From Too Proud to Bend: Journey of a Civil Rights Foot Soldier
Last in a series of ten excerpts from Nell Braxton Gibson’s memoir
The author is nineteen years old and a sophomore at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA.
At the end of the (second) day, I wash out my underwear and hang it up again before I climb between the sheets. In the middle of the night, a loud bang causes me to shoot straight up in bed. “Sorry,” Mrs. Forman says, pointing to a large book. “I hit it on the way to the toilet.” Two inmates are standing near her as she makes her way from the sleeping area through the bars and around the corner to the left to go to the toilet. The two inmates who had been standing near her saunter back to their beds.
Ruby Doris beckons for me to come over to her bed. I sit on her covers as she explains, “They”—referring to the inmates—“were bending over you while you were sleeping. They’ve been locked up a long time.” No other explanation is needed. After that night, the three of us decide we will take turns, with one of us staying awake all night keeping watch while the other two sleep…
(In the morning) I sponge myself off and complete my exercise routine with Ruby Doris before we all eat breakfast. The rest of the morning moves along slowly…. At lunchtime the Negro trusty who usually brings our food calls Ruby Doris aside and gives her a pack of cigarettes, which she puts in her pocket. I’ve never seen Ruby with a cigarette in my life, and so I say, “I’ve never seen you smoke before.” I’m wondering why the guard didn’t give me the cigarettes, since I’m the smoker, but Ruby says, “Jail can make you do some strange things,” and she offers me a couple of cigarettes.
(That night) after dinner, and as evening approaches we ready ourselves for bed. After a long silence with inmates shifting around in bed, everyone starts to settle down and drift off to sleep. The next thing I know Ruby Doris is shaking me awake and motioning for me to follow her and Mrs. Forman. Groggily I swing my legs over the side of the bed and trail them into the toilet area where we huddle under a dim light. Ruby reaches into her pocket and pulls out the cigarette pack the trusty gave her earlier in the day. Feeling around inside, she carefully extracts a long piece of toilet paper. “The trusty said he’ll take notes back and forth between us and the boys if we want him to,” she whispers as she prepares to read the note the boys have written to us on toilet paper.
“Dear girls, we are writing to see how you like your ‘hotel accommodations.’ Atty Donald Hollowell has been secured for us and has been here to talk with us about bail. All of us refused, so don’t let him talk you into accepting it when he visits you. He’ll probably come to you tomorrow. Billy was separated from the rest of us and put in a cell with other inmates…. Frank Smith is keeping a diary. Leo’s writing poetry. Some of the others have made friends with the men in the cells. I made a chess board out of matchbook covers. I use burned matches for the black pieces and unburned ones for the white. One of the inmates and I have a good game going. We shall overcome because what we are doing is “all for the cause.”
Note: The good folks at Amazon.com would be happy to help you read more from Nell’s book.