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Continuing the Fight Against Racism

“When I found those State Troopers, I never faced that much mean and hatred before,” says Henry. “Then I began to see the real true hatred that would come out of a man. They were gonna take my life.”

Born and raised in Selma, Alabama, Henry Allen grew up in a neighborhood where diversity was not only normal, it was welcomed. “I'm living in a white neighborhood and we're all poor. And we're sharing a lot of things together and there were never fights, there were never no hatred going on within us. We never saw any color because we just enjoyed each other.”

But skirting the edges of his neighborhood was a century of legal racism. Alabama state and local officials prescribed to the laws of Jim Crow, which enforced racial segregation and voter restrictions. Henry never questioned it until his junior year of high school, when he met Bernard Lafayette, the leader of a student nonviolent coordinating committee. Henry says, “He started demonstrating and telling us the 14th and 15th Amendment, citizenship and right to vote. Everything that they done was to deny you an opportunity to vote to become a first-class citizen. I was more or less at a – at a stage of amazement about what is going on, eyes being opened up. Growing up in Jim Crowism, you didn't know a lot. You weren't told a lot about it. Nobody really want to talk about it.”

Henry soon became a foot soldier with the civil rights movement, standing up to Selma’s own sheriff Jim Clark and his rally of white supremacists. He said ‘My, being the law that you're never gonna vote, I'm gonna make sure you're not gonna vote.’ Ku Klux Klan was your city council they were your druggist they were your car dealer. They were your business people. This was a form of intimidation they would fire you. They would take your home and your property. They would even burn it down. It could even cost your life,” says Henry.

It was a risk that became a reality for henry. One afternoon, while walking to Brown Chapel Church for a protest, he encountered three state troopers on horseback. Instantly, they pursued him. “And-and with the grace of God, I was outrunning three horses down that sidewalk.” Henry escaped into a stranger's home. “I said, ‘Oh my god. I came so close to being killed today.’ I said, ‘This is no fun. This is real.’ And I had to make a decision whether I was gonna continue or quit. In my spirit of heart said, ‘No, you continue.’”

On march 7th, 1965, Six hundred peaceful protestors attempted a march from Selma to Montgomery. Under the directives of governor George Wallace, Alabama state troopers blocked their march on the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When the men and women refused to disband, Sheriff Clark gave the order to attack. Dozens were wounded and one was killed in what the world came to know as “Bloody Sunday." Henry remembers, “They wanted violence. Dr. King said, ‘No. We’re gonna stick to nonviolence.’ And now we are going to Montgomery and we're gonna tell the Governor Wallace how we feel about just what he done to the black people. We're killing segregation.”

Two weeks later, Martin Luther King led henry and 25,000 other protestors from the bridge in Selma to the capitol in Montgomery. The following august, president Lyndon B. Johnson signed the voting rights act into law. Henry says, “We had a-a slight pride because we had had a victory over Jim Clark. That was our biggest-biggest victory, that we defeated Jim Crow.”

In 1972, henry again defied segregation by becoming Selma’s first African American firefighter. “I wasn’t just a firefighter this was a planned thing by God. That I have to come back to Selma and be the first black firefighter.”

Henry later became the first African American Chief — this time, with a unanimous vote by the Selma City Council. “I said, ‘God, you're putting me in a position here that I'm really gonna need your help.’ It was a tremendous struggle. Because the man who I was replacing was a racist. And he had polarized the whole de-department with racism. And the Spirit of God said, ‘Well, you need to go in and talk to him.’ I said ‘Administrator,’ I said, ‘You have this whole organization full of racism, you got certain equipment that whites work off of. You've got certain equipment that blacks works off of. We want something better than this right here.’ He said, ‘I hadn't thought of it that way, and I’m gonna try my best to fix what's broken.’ And he did.
I wanted what was right for everybody. They saw me as a leader, not just a Fire Chief. They saw me as a leader.”

Now a retiree, henry continues to fight against division. As the PTO president of his Alma Mater, he serves the youth of Selma, reminding them how far we’ve come and how much further we need to go. He says, “I'm seeing a lot of reverse discrimination now I don't like. I'm seeing a lot of bitterness. I'm seeing that we've got a lot of people that are still toting this anger. And I-I'm troubled by this kind of spirit, because it's not good for America.”

As far as he sees it, there is only one bridge that can bring this country together. “This bridge right here represents freedom. But the most important bridge of all is the cross over from sin into perfect relationship with-with Jesus Christ as your personal Savior. When it comes to race relations, there ain't but one people. Jesus Christ died for sins of the whole entire world. There's no discrepancy, no individuality.  So, in order to-to love Jesus Christ, you got be love your brother and your sisters. We have to show love, for all mankind,” says Henry.

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