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Night in jail solidifies Chace's activist spirit

By by Christopher Wang
Senior Staff Wri
Posted: 03/26/2003
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The police officers heaved William M. Chace into a dark
confinement cell on the first floor of the Tuscaloosa County Jail
in Alabama. The door closed and darkness filled the cell. Chace
couldn't see anything, but he sensed that someone else was in

A voice cut through the air. "You got a match?" It was a man's
voice whose foul odor dominated the cell.

Chace reached into his pockets and produced a book of matches.
He didn't know why he had them -- he didn't smoke, and only a few
minutes earlier the jailer emptied his pockets of his

He tore a match out of the book and struck it across the coarse
lighting strip, the flame illuminating both men's faces.

"Who are you?" asked the intimidating black man who reeked of

Now Emory's outgoing president, Chace explained how he got to
jail. There was a march that day, April 23, 1964, organized by the
Tuscaloosa Community Action Committee, a black activist
organization that formed as a local hub to protest segregation
during the early years of the civil rights movement.

The recently opened Tuscaloosa County courthouse was tarnished
by familiar signs of inequality, with bathrooms labeled "Whites
Only" and "Colored."

The black citizens were promised integrated facilities, but
three hundred blacks silently marched to the courthouse steps when
the promise was broken. They clutched signs, demanding the
bathrooms be desegregated. Chace, the only white person walking
alongside the protesters that day, was teaching in Tuscaloosa.

"Oh, I heard about you," the man in the cell said to Chace. "I'm
s'posed to kick your ass. But I'm gonna let you alone."

Two years before his arrest in Tuscaloosa, Chace was studying
for his master's degree in English at the University of California
- Berkeley on a scholarship from the Woodrow Wilson National
Fellowship Foundation. In addition to paying for a year of graduate
education, the scholarship offered Chace a job as an English
professor at Stillman College, an all-black institution in

Growing up in Chevy Chase, Md., Chace attended segregated public
schools but had never been exposed to the extreme racism he found
in Alabama. He said black culture was all around him, yet he didn't
know much about it and found it "exotic." His curiosity drove him
to accept the offer at Stillman.

"I went out of interest and fascination," Chace said. "I also
went because I really was not certain I wanted to continue my

In August of 1963, Chace stepped off a plane and into the thick
Tuscaloosa heat. He had just come from Washington, D.C., where he
and his wife, JoAn, participated in the March on Washington and
listened to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr's renowned "Dream"
speech on the Lincoln Memorial steps.

The students at Stillman mostly came from rural areas of
Alabama, and had never known white people on the level that they
knew Chace. Many were religious and conservative, and were cautious
when they first met their white professor.

Because he was a young member of the faculty, which was about
one-quarter white, Chace was seen as more of a student advocate
than a strict authority figure. He dressed in suit and tie like the
students and ate lunch with them in the school's cafeteria. He
constantly reminded students of the merits of education, and often
helped them with personal and academic problems.

Reverend Eddie Osburn, who was Chace's student and now works for
the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition, said Chace's
enthusiasm and energy made him an integral part of life for the
students at Stillman.

"I remember so clearly when students had problems, they would
say, 'We're going to Bill Chace,'" Osburn said. "He was definitely
different. Chace probably encouraged and inspired more black
students than he knew."

In the 1960s, black students in the South were becoming more
vocal in their opposition to segregation, staging sit-ins and
organizing boycotts of city services. Though he supported them,
Chace seldom involved himself in their demonstrations.

"Remember, I didn't go there to be an activist," Chace said. "I
went there to be a teacher. And then I just got involved in

The students needed help though, Chace said. Tuscaloosa was a
benchmark of segregation in the South, a city where the end of
streetlights signified the beginning of a black neighborhood, and
the police routinely harassed black students.

"They could not go into any movie theater, any hotel or any good
restaurant," Chace said. "Police officers would make these
incredibly horrible remarks to them, like, 'Hey, you've been
f***ing sheep.' ... They were living in a world of some tension,
and were really campus-bound because it was a safe zone."

When the courthouse opened in early April 1964, leaders of the
Tuscaloosa Community Action Committee filed a petition to the
county demanding that the bathrooms be desegregated. The county
commission rejected the petition five days later.

The TCAC decided to march. The Committee planned to assemble at
the First African Baptist Church on April 23 and proceed toward the
courthouse in silence. They were determined to show their
opposition, but the city denied them a parade permit.

"I just found it outrageous and stupid; such a betrayal of
trust," Chace said.

Chace decided to march with the protesters, many of them
Stillman students, although his colleagues told him not to go.

"I was young. I was inspired to go," he said.

The protesters were calm but tense as they gathered at the
church, six blocks from the courthouse. Students sat quietly on the
church steps before joining the crowd.

This protest was the first time many students demonstrated
against segregation. The students were upbeat, Osburn said, but as
the departure time of 10:30 a.m. neared, they realized the
possibility that they may never return.

According to The Tuscaloosa News, the crowd began moving in
three waves, almost 200 in the first unit. Chace joined the second
group, taking the lead with two black clergymen.

"At that time, it was natural for Chace to have been there,"
Osburn said. "...It was good for us young black students to see a
white co-worker push us along."

But the city was ready for the marchers. Police lined the
streets, shoring up barriers behind which thousands of white
spectators had gathered, The Tuscaloosa News reported. Ku Klux
Klansmen were scattered throughout the area, waiting in trucks with
shotguns. As the marchers moved through the city, officers forced
them onto the sidewalk and kept them moving at a swift pace.

