by local Black leaders including Drs. John Cashin and Sonnie W. Herefield III. Through their leadership and the courage of Huntsville foot soldiers like James and Georgia Bearden the laws changed.
Mr. and Mrs. Bearden met as children in the 1940s, and through the CSC, bravely fought injustice alongside other everyday people. Their love for one another was the glue, and at the time of Mr. Bearden’s passing in 2021 they had been married for 66 years.
In celebration of Huntsville’s esteemed #1 Best Place to Live recognition, Upscale interviewed Mrs. Georgia Bearden to highlight the movement that changed Huntsville’s legacy.
How did you get involved in Huntsville’s civil rights movement?
Jim Crow laws of the 1940s and 1950s made this a very painful period in our lives. I think people don’t realize how hurtful segregation was to the Black race. We still wear those scars today.
My husband and I knew something had to change, so we got involved with the civil rights movement through Dr. Sonnie Hereford III, Dr. John Cashin, Jr., and Rev. Ezekiel Bell. They started having meetings in 1962 at churches like First Missionary Baptist Church and Oakwood College.
Why were these meetings so important?
The meetings included a smart bunch of people that could strategize. And they had different ideas each time we met.
Once we organized “Blue Jeans Sunday” around Easter to boycott local merchants who discriminated against Black customers. We all bought blue jeans from out of town for Easter, and local merchants lost a million dollars. We also did sit ins and picketed outside different businesses. We had about 100 protesters participating in each strategy. Many more wanted to participate but their employers would have fired them.
How did NASA impact Huntsville’s civil rights movement?
When discussions about NASA moving to Huntsville began, Dr. John and Mrs. Joan Cashin and Dr. Sonnie and Mrs. Martha Hereford made flyers that said buying stock in Huntsville was buying into segregation. This received national attention and was a turning point in the movement.
Before NASA came to Huntsville, it was illegal for Black people to occupy public spaces. After those scientists and mathematicians came, everything changed. Huntsville was the first city in Alabama to desgregate. And what made it so beautiful to us was we did it without violence. We were peaceful, but it was painful because we had to swallow a lot.
What role did love play in you and Mr. Bearden’s activism?
I know people would wonder; how could a love story evolve out of all that? My husband and I decided that we were not going to just grieve ourselves to death about the hate that was heaped upon us. Everything that we would do, we would do it together. Love played a major role because we didn’t have anyone but each other.
We raised three children during segregation, and decided we were just going to live life regardless. We chose to be happy and enjoy as much as we could, not only Christmas time but all the celebrations. And despite everything, we gave society three college educated, law abiding, Christian children. And to think that society would not give us anything in return.
I am proud the power of faith and love contributed to Huntsville’s #1 Best Place to Live rating 60 years later.
What advice would you offer to social justice leaders of today?
My advice to younger generations would be please always use your voice, make yourselves available, and don’t give up the fight. We have come a long way, it has been a hard journey, but keep your eyes on the prize. Always remember the foot soldiers because we are often left behind on a lot of things. Don’t forget those people. Give silent tributes to a generation who turned Huntsville and the nation upside down to turn it right side up.