“It’s complicated,” upon reading or hearing that phrase you generally expect what follows will be somewhat problematic and enigmatic. To me, this comes to mind as I reflect on the life of Noble Beasley.
Noble Beasley, or “Bip” as he was known and called by many, passed away Sunday, Oct. 26. His death may have escaped the notice of many, but to African-Americans and whites who lived in Mobile during the Civil Rights Era, it was the departure of a local icon.
The narrative has been oft repeated of how Mobile was spared much of the violent and fiery incidents and clashes that have become so a part of the history of the American Civil Rights movement in the Deep South. Say the names of cities like Selma or Birmingham in connection with the movement, and instantly very negative and painful mental images come to mind. However, Mobile didn’t leave the same mental scars on the nation’s collective psyche.
But it did share in one trend that befell the movement: the fracture or break that occurred between the younger and older generations involved in the fight for black equality in America. Tired of what they saw as the slow pace of change resulting from the emphasis on nonviolence and interracial cooperation, many young blacks threw off deference to elder Civil Rights leaders and their methods, charting a path of their own.
In Mobile, Beasley became the embodiment of that generational shift.
The Neighborhood Organized Workers, or NOW as it was more commonly known, was formed in 1966, Beasley became president in 1968. NOW was the antithesis of what longtime Mobile Civil Rights leader John LeFlore and his group the Non-Partisan Voters’ League stood for. LeFlore and the NPVL pushed coalition building with white moderates like City Commissioner Joseph Langan, and was a strong believer in the power of successful litigation. But Beasley and other leaders in the organization like David Jacobs, Dr. James Finley Sr., Ocie Wheat, Melvin Davis and current City Councilman Fred Richardson felt blacks in Mobile had little to show for their patience with the local white power structure and partnership with white moderates.
The group’s acronym matched its belief and the tenor of their message: change for blacks in Mobile should happen now, not later. Beasley and NOW’s message resonated with many Mobile blacks and the group soon garnered a huge following. Theirs was a message and militancy that could not be ignored.
And it’s exactly the power and effectiveness of his message and militancy, according to many, that led to what has made Beasley such a controversial and problematic figure in Mobile’s history. Beasley spent more than half of his adult life in prison. Law enforcement officials at the time stated his incarceration was well deserved and for crimes and actions he committed, most notably, a conspiracy to sell drugs.
Those who knew him and worked alongside him say his imprisonment was the way the white power structure in old Mobile got rid of someone in their midst who refused to be quiet, and refused to quit being a thorn in their side so long as they were insistent on maintaining the political and racial status quo in Mobile.
Prominent local attorney Karlos Finley, the son of Dr. James Finley Sr., stated that a central aspect of what created so much doubt and conjecture about Beasley’s guilt in his conspiracy to sell drugs charge was that he was never found in possession of any drugs, nor did he ever have any large sum of money on him that could not be explained or justified outside of what he garnered from his legitimate business dealings. Even more egregious to Karlos and others was the fact the prosecution’s case rested largely on the testimony of a very shady and dubious convicted felon.
Shelia Flanagan, assistant director of the History Museum of Mobile and a local historian, opined that the white leadership in Mobile had been very paternalistic and was used to dealing with blacks like LeFlore who were not very vocal and didn’t upset the system much. Beasley and NOW were a new breed who frightened them as well as the conservative black establishment, because NOW could not and would not be assuaged with empty promises or rhetoric about what was possible in the future.
Retired University of South Alabama history professor Michael Thomason related to me that, “Mobile was used to dealing with moderate civil rights leaders such as John LeFlore or O.B. Purifoy in the NPVL or NAACP leaders including Dr. Gaillard. Beasley was very different. He did not try to convince whites to do the ‘right thing’, he organized direct action, street demonstrations and election boycotts to change race relations in Mobile. For many Mobilians he was a threat to their illusions about local race relations. He and NOW stood for change not tomorrow but today.”
Karlos Finley said he remembers as a boy the imposing figure Beasley cut. Karlos described how Beasley would be at protests or marches – a large man, often in overalls carrying a bullhorn – as a man who was charismatic and passionate and one that radiated purposefulness and confidence.
USA history professor Frye Gaillard noted in his book “Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement that Changed America,” “… Noble Beasley, a massive man of more than 300 pounds, had a reputation for violence that struck fear in the hearts of the Mobile establishment, but he could be an affable person in private – solicitous, even, toward whites who were sympathetic to the cause … On many occasions he borrowed directly from Stokely Carmichael, a man he admired, promising to use ‘any means necessary’ to bring about change, and to ‘turn Mobile upside down until black folks finally got some justice.’”
Love him or hate him, view him as a crusader or a criminal, one thing that can’t be disputed is that Noble “Bip” Beasley left an indelible mark on the historical landscape of Mobile. Flanagan stated she believes that although Beasley and NOW, and LeFlore and the NPVL were on opposite ends of the Civil Rights spectrum, they complimented each other and the gains in Mobile could not have been made without the efforts of both organizations.
Thomason rather succinctly added, “like John Brown, his body molders in the grave, but his soul goes marching on … for better or for worse. Perhaps Mobile should have listened to what he said in the 1960s and ‘70s and realized that many of its African-American citizens were fed up with the status quo in job opportunities and race relations in general, and they still are.”