“My mother was a teacher and always educated my sister, Phyllis, and me. She also made our clothes in our early years; we were always beautifully dressed. Phyllis and I were 11 months apart, and Mother dressed us alike. I got older and rebelled, wanting my own clothes and to be different.
My mother and grandmother raised us in love and tried to protect us from the world’s hatred. A restaurant downtown sold hamburgers, and African Americans had to buy them at a little window in the back. Mother never let us go there and be treated like that, so she made hamburgers at home whenever we wanted them. My grandmother taught us to keep our hands to ourselves when we went into stores; if I was caught touching anything, I might be accused of stealing.
Phyllis wrote a book, Lessons from the Front Porch Swing, about the lessons our grandmother passed down to us. We sat on either side of her on the swing as she taught us what kind of girls and women we needed to be. Grandmother was a colorful character; we called her the ‘social worker of Silver Street’ because she encouraged people and gave advice as they walked by.
When I was leaving for college, she said, ‘Always be a lady. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. If you don’t think you can keep your legs together, put them in a gallon bucket.’
That was the time of Jim Crow when we were treated as less than human and didn’t have the right to vote. Mother attempted to register to vote several times. In her first attempt, she was asked to recite the preamble to the Constitution, which she did because she required her students to learn it. Mother taught the preamble because her students were U.S. citizens and needed to understand its words and phrases. She recited the preamble, but her application was stamped ‘denied.’ She was asked to recite the entire Constitution on her second attempt.
Phyllis and I became foot soldiers of the 1965 Voting Rights Movement, fighting for Mother’s right to vote. I was a 16-year-old student at the segregated RB Hudson High School. Students left school and went to First Baptist Church or Brown Chapel AME Church for mass meetings and the student movement. At first, Phyllis and I couldn’t leave school because Mother was a teacher. One day, she told us to join our schoolmates in the march to the courthouse. We were jumping up and down, happy to skip school and march.
Phyllis and I went to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) meetings and were trained on marching, and getting down and covering our heads. We were taught not to engage or make eye contact. We knew our purpose and that we had value. The world’s eyes were on Selma, and we were making history.
We marched to the courthouse with homemade signs that read, ‘Let my mother vote.’ Phyllis was arrested at a march and spent a night at the old National Guard Armory because the jails were filled with students. The students were forced to stand on tiptoes, taking two fingers on each hand and pushing against the walls all night long as deputies stuck the girls with the cattle prods and hit the boys with billy clubs. Released from jail the next morning, Phyllis walked into the house and fell out on the floor. She cried for days, asking, ‘How can they treat us so cruelly?’ It is still hard for her to talk about that night.
Dr. King was invited to Selma by a group called the Courageous Eight, an underground movement that secretly met to fight for voting rights. The Selma Dallas Voters League also sent a letter to Dr. King asking him to come to Selma because the movement was going slowly and few people were registering to vote. Less than two percent of African Americans of voting age in 1965 were registered to vote in this county.
The voting rights movement was not a political movement — it was a spiritual movement with social and political consequences. Our mass meetings were jubilant affairs held in churches and grounded in religion. Brown Chapel was safer for these meetings because the neighborhood and the housing projects across the street protected it. Eyes were always watching and neighbors could quickly send a warning.
The mass meetings started with freedom songs, followed by prayers and scripture. Then Dr. King, other members of SLC, or local leaders would speak. I recently learned that the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office bugged the church in 1965, and we have those recordings.
Bloody Sunday’s march was chaotic, and I stayed at Brown Chapel. Police lined up behind saw horses across the street from the church, like the Berlin Wall. We saw the marchers running back. Some ran into the housing project; others stopped on the church steps with blood running down their faces. The air was full of teargas, and some folks in the streets pulled off their clothing because the teargas saturated their skin and hair. Dr. King wasn’t in Selma on Bloody Sunday, but he issued a call for help. People came from everywhere a few days later for the March to Montgomery. It was a dangerous time, and there is a plaque in the sanctuary memorializing those who lost their lives in Selma and surrounding counties for voting rights.
Mother and I went together to the courthouse in 1965 for her to register to vote, and there was no hassle. I voted for the first time in 1969 with pride in all we accomplished for that right to vote. We showed people can work together for change. But here we are, almost 60 years later, fighting to keep our voting rights.
Phyllis and I went to Stillman College, a small HBCU in Tuscaloosa, and she continued in the fight. On Saturdays of my freshman year, Phyllis’ sophomore year, she left school and marched in Black Belt counties, helping push their movement forward. We didn’t have phones in our rooms, and Mother called us at the payphone in the student union every Saturday morning to check on her girls. Phyllis made me study near the phone so I could answer. I would tell Mother that Phyllis was in the library, but she was in rural areas fighting for freedom. Phyllis got so carried away one Saturday morning that she found a pay phone and called our mother, saying, ‘I am in Greene County with SNCC, and they are selling guns for the revolution. How many do you want?’
Mama said, ‘What revolution and what guns? Get back to Stillman College.’ That was Phyllis’ last time to go to a revolution.
I majored in history because I wanted to be a news correspondent reporting around the world for NBC news. Richard Valeriani covered Selma for NBC News and reported from across the street of Brown Chapel. An elderly lady who lived in the end unit of the housing project across the street from the church invited him into her home to rest, giving him water and something to eat. I watched him report, and he said, ‘Reporting for NBC News, Selma.’ I would look in the mirror with my brush turned upside down and say, ‘This is Joyce Nadine Parrish, reporting for NBC News, Rome.’ I wasn’t going to be in Selma.
I never became a reporter, though. I worked in the financial support program for the welfare department. I realized that I needed a master’s degree to advance and become a county director. I went to the University of Alabama in 1993 and got a master’s degree in social work. After I graduated, I ran the food stamp program in Selma. Later I was hired to be the Interim County Director in Perry County. After only two weeks, the board hired me as the first African-American County Director at Perry County. Later on, I became the State Food Stamp Director.
I retired and became the historian and director of tours for Brown Chapel. I give tours several times a week — often to people from across the country or around the world. Unfortunately, we can’t enter the church sanctuary right now because of renovations. Money is still being raised to finish the work.
I turn 75 in July, and my family is having a party for me in Gulfport. I think about legacy. I have one son, one grandson, and three bonus grandchildren; I hope they keep sharing my stories. The foot soldiers of the Selma Marches received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2016. My sister, son, and grandson went to the ceremony, and it was special to have three generations experiencing that together.
Through all of this, I learned that if you treat people right, they will do right by you. The basic rule of life is to treat people as people.”