Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment in a series of interviews I’m conducting with people across the country. This is an effort to get to know the stories of the people whose status updates I see on Facebook. It is the discovery of how people came to form their political beliefs, what worries they might have and what gives them hope. These are #PeopleoftheResistance. If you have a story to share, shoot me a note
Atlanta, Georgia – Jennie Miller Helderman came from a broken home. “My mother went to Auburn and my father went to Alabama,” she explained. “In the football culture of the South that amounts to a broken home.”
Jokes aside, Jennie grew up in Gadsden, Alabama, the daughter of a lawyer father and school-teacher mom. Jennie’s first foray into politics came at age 3 when she was tasked with handing out campaign cards for her father in his bid for state legislator. “This was back before TV came to Alabama. You would go to school lunchrooms, shake hands with people, hand out campaign literature.”
Family lore maintains that it was Rep. Edward B. Miller who introduced a resolution in 1947 to get Auburn and Alabama playing again. The teams had stopped playing in the 20s and 30s because the rivalry was too bitter.
Her father’s success in the legislator led to her own. Jennie, age 10, became the first girl to serve as a page at the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery. “That gave me the opportunity to be around a lot of colorful people,” Jennie said. “The job required me to do a lot of running between the House and the Senate.”
Politicians like “Kissing Jim Folsom” and George Wallace didn’t pay much attention to the young girl with the lightening quick feet and shy smile, but Jennie was aware even then that she was part of history in the making. The 6’8” Folsom and his good friend Wallace would fall out over the issue of segregation.
Folsom, beloved by common people, was elected to two terms as governor. The former Merchant Marine took an approach of inclusivity. Folsom was fond of pointing out that it wasn’t enough to preach brotherhood, one had to practice it, too. He believed that as long as black people were held down, poor white people would be, too. While Wallace took the position of “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
When the two former friends went up against one another in a race for the governor’s seat, the power structures of Alabama sided with Wallace and worked to destroy Folsom. Wallace and the racists won out over the common people and the blacks. Thus, Jennie grew up in a segregated world, far removed from people of color, save for an adult here or there.
“At the capitol, there was a bronze star that marked the spot where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office,” Jennie said. “I had this ritual where I would go by and tap my foot on that star.” A very real touchstone to the Civil War.
After this ritual, Jennie would go sit for a bit with an elderly black man who sold pencils at the Capitol. He told her he was born into slavery. They sat side-by-side, this elderly black man and young white girl, pondering the past. Staring down Dexter Avenue at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Martin Luther King Jr. would pastor and draft the plans for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, they were both unaware of the upheaval on the horizon.
Perhaps it is best people can’t see into the future, can’t envision the heartache and turmoil that awaits them. Maybe it’s best to just be aware that significant history is taking place every day somewhere.
Other than her encounter with the pencil man and the family’s maid, Jennie had little reason to consider the world in terms of race. For the most part, her world was lily white. While the town was about a third black – or “colored” – Jennie never went to school with a black student. The only blacks she knew were hired help. “Coloreds” cleaned houses, did yard work, or tended the white people’s babies. Her childhood chums were white like her. The school football team, the cheerleading team, her Sunday School class, the neighbors, all white. “I remember my father in particular talking about being fair to people. He was patriarchal towards blacks but they liked him and he enjoyed the support of the black vote.” Poll taxes kept a lot of poor whites and blacks from voting but those that did supported Ed Miller.
Smart as a whip, pretty as a tulip, and more articulate than most, Jennie would have loved to have gone into politics herself. But, like a lot of girls of her era, she learned early not to want what she could not have. “Being in politics is not something women did then. I didn’t question it. I just accepted it. I always did what I wanted to do but I knew not to want certain things.”
Jennie might have gone to law school, might have become an attorney, might have joined her father’s law firm in Gadsden, if it hadn’t been for the tragedy that struck when she was just 17.
Jennie was doing some post-Christmas shopping with her mom. Her dad was at work in his Gadsden law office. Her nine-year-old sister was playing with a couple of girlfriends at a neighbor’s home. Or at least that’s where she had been when Jennie and her mom left the house.
Miller got the phone call at his office. There had been an accident. His youngest daughter was hurt. He needed to hurry. Miller rushed home to find his daughter in the playhouse out back. She’d taken his revolver from its hiding place, and now, here she was bleeding to death. Scooping up his baby girl into his arms, he rushed for the car, but in his panic, he stumbled. Rep. Miller fell over dead himself from a heart attack, still clutching his little girl, who would die shortly afterwards. In a world absent cell phones and text messages, Jennie and her mom were unreachable. “Mother and I didn’t know about it until we came home. There were cars and people everywhere. It was horrible.”
