Whispering Pines: Immediate Risks and Deferred Rewards

Whispering Pines

The fifty-year commemoration of the first Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights on March 7, 1965, (“Bloody Sunday”) and the release of the movie Selma have brought once again into the public consciousness the courage and sacrifices of those who risked their lives in the struggle for civil rights. Televised images of peaceful protesters being tear-gassed and beaten by Alabama state troopers, county sheriff’s deputies, and local police shocked the nation and galvanized political action.

A second march on March 9, led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was largely symbolic, with marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge and returning to Selma without incident. That night, James Reeb, a white Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, and two other clergymen were beaten on the streets of Selma. Reeb died two days later. In response, Brunswick had its first civil rights march on March 15, with President and Mrs. Coles and many faculty, staff, and students among the participants.

On March 17, President Lyndon Johnson sent the Voting Rights Bill of 1965 to Congress and arranged for 2,000 Federal troops and FBI agents to protect the marchers on the fifty-four-mile trip from Selma to Montgomery. The marchers left on March 21, and arrived safely in Montgomery four days later. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law by President Johnson on August 6.

These events are well-known to most of us, but few may know of an earlier figure in the struggle to secure voting rights for African-Americans – Arthur A. Madison of the Bowdoin Class of 1910. Arthur’s father, Eli, a former slave, had pooled financial resources with friends and family fifteen years after the end of the Civil War and had bought the 560-acre Mays Plantation a few miles northeast of Montgomery. His dream was to establish Madison Park as an independent black community, and he was determined that his own ten children become part of what W.E.B. DuBois had referred to as the “talented tenth,” whose contributions would uplift all African-Americans.

Arthur studied at the Mobile State Normal School and Howard University before transferring to Bowdoin as a junior. He roomed at a boarding house on Bank Street in his first year, and shared a room in 12 Appleton Hall in his senior year with Herman Dreer, one of two other African-American students at Bowdoin at the time (the other was J. Arnett Mitchell of the Class of 1912.) Other than the fact that Madison graduated cum laude, there’s not a great deal of information about his undergraduate years in his alumni file.

After graduating, Arthur worked in a shoe store in Haverhill, Massachusetts, for a year before returning home to operate the Madison Clothing Store. He entered Columbia Law School, earned a degree in 1923, and then became an attorney in New York City. He was admitted to the Alabama Bar in 1938, one of four African-American lawyers licensed to practice in the state. In New York, he soon attracted the attention of Father Divine, a charismatic leader who had established the International Peace Mission in Harlem in the early 1930s. Father Divine’s unorthodox strategies for creating an interracial paradise on earth combined religion, the communal redistribution of wealth, a flamboyant personal lifestyle, real estate purchases that encroached on “white” neighborhoods, and a requirement that followers abstain from sex and give their worldly resources to the church (becoming “angels” with new names like Purity Lamb, Heavenly Rest, and Sunshine Bright) often put him at odds with the law and with disenchanted followers. He needed a legal counsel, and Arthur Madison became a very effective one. Madison became a prominent community leader in New York, and he ran unsuccessfully as the Republican candidate to represent the 19th District in the New York State Senate.

At the invitation of one of his brothers, he returned to Madison Park in 1943, where the residents were trying to incorporate as an all-black town but had run afoul of a provision of Alabama law that required a certain number of registered voters before a municipal charter could be obtained. He worked to register voters from Madison Park alongside NAACP labor leader E. D. Nixon (the primary architect of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955). When these registrations were rejected, Madison submitted appeals to the circuit court, in keeping with procedures established by the Alabama constitution. However, extreme pressures were brought to bear on the sixteen whose names appeared on the appeals. A number of them were school teachers, and they were threatened with losing their jobs if they proceeded with the appeal. In the end, five (including Madison’s own niece) appeared in court in February of 1944 and stated that Madison did not have their permission to submit their voter registration papers. Attorney Madison was arrested and convicted of representing clients without authorization. He appealed, but in July of 1945 he was fined and barred from the practice of law in Alabama.

