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Mary Cannady: At Dr. King's House

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 10/9/2005. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

Mary Cannady was 50 years old in 1965 when three civil rights activists were killed in Alabama. The deaths of Jimmie Lee Jackson, the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo shocked the nation, including the shy social worker who had grown up in Oxford, 40 miles north of Raleigh. At the time, she was single, bookish and 30 years older than most of the college students going into the Deep South to protest for civil rights. She had also been frail since a long battle with a crippling childhood disease. And yet, when she heard of the killings in Alabama, Mary Cannady made a decision that thrust her into some of the biggest events of the civil rights movement. At her home in Oxford, Cannady, now a week shy of 90, told me, my children and a group of my college students about that summer. Then she served us punch and cookies.

Mary Cannady. Photo by Chris Seward, 2005.In Mary Cannady's words:
I went South in that summer of '65 when those three people were killed, the two white people and the black man. That weekend there was to be the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., and I decided that I was going to take a plane and I'm going down to Selma. I had never done anything like it before in my life. I had never been an activist, not really. I mean, I had gone to some NAACP meetings, but never anything dangerous.

I was kind of a loner anyway. I'm still like that. So there I was, middle-aged, middle class and an NAACP type. But in talking about those three young people and explaining why their deaths hit me so hard, it just came out how much anger I had in me. I just didn't care what happened to me. I just had to go. I had to be a part of it.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was hosting this big march from Selma to Montgomery, so when I landed in the plane in Montgomery, there was somebody there to take me to Selma. They put me up in Selma, and they gave me a little job to do, visiting and trying to get people to come to a rally.

After that weekend, I just came on back home. I had a whole month of vacation saved up, so I decided I'd do the whole month with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I started in Atlanta at Martin Luther King Jr.'s house. He wasn't there, but they had given this house over to the group. There were students coming from all over during this summer, and some of the black kids were local. These were the guys I hung out with. And they accepted me, absolutely.

One day there was a rally being held down in Americus, Ga. I get in the car, two cars of us, groups of kids. Oh, I shouldn't say kids -- people. But the rest of them were kids. I was the only old person there, because I was in my 50s. This will sound funny, but as a matter of fact, when I first offered my services, I said I could do some chaperoning. Now that was a laugh! Ohhhh!

Anyway, they laughed at me, I know, but they accepted me, so I ended up at Martin Luther King's house.

My first trip was to Americus. There were two cars of us, black and white. We got to some place and the police stopped the car. They held us for a long time. We stayed and stayed. I don't know why they stopped us. Finally, somebody in the group got out and made a phone call to Washington. Whatever happened, they let us go.

At that point, we decided that if we were going to get to Americus, then we'd better split up, so blacks got in one car, the whites in the other car, and we didn't have any more trouble. We got to Americus and we had a rally in one of the churches and got on back to Atlanta intact.

We were waiting for the big rally that was supposed to take place in that Sixteenth Street Church in Birmingham, Ala., the one that was bombed and they killed those four little girls. But while we were waiting for that, we decided that we were going to go to Greensboro, Ala.

I got in this car with a bunch of guys. These weren't students. These were just the local guys. We were all black this time, and I was the only female. We got stopped in Anniston, Ala., same way. We were held up a long, long time. I don't know why they stopped us, but they did.

When they finally let us by, then we started down the road again. But we were on a two-lane highway, and when we got a certain distance, the guys noticed that there was this car trailing us. The guys knew what was going on. They had been through this before.

This went on until we got to Greensboro. Whoever was trailing us would get right close to us, then the guys would speed up, then the car behind us would fall back. Then we go on some miles and they would do it again, right on our bumper. I was scared to death! Scared to death! Middle of nowhere. Nowhere!

I said to myself, "Well, you know, if you got to die, you got to die." And no, I never regretted being there. No, no, never, never, never once. If I die, I die. I die for a cause, an important cause. Unless we are ready to die, this will never change. And that's what I did.

We finally got to Greensboro. They set me up in the home of a woman who had been a nurse. This was during a period of a very bad boycott. She had been arrested during a protest and put in this horrible jail, just miserable. She told me about it and how they had been treated. Mostly I went to the meetings and rallies at the church.

During this period, we finally did get to this rally at the church in Birmingham. That bombing had happened a long time before. This was a celebratory thing. We stayed in the white hotel. It was the first time it was open to us. We attended this rally and there were no problems. But this was a terrific experience -- staying in the white hotel for the first time.

The most rewarding experience was -- this was in '65. Mr. Johnson, the president, had already signed the voting rights bill, and they were registering people to vote. I stood along the line as these poor folks went up for the first time in their lives and tried to sign up to vote. I stood on the line and watched them: all kinds, all descriptions, all ages, standing in line to vote. That was something I will never forget.
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