Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
As 3,000 people left Connecticut by car, bus, and train to join the historic March on Washington, Hartford college student Ralph Allen was spending his 20th day in a Georgia jail. It was August 28, 1963, and Allen and five others were being held without bond for “inciting insurrection,” a Civil War-era law that carried a possible death penalty. Allen’s real crime? Registering black citizens of Georgia to vote.
Ralph Waldo Allen, 21, a Massachusetts native, was a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This multi-racial group, founded by the courageous Ella Baker, was composed mostly of Northern students. It engaged in many creative direct action tactics including sit-ins and freedom rides. For those who eschewed voter drives as insufficiently militant, Mississippi’s first civil rights organizer Amzie Moore declared that in the South, “voter registration is direct action.”
Allen had been arrested several times before, once in 1962 for “vagrancy” as he and Charles Sherrod attempted to register five black residents of Terrell County, Georgia. SNCC had successfully registered 100 black people in Terrell over the past nine months, a small number that underlined the great opposition they faced. “Terrible Terrell” had the dubious distinction of losing the first voting rights suit filed under the 1957 Civil Rights Act. The Court’s finding, however, did not deter the local registrars or police from continuing to obstruct the U.S. Constitution.
By 1963 he was skipping his sophomore semester at Trinity College to continue his SNCC work. In April, after helping a woman to register and returning her home, Allen was beaten by two white men who had followed him. SNCC’s opponents were moving from vagrancy charges to assault; the stakes has been raised.
Hartford’s reaction to Allen’s insurrection arrest took a while to build, but it eventually reached its peak in October when hundreds of students marched to the State Capitol, demanding his release. Connecticut elected officials began to pressure Attorney General Robert Kennedy to intervene in the case.
A federal court struck down the 1871 insurrection law on November 1st, which finally allowed Allen and the others to be released on bond. Along with the four men who had spent three months in jail awaiting trial was Sallie Mae Durham, a 14-year old black girl swept up in the police attack. Allen was still tried and convicted of attempted murder of a police officer by an all-white, male jury. His conviction was overturned on appeal due to the “systematic exclusion” of black people on the jury.
On November 9th, a week after the original insurrection charge was dismissed, Ralph Allen was back in Hartford, raising funds for the families of the four Birmingham, Alabama girls killed in a church explosion.
Ralph Allen died of heart failure at the age of 63 in 2005. Once asked why he placed himself on the front line of the black freedom movement, Allen quoted a line from Man’s Fate by André Malraux: “It is necessary to act my ideas.” As an elderly Southern black man who worked with Allen described him to a reporter: “He have more than courage.”