Don Elliott of Everson has indelible memories of marching for civil rights in Alabama, helping to register black voters, and meeting Martin Luther King Jr. nearly half a century ago.
The 67-year-old Realtor tells fascinating stories of what it was like to be part of what he calls "eye-opening" historic times.
Elliott has had several careers, including commercial fishing, gourmet cooking and restaurant management. He went on what he called "a 12-year road trip" with his wife, Felicity, before returning to Whatcom County to be with family in 2004.
Question: Don, what was your first exposure to people of color?
Answer: I grew up in Champagne (near the University of Illinois). My grandfather worked for the university and participated in a foreign student welcoming program. My grandparents always had someone from a foreign country at our dining table on any given Sunday. I was 3 to 7 years old, and I was brought up that people were people.
Q: When were you first exposed to segregation in the South?
A: When I was in school my grandparents would take me to Sarasota (Fla.). They would point out whites-only facilities, colored schools, and the like. When I was in high school, I would take a bus through the South and saw how very much segregated life was.
Q: How did you become involved in civil rights marches?
A: In March 1965 (while a college freshman at Illinois), I picked up a newspaper one morning. I saw all kinds of pictures and stories about the violence involved in the marches out of Selma. I was just incensed over the injustice of it all.
I called civil rights people in Illinois and quickly raised a lot of money. We sent three carloads of people to Selma (for an historic march to Montgomery, Ala.) and I went with them.
Q: What did you see in Selma?
A: Thousands of people were just pouring into Selma from all over the world. Black people in the community opened their homes to us.
When the march began, there was a ditch in the middle of the road, dividing the marchers from (local white) people on the other side. The whites were yelling, cursing, carrying Confederate flags. There was a police presence to keep them away from us.
The whites weren't happy with what was going on. I told myself, holy cow, how can those people have so much hate in them?
Q: Did you continue civil rights work?
A: I did an immediate turnaround and worked on voter registration campaigns in Eutaw (Ala.), a small town. I shook hands with Dr. King and I met Jesse Jackson. I registered voters for a couple of weeks and we lived with black folks who welcomed us. We met local student groups.
Q: Did you worry about your safety?
A: No, but you kept your eyes open for the state troopers. We didn't deal with white people.
I saw such abject poverty, people in tar-paper shacks using newspapers to keep out the wind. The chore was to get them to realize the idea that they could vote. It was almost a foreign concept to many of them. It took courage. We would escort them to register to vote.
Q: What happened when you returned to Illinois?
A: In 1966 I participated in a protest march for equal rights in Cicero and again shook hands with Dr. King. The streets were lined with cops. I was shocked by the hatred expressed by local white residents. The feeling made the hatred in Selma seem like amateur hour.
With my background in Illinois, I did not expect that at all. It was an eye-opener and broadened my perspective. When the march ended in a park, it was like, let's get out of here. It was scary.
Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham freelance writer.