While his case was being appealed, however, Arthur Madison made another significant contribution to the civil rights movement. A secretary at the local chapter of the NAACP named Rosa Parks had twice attempted to register to vote in Montgomery. She was twice rejected on claims that she had not passed the required test, although the registrar would not tell her what questions she had answered incorrectly. In 1945 she made a third attempt, armed with paper and pencil to record the questions and her answers to them. She was also accompanied by Arthur Madison and E.D. Nixon. The presence of the lawyer and the prospect of a law suit was enough for the clerk to enroll Rosa Parks as a registered voter, provided that she paid not only a poll tax, but the cumulative poll taxes that she would have been paying had she been allowed to vote in the previous eleven years. She paid the $16.50 and cast her ballot in the next election.

Madison’s voter registration efforts in Montgomery earned him the complete trust of Father Divine back in New York, and he was given the additional title of economic advisor. In the 1950s he became blind due to glaucoma, and in January of 1957 he fell down the stairs in his Harlem home and died from his injuries. He was buried in Madison Park where, his close friend and classmate Herman Dreer ’10 wrote, he had been developing the estate into a city by establishing a garment factory, a store, a church, and a school that bears his name. He didn’t live to see his brother-in-law, the Rev. Solomon Seay Sr., give refuge to battered Freedom Riders in 1961 at his home in Madison Park. He didn’t see his nephew, Solomon Seay Jr., become a pioneering civil rights attorney who helped to dismantle de jure segregation in Alabama and defend those who had been arrested on March 7, 1965, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The voting rights that he sought became a reality eight years after his death. While Arthur Madison wasn’t able to enjoy the fruits of the civil rights victories of the 1960s himself, he helped to plant the seeds and tend the vines. We are deeply in his debt.

 

With best wishes,

John R. Cross

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations

Comments

  1. Elizabeth Aaroe says:

    This is a marvelous story, John, so rich in historical detail. I wish you had shared it with PBS, NPR, etc. for the 50th coverage. The story of Rosa Parks’ voter registration test has been told before but never from this perspective. Nearly every sentence I read ended with a “wow” coming out of my mouth. Powerful and moving. Thank you.

  2. Roger Tuveson '64, P '86 & 91, GP '17 says:

    John,

    You’ve hit yet another home run. Thank you for this timely and insightful WHISPERING TIMES REFLECTION.

  3. Al DeMoya '72 says:

    It’s amazing how the lives of Bowdoin’s alumni are deeply woven into the fabric of so much of America’s history. Equally amazing is your wonderful ability to bring them out of that history.

  4. Chris G. says:

    This is excellent John. Thanks!

  5. James Polianites '74 says:

    Wonderful piece, John, as ever! A deeply poignant and moving story.

  6. Berle Schiller says:

    Great History and wonderful that a Bowdoin alum was so active with Father Divine. I live directly across from the Peace Mission founded by Father Divine. I’ll share this with his followers. Mother Divine (his wife) is still alive and I see her during the year.

  7. Ken Briggs says:

    This is another story that befits the “Whispering Pines” designation. People who play large roles at crucial times in history often become whispers in the voice of historians and deserve the kind of revival that Madison’s life deserves. I think of the immense courage it must have taken to represent what he did where he did it. In a distantly similar vein, I was reading Bill Bryson’s account of his hike over the Appalachian Trail where he pays tribute (in a somewhat conditional way) to Myron Auden a Bowdoin graduate who, Bryson claims, was actually responsible for the Trail’s realization. You’ve probably already written about him; I found his effort rather heroic.

  8. Nancy Bellhouse May '78 says:

    Another amazing Bowdoin story.

    Thanks, as always, for finding this one.

  9. Ken Briggs '63 says:

    Correction to Previous Message: The name of the Bowdoin graduate credited with making the Appalachian Trail a reality is Myron Avery, not Auden. Thanks

  10. Wonderful story as usual. I continue to be very proud to have been a small part of this
    great college. Please keep whispering.

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