In Frederick D. Reese’s Own Words:
I was born during the days of harsh segregation in Selma, Alabama, yet, I can’t recall a moment in my life when I felt controlled by my circumstances. Poverty was a fact of life for me and the majority of Selma’s black residents. My family lived in a shot gun house on Weaver Street. We were poor, but there was no poverty of spirit. At age 13, I set out to find a job. Of course, no one was will- ing to hire an 8th grader so I volunteered to work as a mail carrier for a white man working for the railroad. I wasn’t satisfied just transferring information. I was determined to learn the white man’s job. He typed out forms with two fingers before freight cars would move out until certain information was abstracted and taken to the yard office. I eventually became good at typing and abstracting the information that the white man entrusted me to do much of his work.
Eventually, Mr. Carter paid me a small weekly wage. One day I was in the office alone wearing my shirt and tie - my usual attire - when I was visited by a white gentleman seeking an abstraction order to move his lumber. He resented my having to sign the necessary papers but he had no choice. No one else was there. He threw the papers down on the desk where I sat. I signed them, and smiled with pride as he walked out the door.
Realizing my worth, I asked Mr. Melton for a raise. That was taboo. “ Who do you think you are?” he asked in anger. “You’ve gotten beside yourself.” “Pardon me,” I said, “here are your papers and stamps.” He looked bewildered. “You might make a mistake and hit me and you’ll be sorry.” As I walked out the door, he said, “Oh Fred, I didn’t mean it.” “Whether you meant it or not,” I ex- claimed, “I’m gone.” That was the first stand I took against racism. Others were to follow as I assumed other jobs and assumed leadership roles in high school. At the end of my senior year I was tempted by his offer to return to the railroad and work in all-white freight office for a salary of $100 a week. That was a lot of money for a black man, especially a black teen. But, two days before Alabama State University began fall registration, I decided to go there and purse a teaching career in Montgomery.
In the summer, I returned to work in Selma at Wilby Theater where blacks were restricted to the third floor. I cleaned all three floors. Initially a white woman checked to see if a single piece of popcorn was on the floor and used a white handkerchief to wipe to check for dust. I was determined to do my work so thoroughly that she could find nothing wrong. For three weeks she found noth- ing! She never checked my work again. I was later promoted to sell tickets in the black concession stand.
I graduated from college and returned to Selma to teach. In 1964 when the Public Accommodation Act was passed, I was determine to desegregate the same theater where I had worked as a janitor. We almost had a riot. When we went in, Jim Clark and his department surrounded the theater. It was so tense that the theater had to be closed. When it reopened the next day, I returned, purchased my ticket and took my seat. For the first time, I felt like a first class citizen. The feeling would not last long, because I, along with most blacks, did not even
have the right to vote. The right to vote was a stepping stone to the ultimate goal, economic empowerment and self determination...