A Courageous Man: James Gildersleeve: 1918-2004
There is more to the James Edward Gildersleeve story than Selma, the 1960’s and the Civil Rights Movement.
Gildersleeve, who died on June 17 at the age of 86. lived the life of an American hero before he became President of the Dallas County Voter’s League (DCVL) and a member of the Courageous Eight.
A father of two and the grandfather of four, Gildersleeve served his country as an MP in Japan during World War II. In addition, he served 41 years as a teacher and principal in both public and private schools.
However, it is the resolve that Gildersleeve showed in the early ’60’s that will keep his name in the history books.
“I grew up during the Civil Rights Movement,” his daughter, Linda Gildersleeve Blackwell said. “I know the things they risked. They risked their lives and the lives of their families to achieve the freedoms that all the other Americans enjoyed.”
Born in Marengo County in 1918, the son of Edward and Alice Gildersleeve, he was the seventh of 11 children.
His father was a blacksmith, making good money for a black man in those days, according to Blackwell. She said her grandfather could afford many things that most blacks and many whites couldn’t, including a radio and nice car.
The family believes that success may have led to his death. Edward Gildersleeve was shot and killed by a white man in a filling station dispute in Pine Hill.
Blackwell said the owner of the station claimed Gildersleeve drove off with the gas nozzle still attached to the car, leading the owner to shoot him.
The family thought the white establishment simply couldn’t accept the success from a black man.
“Nobody really knows the truth,” she said.
The murder of his father, along with James’ service in WWII, shaped him into a man that was able to withstand the intense pressure of fighting the system of oppression and segregation in the South.
“One of the things I really remember was my dad and his commitment to the struggle,” said Blackwell, who was about 11-years-old at the time. “It was all at the risk of life and limb and injury.
I was afraid for my daddy. (But) He would never listen to us, we were frightened for his life.”
Blackwell told of frightening late night calls, police harassment, constant threats and watching her father get arrested on the evening news, but one other event stood out.
“We were down at the Circle Inn, that was the only time I have personally seen the KKK,” she said.
She said the cars rolling down the road with their inside lights on so people could see them dressed in their whites robes. “To see it made an impression on my mind,” she said.
Gildersleeve would not be swayed.
As a member of the Courageous Eight, he helped destroy the system of segregation.
“I have always been proud of my dad,” Blackwell said. “My sister and I understood.”
With Gildersleeve’s death, only three members of the Courageous Eight are still alive,
Amelia Boynton, the Rev. F.D. Reese and Earnest Doyle.
The others members of the Eight were Marie Foster, Ulysses Blackmon, the Rev. J.D. Hunter and the Rev. Henry Shannon.
The Courageous Eight began as the three-member Trustee Board of the Dallas Count Voter’s League.
The board expanded to eight members and later became called the Courageous Eight for their work.
The group banded together to fight segregation in Selma.
They defied the white powers that sought to keep blacks oppressed. They fought for the right to earn a fair wage, equality in education, the right to elect leaders, and other basic freedoms.
“He was truly a great warrior and a friend to me,” Reese said. “He was a very determined civil rights fighter.
He was very dedicated to trying to improve the lives of blacks and all Americans, really. He had great courage.”
In 2000, President Bill Clinton honored the members of the Courageous Eight at the 35th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
Gildersleeve was recognized by the DCVL and the National Voting Rights Museum as President emeritus of the DCVL.
His daughter, speaking from the museum, said the effort to preserve the legacy of the movement is crucial.
“I have been impressed to see the numbers of tourists that are coming through the facility,”
“That’s one way we can continue the legacy that the people like the Courageous Eight started.”