Police circled the courthouse, turning away the first wave of
marchers as they climbed the courthouse steps. Chace's group closed
in on the building and merged with the protesters walking

Chace said he heard a commotion behind him as he neared the
front of the courthouse and saw a policeman move toward him. He
tried to break through the crowd, but several officers grabbed him
and pinned him to the courthouse lawn, beating him and prodding him
with a cattle stick. A moment later, the officers dragged him to

When they realized what had happened, several Stillman students
became frantic as they watched police carry Chace away.

"They got Bill Chace!" yelled Odessa Warrick, a TCAC member.
"They sure got their man!"

A personal assistant to Tuscaloosa Police Chief Bill Marable
overheard that Chace and another white Stillman professor, Bill
Fegan, were flagged as threats to the police because they actively
supported the black community. The officers were worse to whites
than blacks, Osburn said. The police believed that if it wasn't for
white people like Chace, blacks wouldn't have publicly

"Let's go get him!" Osburn screamed. He pushed through the rows
of people, but several ministers held him back.

"They want you to do that! They'll shoot you down and kill you!"
TCAC Executive Secretary T.Y. Rogers, who co-led the march, told
him. "If you really love Mr. Chace, don't go after him."

The students balked. Though Chace had been a role model and
mentor, they knew if they went after him, they would start a
violent uprising.

"They were really, really trying to intimidate him," said Nellie
Hester, also a student of Chace's at Stillman, and now an activist
in New York City. "They use fear and intimidation as a method and a
weapon to squash dissent."

When Chace arrived at the jail, several interrogators asked him
who he was working for and which activist groups he was associated
with. Chace simply said he was a professor at Stillman.

The police charged him for unlawful assembly, vagrancy and
resisting arrest and assault. He was held on $4,000 bail. They
emptied his pockets, took his fingerprints and booked him, putting
him in a confinement cell with a black man, who was told to beat
him up.

Outside, the protesters began to disperse. Just before noon, the
third wave of marchers passed the courthouse. The ministers who led
the march stayed behind to ensure that no one became violent.
Chace's arrest was the only incident that marred an otherwise
peaceful event. One of the policemen that arrested Chace stood,
arms crossed, in the courthouse door, while the Reverend Jesse
Brown prayed for Chace's safety.

A few hours later, Chace was placed in a private cell in a row
that held an assortment of street criminals and vagrants.

A prostitute in the cell next to Chace's approached the
iron-barred division and called out, asking him why he was in jail.
She scoffed at his story.

"Oh, you're that nigger lover!" she said. "Well, I'm a nigger
lover too-- if they pay me enough." She laughed.

Later, a young, white guard stomped toward Chace's cell and
stood in front of the door, staring at Chace with a menacing

"Can I help you?" Chace asked.

"Yeah," the guard said. "You f***ing nigger lover. I'm just
taking a look at you, 'cause when you get out, you're dead."

"There were people like that in this place," Chace said,
reflecting. "It was such a malevolent thing to say."

Chace did not know about the whirlwind his arrest caused. Two
lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People Legal Defense and Education Fund were on their way
from New York City to negotiate Chace's release.

His wife, JoAn, was teaching at Hunter College in New York when
she heard about his arrest.

"My first reaction was that I was proud-- it just showed his
courage and leadership," JoAn said. "Then I became scared for

But the Associated Press newswire picked up the story, and the
San Francisco Chronicle published the article the next morning. A
close childhood friend of Chace's in California read the story.

"An old school chum of mine sent a telegram that said, 'All your
friends in the Bay area are rooting for you,'" Chace said. "'Don't
let anything happen.' That was very smart-- it put those jailers on
notice that I was not nobody. I had friends looking out for

The NAACP lawyers worked on securing Chace's discharge from
jail. They enacted a Constitutional clause established in the 1870s
that allowed for federal intervention if a person was arrested for
protecting someone because of race.

Five black ministers guarded the jailhouse through the night,
waiting outside to ensure that Chace would stay safe. They knew the
danger he faced-- three months later, in Mississippi, three white
civil rights activists were arrested in a demonstration. They were
turned over to the Ku Klux Klan and murdered that night, and no one
was ever charged for the crime. When Chace was released around noon
April 24, they hurried him into a car and to safety.

The ministers told Chace it would he would not be safe at his
apartment in downtown Tuscaloosa. Instead, he would be better
sheltered in the black community.

Though Chace said he was never too worried about his situation,
the people around him were terrified for his life. He moved on
campus with Jackie Rhodes, a fellow professor, and her husband.
When Chace wanted a haircut, Rhodes would not let him go into town,
but instead called a barber who came to Rhodes' house and cut
Chace's hair, refusing to accept money.

Chace spent his last four weeks at Stillman on campus, planning
to return to Berkeley the following fall and finish his doctorate.
This time, he knew he wanted to complete his education and become a

"That's what this whole thing was about," Chace said. "I just
loved the idea of teaching, and I went back to Berkeley with a lot
more focus and dedication. I knew what I wanted."

In Chace's one year at Stillman, he made a lasting impression on
the students that resonates even today.

"Everyone saw him as a great savior," Osburn said. "He carved
out a niche for himself at Stillman, and truly helped a lot of the
students with what was going on at that time."

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