To hear white folks tell it, blacks lived happily in Pickens County before Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder began stirring them up. They voted right, if they were registered to vote, and never talked back. Now some blacks protest job discrimination and work to get out the vote.
"We've never had a problem with our black people, but those women have intimidated a lot of blacks," says Louis Coleman, 51, the white sheriff for 20 years who insists that "my black people," for the most part, are still happy. "We have a policy of not beating 'em. We treat 'em right. We don't run over 'em just because they are black."
Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder aren't a problem for the powers of Pickens County any more. Both began serving prison terms last month on 1979 convictions of voting fraud. An all-white jury found the two black women guilty of illegally filling out 39 absentee ballots for elderly blacks in a 1978 county election.
Bozeman, 51, was sentenced to four years. The jury gave Wilder, 69, the maximum--five years. The sentences are believed to be the stiffest ever given in an Alabama voting fraud case.
After appeals were exhausted, Judge Clatus Shylock Junkin, 41, denied probation and seven heavily armed deputies drove the two women off to the state penitentiary last month. Eleven days later, after protests by black leaders, Gov. Fob James scrambled to negotiate a work-release program and the women were transferred to Tuskegee to serve out their terms while living in a trailer house instead of jail.
The governor has no power to commute most sentences, save for a capital crime. Lawyers say they plan to seek freedom for the women from the state pardons and parole board, while attempting to clear them in federal court.
Several newspapers blasted the governor for the "special treatment" he gave the women, and Junkin termed work-release a "slap in the face to the judicial system" and "blatant" politics to court black voters. He said the two women "just flagrantly went out and stole 39 votes."
From the 300-page trial transcript, it is hard to sum it up so neatly. Even the Alabama Criminal Court of Appeals termed the testimony confusing. In both cases, the prosecution called 13 elderly blacks to the stand. Most were illiterate, with hazy memories at best. Except for one, Sophie Spann, 79, they all said their ballots had been executed properly, at their request.
But the appeals court ruled that one was enough, if the jury believed her.
And Sophie Spann could not be shaken. She always cast her ballot at the corner grocery store, she testified. She didn't remember Julia Wilder dropping by her house to help fill out an absentee ballot, and walked on down to vote, only to have a poll worker tell her she'd already voted. Her absentee ballot had been mailed from Aliceville, across the river.
"I ain't ever been over there and I ain't told nobody to vote for me over there," she testified. Poll workers allowed her to vote again on a challenge ballot, and reported the irregularity to Pickens County's prosecutor, Presley (Pep) Johnston, 51. He took it from there.
Spann "was senile or she forgot," said Wilder in an recent interview. "Or she was just plain scared."
Spann, who died last year, had reared the sheriff's deputy and son-in-law. Sheriff Coleman bought her lunch before she took the stand. She testified she would do "whatever he the sheriff wanted me to do, but he ain't told me to say nothing."
For years, Bozeman, a big, blustery woman who is president of the local NAACP chapter, had instructed illiterate blacks where to make their mark on the ballot, and if they inquired about candidates, she pitched the slate backed by Alabama's black Democratic caucus.
Wilder, president of a Pickens County voters group and an officer with the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was her sidekick. A pixieish, scripture-quoting widow, she went to jail in 1969 after leading a boycott to protest hiring policies at a chain grocery store, which soon hired its first black cashier.
Most of the 39 ballots introduced as evidence sported Wilder or Bozeman's return address and were marked for the same (mostly white) candidates. Although Pickens County is 42 percent black and tends toward bloc voting, a black has never been elected to county office.
No absentee ballot was directly traced to Bozeman, but she carried a brown grocery sack full of about 50 absentee ballots signed by elderly or illiterate blacks to Paul Rollins, a black mortician in Tuscaloosa and a notary public.
Rollins testified that he was told the voters were too old or sick to come themselves, so the two women vouched for the X-mark signatures and he notarized the ballots in his office. Before the runoff, he visited shanties and housing projects with the women to verify the X marks. Several witnesses didn't remember his visit.
While the procedures weren't exactly kosher--a notary is supposed to verify a signature in the presence of the signer--defense attorney Solomon Seay says it hardly constituted a felony by Bozeman or Wilder.
But Judge Junkin says it's tantamount to forgery. "They marked ballots that didn't belong to them," he said. "They forged names on a ballot and got the notary to perjure himself because he notarized it without that person being present."
