There will be one noticeable absence when Robert Battles is sworn in as the District 4 representative on the Mobile County school board later this month. Battles had hoped his mentor, local Civil Rights stalwart Noble Beasley, would be in attendance when he takes the oath.
“I’ve known him all my life,” Battles said. “He was like my father in the Civil Rights movement. He’s part of the reason I got into politics.”
Beasley died from an apparent heart attack Sunday, Oct. 26. He was laid to rest last Saturday.
After graduating high school in 1964, Battles was one of 17 black students to enter the University of South Alabama in 1967. At that time, Beasley became an important figure in the local Civil Rights movement, taking over as president of the Neighborhood Organized Workers.
NOW started as a neighborhood organization tasked with fighting for city services in newly annexed communities, but grew into a larger Civil Rights organization, History Museum of Mobile curator Scotty Kirkland said.
“NOW grew out of frustration of the old guard in Mobile,” Kirkland said. “It was a group of people who were fed up with the way things were.”
A shift in the organization to a “climate of confrontation” began with the city’s response to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It denied the group a parade permit to memorialize his death, Kirkland said. The event also coincided with Beasley becoming president.
“Seven thousand folks paraded anyway,” Kirkland said.
The group held demonstrations, marched, picketed and used selective buying campaigns for the cause of freedom and Beasley was the “courageous” leading figure, Mobile City Councilman and former NOW President Fred Richardson recalled.
“He saw his purpose greater than anything before him and that purpose was freedom. There was no risk so great that he stopped the movement for freedom,” Richardson said.
Kirkland said NOW doesn’t get the credit it deserves having highlighted inequalities within city government.
“NOW was seen as Mobile’s version of the Black Panthers, but they’re not,” Kirkland said.
The group was affiliated with Rev. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Richardson said, and practiced nonviolent tactics “to keep the movement going.”
The group, under Beasley’s leadership, is known for staging a boycott of the 1969 municipal election, Kirkland said. Back then, the top vote getters on an at-large basis made up the Mobile City Commission.
Kirkland said the boycott, which came two days after Hurricane Camille made landfall on the Mississippi coast, was effective.
“It starts something different,” Kirkland said. “It gives us a more conservative City Commission, but NOW breaks the cycle (within the black community) of voting for the least objectionable white candidate.”
Bolden vs. City of Mobile, in 1975, would make the City Commission form of government illegal, Kirkland said.
Another successful demonstration for NOW took place during the 1969 Junior Miss pageant. The group used the national significance of the pageant to protest for the inclusion of blacks in managerial positions at the municipal auditorium, where the event was held, Kirkland said.
The protest resulted in mass arrests over three nights, Kirkland said. Those arrested included the mother and the sister of Mobile attorney Karlos Finley, who was only 4 years old at the time. His sister, Dora, was 14. Finley is the son of Dr. James Finley, former NOW vice president.
“You kind of remember your mother and sister coming home from jail,” he said.
Finley said the group had a significant impact on the Civil Rights movement in the city, during a time when there were no black bank tellers, no black store clerks and no blacks in management at the municipal auditorium, despite the auditorium regularly booking black acts and drawing black audiences.
In addition to the demonstration at the pageant, NOW also organized boycotts of concerts at the auditorium, Richardson said.
“We boycotted everything at the civic center,” he said. “We boycotted everybody.”
The actions apparently worked. By 1970, the auditorium had hired a black assistant manager.
The group made significant strides by working to shift the power in the city, Finley said. The movement wasn’t about race, as much as it was about power.
“This was not black against white … It was about those with power against those without it,” he said.
That power struggle would lead to long legal battles for both Beasley and James Finley. Beasley was initially convicted on a federal drug conspiracy charge in 1973, before the sentence was suspended due to allegations of jury tampering, according to Richardson in the 2014 second edition of his book “The Genesis and Exodus of Now.” Beasley was put on five years probation.
But he would face another legal battle in 1990 when he was arrested on more drug conspiracy charges. This time he would be convicted and sentenced to life in prison, despite a lack of physical evidence and the recanting of testimony from several witnesses, Richardson wrote.
“I’ve been to all his trials,” Richardson said. “They never put a shred of physical evidence on the table.”
Richardson said authorities never found Beasley with any drugs, even after they had targeted him by going through his trash and wiretapping his home phone. Court documents from the trial indicate the surveillance was unsuccessful in connecting Beasley with drug activity.
Richardson and other Beasley supporters insist that the government went after the former NOW leader as a way to stop the momentum of the organization.
Beasley was granted a sentencing break in 2012, following a reduction in the penalties for crack cocaine convictions by Congress in 2010.
Richardson said he spent time with Beasley once he was released from prison. He said Beasley didn’t have any bitterness and was pleased to see the progress the city had made in electing a black mayor, school board president and council vice president.
“He paid a great price, but when he came home and witnessed the fruits of his labor, it pleased him more than you can imagine,” Richardson said. “He saw proof that it wasn’t in vain.”
While the city has made strides in the area of race relations, Finley said more could be done. He said the legacies of Beasley and his father live on in many ways, however, including recent race relations discussions. In particular, Finley mentioned a forum recently held at the Alabama School for Math and Science, which he attended with Beasley.
He said it was great to sit with the Civil Rights leader and witness a conversation on race between racially diverse individuals.
Richardson said the movement continues in events like that. The city is hosting another forum, featuring Richardson, Mayor Sandy Stimpson and Dr. Joel Lewis on the campus of the University of South Alabama Tuesday, Nov. 11 at 7 p.m.