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TUSCALOOSA, AL — Tuscaloosa civil rights pioneer and former City Council President Harrison Taylor was 17 years old on June 9, 1964 — a day that would become forever known in his hometown as "Bloody Tuesday."
Rev. T.Y. Rogers, who was hand-picked by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead First African Baptist Church, had preached mass the night before and the following morning would see upwards of 600 peaceful demonstrators gather at the church to march in protest of the new county courthouse and its segregated bathrooms and water fountains. Demonstrators were met with fire hoses, tear gas and physical violence from police and a club-wielding mob, resulting in 33 people being hospitalized and 94 arrested. Luckily, no one was killed in the chaos.
"They could have had alligators around that church and we were still going to march," Taylor said in an interview with Patch.
When Taylor and the demonstrators set out to leave the church, the movement's leaders were arrested first, before the crowd was pushed back inside and tear gas canisters shot through the church's ornate stained-glass windows. Fire hoses were also used on congregants as they sought shelter in the church and many were beaten, both inside the church's sanctuary and on the street.
"I was able to get away because I was running so fast," he said. "That tear gas was so strong. That was the first time I ever met it."
Progress would come swiftly following "Bloody Tuesday," which was only a year removed from segregationist Gov. George Wallace's infamous "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door" at Foster Auditorium on the University of Alabama campus. The historic church now serves as a reminder for future generations of how far race relations have come in Tuscaloosa.
The church is also a key stopping point on the Tuscaloosa Civil Rights Trail — an ongoing effort that began in 2016 to preserve the city's civil rights history.
Bill Buchanan, who serves as director of community development for Tuscaloosa Tourism & Sports and is also a board member for the Tuscaloosa Civil Rights History and Reconciliation Foundation, told Patch in an interview that the city played an impactful role with respect to the civil rights movement. He also said a primary challenge has been boosting the appeal of the Civil Rights Trail as a valuable offering for a local economy driven by tourism.
"There are 18 sites total and Tuscaloosa has a very rich civil rights history," he said. " But we have not done as good a job promoting it as Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham and that’s really what we’re looking to change."
Each site is accompanied by a green sidewalk marker depicting an open hand with a corresponding number for the site on the Civil Rights Trail.
Another easily missed piece of Tuscaloosa can be found a short walk from First African Baptist Church on the aptly-named T.Y. Rogers Jr. Avenue at the Howard-Linton Barbershop. While the weathered building, which housed numerous Black-owned businesses in years past, may look to have little curbside appeal, the role it played it Tuscaloosa history is difficult to understate.
Buchanan said Linton was known as a general of civil rights foot soldiers like Taylor and others, often bailing demonstrators out of jail or using his barbershop as a base of operations for the movement. He also used his shop to care for the injured in the aftermath of "Bloody Tuesday."
Linton died last May at the age of 88, leaving an indelible mark on his hometown and a legacy that proponents look to maintain by its inclusion on the Civil Rights Trail.
"At his barbershop, which is one of the most iconic civil rights sites on our tour, Linton started cutting hair in Tuscaloosa in 1951 and was very active in the civil rights movement," he said. "He worked both behind the scenes with white businesses trying to get them to hire black employees to give people jobs. His barbershop was used for people to gather to plot strategy and he was the guy who bailed people out of jail when they were arrested. He was just instrumental."
Taylor is a vocal proponent for the Civil Rights Trail and preserving so many of the crucial memories not just in his life, but for the entire region. He also said it's important Tuscaloosa embrace its history through education and tourism like other major civil rights flash points around Alabama.
"This is a big thing for Tuscaloosa, I don’t care what your zip code is," Taylor said. "Let’s get behind this and make it a success. It would help us as a city. Other cities are celebrating this and doing well. Let’s get Tuscaloosa to join them."
The young man who narrowly escaped being beaten at First African Baptist Church on "Bloody Tuesday" would go on to become one of the first Black letter carriers in Tuscaloosa and worked nearly three decades with the U.S. Postal Service. He then entered politics and won a seat on the Tuscaloosa City Council, serving six consecutive terms and eventually ascending to the role of council president.
Since that brutal and violent day in 1964, Taylor has marched with two presidents, met with numerous high-level government officials and policymakers, and helped change a civil rights landscape in Tuscaloosa that he and others are actively working to preserve.
"We have a story that hasn’t been told yet," he said. "I think about one season I was marching in the civil rights movement and a few seasons later I'm the president of the City Council. That’s not too bad is it?"
Buchanan also pointed out that due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Tuscaloosa Tourism & Sports will not be conducting in-person guided tours at the moment, but has a bus that can hold 24 people and will resume tours once public health officials roll back restrictions.
"The story of civil rights and how it relates to tourism, it's part of our history and we need to be honest about it," he said. "As bad as some of the acts were, it also tells the story of the heroes."