The district attorney says he extended the olive branch--probation for guilty pleas--but the women turned down his offer. "They insisted they'd done nothing wrong and would keep doing it," said Johnston, who struck all blacks from the jury. "If we'd been vindictive, we could have charged them with 39 counts of forgery at 10 years a count."
The fate of the two women has dampened the willingness of some local black leaders to speak for attribution, or at all. Visitors are reminded that the major tourist attraction in town is the "ghost" of Henry Wells, a freed slave whose terror-stricken face, legend has it, was etched by lightning in a garret window of the county courthouse in 1878 as he peered down at a white lynch mob. Pamphlets, free in the sheriff's office, tout the tale.
Some blacks say the law in Pickens County has been applied unfairly for years. They wonder, for example, how two black civil rights activists can be indicted for voter fraud while a half-dozen black nightclubs in private homes do a booming business pouring bootleg whiskey--in what is purportedly a dry county--a half-mile from the district attorney's office here.
"They got a raw deal," said a black hospital worker, hunched over a pool table at the recreation center. "All they were trying to do is help people. It just broke my heart to see Miss Julia be sent to prison, old as she is."
But William R. Tate, 33, jury foreman in Wilder's case, has no regrets about her five-year sentence. "It may sound like 'five years to a little old lady,' but if someone is found guilty, their age should make no difference."
"If they could get out and march at their ages, they could have done just fine in jail," said Leon Marks, 33, a white deputy sheriff.
Such comments have as much to do with Bozeman's bravado as it does with her cause. Together, Bozeman and Wilder made the county's business their business, attending every county commission meeting, every school board meeting.
Bozeman turned out sign-waving crowds to protest unpaved roads on the black side of town. The roads got paved. She pushed for pay raises for seven sanitation workers. They got them.
"They constantly harassed public officials," said former county commissioner Robert Kirksey. "They were always creating disturbances."
When Bozeman spoke, people had to listen, says Pep Johnston. "Getting along with her was like trying to hold hands with a bulldozer. Get one inch out of line, and you got run over. She ran over everyone in sight."
"Maggie Bozeman brought out the worst in white people," says Joan Booth, 27, editor of the weekly newspaper. "She got tempers fired up faster than anyone I've ever seen. Many whites say they weren't prejudiced before, but they've become prejudiced because of Maggie. She's divided the community racially."
At the probation hearing, 15 character witnesses praised the women's integrity. Defense attorney Seay argued that the case was racially motivated to stop black voter registration in Pickens County and should be dismissed.
"The white power structure was out to get rid of them and it used whatever method it could to do it," says Jerome Gray, field director for Alabama's Democratic Conference and secretary for the state NAACP.
Voting rights activists have started planning a 180-mile weekend march this weekend from Pickens County to Montgomery, the Alabama capital, hoping to free Bozeman and Wilder, increase voter registration and demonstrate support for extension of the Voting Rights Act.
Bozeman, who was fired from the $15,000-a-year grammar school teaching job after her conviction, says, "If you teach black people to stand up for their rights in Pickens County, white folks will starve you out, or suffer you so until you move out of town."
Wilder insists, "All I did was what the voters wanted. I didn't encourage them to vote either way. Now, if they asked me how I was going to vote, I'd tell them. Some said, 'Julia, it don't make much difference how I vote, the white folks will do what they want anyway.' Then I'd tell them, 'They only do it because we let them.' "
The two women are itching to get back to Pickens County, where blacks toil at minimum-wage careers in the cotton mills and lumber yards that dot the scruffy hills of western Alabama. "The only way I won't register folks to vote is if they lock me back up," says Wilder. "As long as I've got my tongue, I will encourage people to vote. And if I have 50 cents, I'll pay for them to get to the polls."
Their courage is greatly, if quietly, admired in the black housing projects about the county. Even Mayor R. E. Hook, 71, who had regular run-ins with Maggie, concedes, "She's got guts."
A retired teacher who worked with Bozeman at Aliceville Elementary folded sheets in the laundromat near the courthouse and reminisced. "She was a real good teacher," said Ada Foster, 61. "Her students scored well on tests. And she spoke up for teachers. She made sure we got our money on the first of the month."
She sighed and tucked her detergent and fabric softener into a basket. "Maggie was just interested in fairness," she said. "She made white folks mad, but when you try to promote better living for colored, there's always going to be flare-ups. We don't have another lady around with her kind of nerve and courage.
"We don't want to see our ladies in prison. We need them back home."