Cotter alum: lessons from civil rights struggle

Photo by

Alexandra Retter


.    (From left) Paul Murray and Cotter alum Bill Wernz described the work of Wernz and other Cotter graduates during the Civil Rights Movement at a recent Cotter Schools event.  



The mob formed an arc with their cars to force Bill Wernz and his fellow college students down a dirt road into deep forest. 

The mob had started following Wernz and the interracial group of Civil Rights Movement workers he was part of after the students had a fun night of bowling in South Carolina in late summer 1966. When Wernz and the other members of the group were leaving the bowling alley, a mob started approaching them and yelling at them. The students quickly got in the car Wernz was driving. However, as Wernz started to drive off, a member of the mob threw a brick through the back window of the car and shattered it. When Wernz was able to continue driving off, the mob formed a group of cars around him and began driving very slowly, about three miles an hour, then started to form an arc to direct where he was going as the woods came into view. Knowing the forest would be an extremely bad place to be stopped by the mob, Wernz waited, and when a slight gap opened in the arc the mob was forming, he floored it and sped through downtown to the police station, squealing tires and running red lights along the way. 

“The police gave us a very hard time for disturbing the peace,” Wernz said. State troopers dispersed the mob, escorted the group home and parked a car by the students’ house overnight. “I realized that my youthful enthusiasm about having a good time had been a little reckless,” Wernz said. 

Wernz, who graduated from Cotter Schools in 1962, tutored in a housing project, participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights and registered voters in the 1960s. Wernz recently spoke to Cotter students about his experiences.  

Secondary education was one factor that influenced Wernz’s decision to get involved with civil rights work. “One of the things about Cotter was there was a sense that you had a calling in life, that there was something that you were meant to be, and meant to do,” he said. “And we talked to each other about what those things might be.” 

A teacher who taught a contemporary literature course was particularly influential, he said. Students sat in an oval and critiqued one another’s papers. “And almost none of it was on social justice or the Civil Rights Movement … so it wasn’t a direct straight line from that to civil rights. But it was a direct line to learning to think for ourselves,” Wernz said. 

At college, Wernz became friends with a fellow student who was Black and from New Orleans. The friend lived in a Black housing project in New Orleans and told Wernz about an opportunity to tutor there in an interracial group. Eager to see more of the world, Wernz jumped at the chance in 1964.

Wernz got on a bus in downtown Winona. By early the next morning, he was in Mississippi, and he faced a moral dilemma. The bus stopped at a segregated roadside cafe, and he did not know whether to sit on the “white” or “colored” side. He ended up compromising by eating on the white side and later sitting in the back of the bus. Just two weeks later, three civil rights workers were murdered in the state. 

There were moments of levity, as well. Wernz tutored Black children and had fun with them playing basketball and football. “It began to change my life,” he said. “I learned more from them than I ever taught them about reading and arithmetic.” In an interview, he recalled a group of teenagers helping him clean his injured foot one night after he stepped on a board with a nail in it while walking through the project. 

In 1966, Wernz worked to register Black community members to vote in Sumter, S. C., following the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Wernz was part of a group of Black and white college students who talked about the importance of registering to vote with Black people, arranged rides and escorted future voters to registration sites. 

Many of the homes the students went to everyday lacked electricity, Wernz said. The residents, who often were sharecropping, might have been isolated and not have heard of the Voting Rights Act. “The degree of poverty is something you can hardly imagine now,” he said.

Children from the neighborhood enjoyed hanging around the students, Wernz said, and the students would play with the kids. The children could sometimes help persuade their parents, aunts, uncles and other adults in their lives to vote, he added, and the Black students gave credibility to the voter registration efforts. 

On one occasion, a Black girl fell and broke her wrist while playing, so the Civil Rights Movement workers took her to the local hospital. The hospital refused to treat her, and the workers took her to a Black doctor who unfortunately lacked access to certain medical resources, like an X-ray machine, but did all he could to treat her. “It made you sort of want to grab them, shake them, talk sense, do something forceful, yet there was nothing you could do,” Wernz said in an interview.

Other Cotter alums contributed to the Civil Rights Movement. Paul Murray, who participated in the Civil Rights Movement and taught and researched about civil rights as a sociology professor, first learned about Cotter’s connections to the movement when he interviewed Phyllis Cunningham, a 1957 graduate of Cotter and participant in the Civil Rights movement. She told him about Joe Morse, who graduated from Cotter and took part in the movement, as well. Ultimately, Murray found out about six alums who were part of the Civil Rights Movement. Murray asked Wernz questions about his work during the Civil Rights Movement at the recent Cotter event. 

The effects of the alumni’s work and the efforts of those they collaborated with rippled out. Wernz witnessed the power of registering people to vote through observing the career of Ernest A. Finney Jr., a Black lawyer in Sumter, who sponsored the students’ work and helped them understand effective ways to inspire people to register to vote. Finney was elected as a state representative by the early 1970s in a county where several years prior, Black people could not register to vote, Wernz said. Finney then served as a circuit court judge and justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court before becoming chief justice of the state supreme court. “None of that would’ve happened without the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and without Black people taking advantage of the Voting Rights Act and registering to vote and actually voting,” Wernz said. 

Work remains to be done. There are through lines between the issues addressed by the Civil Rights Movement and issues today, Murray said. “It’s people from your generation who are going to make the difference in the years to come,” he told students. He added, “It’s the saying, ‘Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.’ And definitely, that has never been more true than it is today.”