It took decades of protests and petitioning the government, but after being continuously ignored, African American activists took over a federal wildlife refuge.
While sites are drawn up in the debate over who is right or wrong in the Bundy militia stand off in Oregon today, it is worth noting that this group of activists did the same thing, decades ago, in a protest against what they considered an unjust land grab by the U.S. government.
The armed protesters today occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns was not the first of its kind, but it has had a very different response from law enforcement when compared to the very similar standoff 39 years ago in Harris Neck, Georgia.
The Harris Neck protesters were mostly displaced descendants of West African slaves. The FBI described them as “squatters” – even though they stated from the outset that their intentions were very much political in nature.
The group was called the People Organized for Equal Rights. They set up camp much like the Occupy Wall Street movement later would.
The encampment was on a patch of land stolen by the federal government south of Savannah, back on April 30, 1979.
The group of prominent civil rights leaders, and other activists brought concrete blocks and bags of mortar to build new homes, but they were unarmed.
The Oregonian summarizes that “following the Civil War, a white plantation owner deeded the land on the Georgia coast to a former slave. In the decades that followed, the descendants of slaves moved to Harris Neck to build houses, factories and boats. They fished, hunted for oysters and grazed cattle.”
In time, “Harris Neck evolved into a thriving community. Its members were recognized as a culturally unique group of African Americans called Gullah.”
Finally, in 1942, the U.S. military told Harris Neck residents that they had only three weeks to vacate the land. They cited eminent domain laws, and ordered residents to leave their property so they “could construct an airbase for training pilots and conducting anti-submarine flights.”
African American residents were given an insulting $26.90 per acre. Caucasian residents were given $37.31 fort the same amount of land.
“Residents were paid only for the unimproved value of their land, receiving nothing more for houses, barns, or crops in the field, all of which were bulldozed or burned,” The New American reported in 2010.
After World War II, the government held onto the land – never giving it back. They eventually turned it into the 2,762-acre Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge.
Federal law enforcement eventually got a court order to remove the Harris Neck protesters. They ignored their historical claims to the land, and after only a day of protests, they threatened to violently remove everyone if they did not leave of their own accord.
Edgar Timmons, Jr., Hercules Anderson, Christopher McIntosh and the Rev. Ted Clark stayed and faced the threat head on.
According to the Oregonian, on May 2, 1979, U.S. deputy marshals “forcibly removed” the men. “‘Their bodies taut and motionless,’ the men were dragged out of their tent, handcuffed and hoisted into a waiting van.”
The men were all sentenced to jail, and two years later, in 1981, “a fire destroyed county records with details on the original home sites.”
What do you think accounts for the difference between how both groups were treated when they took over federal wildlife sanctuaries? Is it racism? Or was the fact that the 1979 activists were unarmed the deciding factor law enforcement standing down?
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