Jail in Baker County Georgia consisted of a black metal cage, 20x20x8, divided into four equal sections and placed within a square, concrete block building with openings for windows, but no windows. In a usual Georgia summer, it was hot and thick with bugs, especially June bugs.
Bittersweet history. Amendment XV to the US Constitution (1870) “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The Voting Rights Act (1965): “No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” Across the South these laws were ignored.
In the summer of 1965, SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) sent me to be one of the civil rights workers in Baker County, GA. We spent the summer knocking on doors, going to church meetings, teaching people how to read, and talking to people about why it was worth it to register to vote. It wasn’t that people didn’t want to vote. It was that they weren’t allowed to register and, if they insisted, what they got was trouble, sometimes terrible trouble. You see, Baker County had a sheriff named L. Warren Johnson. Sheriff Johnson used to boast about the number of people he’d killed.
A generous and kind black farming family were my hosts. As the first white civil rights worker in the county, I was news. One morning I overheard the youngest child in the family talking to his grandmother, excitedly telling her that I’d made my own bed. I gave a silent thank you to the summer camp where, along with fun stuff – swimming, canoeing, and campfire building, we’d been taught how to make hospital corners for a neatly made bed.
The day we went to jail started pretty much the same as the others. Most of the family went out to the fields at dawn to farm. Someone always stayed in the house with me, as protecting a guest was both a political act and a moral commitment. I was waiting and worrying about this day. Some civil rights workers and about 14 local people were on our way to the Courthouse to try to register to vote. We knew we were on our way to jail.
Today there are 1073 registered African-American voters in Baker County. On November 4th, 1674 people voted in Baker County. Obama won in Baker County.