There’s no way to recover from such a loss – your dad and sister dying on the same day – a person can only hope to survive it. With God’s grace and the love of a caring community, Jennie and her mom managed. It completely altered the course of Jennie’s life. “It was a big shock to me. It left mother and me to be paired from then on.” It was not a natural pairing. Jennie had been closer to her dad in many ways, their love of the law and politics providing a common bond.
The deaths of her father and sister was headline news all over the state of Alabama. Primarily because of her dad’s role in politics, but also owing to the unusual circumstances of the deaths. Well-intentioned people who were deeply-concerned for the family told Jennie over and over again that she had to be strong for her mother’s sake.
It was a message Jennie internalized. Instead of preparing and looking forward to going off to college at Agnes Scott in Decatur, Georgia, Jennie fretted over her mother. How would she manage? As great as Jennie’s loss was, she realized her mother’s loss was even more pronounced.
But Kathleen Miller managed to do what women the world over have been doing since the beginning of time – she rose up. She took over part of her husband’s business ventures. She stepped in as Secretary of the Democratic Executive Committee. Her husband had the Chairmanship position after taking it over from his own father. Despite her grief, Kathleen stayed active in her community. “Mother was a fighter always. She’d been the first in her family to graduate from college. She was something of a scrappy kid, always fighting for her own place. She suffered terribly, but she rose up.”
Agnes Scott didn’t turn out to be a good fit for the Gadsden girl, so Jennie transferred to the University of Alabama, to her father’s alma mater. She dated and eventually married a handsome Alabama journalism student, Frank Helderman. Following their 1960 graduation, the couple returned to Gadsden where Frank worked for the newspaper his family owned and Jennie taught English in a county school.
Because of the upheaval in her own life, and because of white privilege, the race issues bubbling up were not an immediate concern for her. “I was aware of the news. I’d been in the legislature when Klan masks in public were outlawed. I saw the Klan in robes at parades and at roadblocks, collecting money.”
Even though the Alabama coed couldn’t have been any closer to the race issues, she was still far removed from them. “Once in college a car drove by our house with a cross on it.” Jennie and her companions recognized it as belonging to the KKK but they shrugged it off with laughter. “They were not a threat to us, so we really didn’t think much of it.”
While a student at Alabama, Frank had a more serious run-in with the Klan when he helped a fellow journalism student obtain photos of Klan activity one night. The two ended up being chased by Klan members but they were never caught. The next day, the Grand Dragon of the Klan paid Frank’s father a visit, warned him that if Frank didn’t back off, somebody was going to get hurt. Frank didn’t drive his car for a week after that.
It was her job in that county school that first opened Jennie’s eyes to inequities far too common. Then came Mother’s Day, May 14, 1961, when a bus carrying black and white Freedom Riders, arrived in nearby Anniston bus station. A mob of fifty men armed with pipes, chains and bats, attacked the bus, smashing windows, slashing tires.
Police arrived and pretended to escort the damaged bus out of town, but instead abandoned it at the Anniston city limits where riders were attacked again. This time with a firebomb thrown into a broken window. Whites then tried to barricade the door, hoping to trap the riders and have them die on the bus. But a fuel tank explosion frightened away the mob, allowing the rider to escape the burning bus, only to be beaten by the awaiting mob.
That was the incident that woke Jennie. “I was just distraught. This was only 28 miles from where we lived. I kept thinking, ‘This is not us. This is not what we do.’ It really started me to thinking. That was not acceptable to me.’”
Jennie paid closer attention as the black-and-white world around her erupted. Marchers and riders, black and white, were being beaten, attacked, killed even. Frank was reporting on these events almost daily. Jennie, who had always considered Gadsden as a more progressive and open community, was becoming increasingly troubled. “The Civil Rights movement was happening in our backyard.”
When a janitor was beaten by local police, Frank ensured it wouldn’t happen again by following the man in his car, making sure he was okay. Tensions grew between the paper and the town’s power elite. The management at the newspaper made it clear: We are not backing away.
A decade later, Jennie remained dedicated to helping heal racial conflicts. She volunteered with a community advocacy -organization. That led to work with other advocacy groups, all of which by that time deemed it necessary to have at least one black and one woman on its boards. Jennie was often the token woman. “I got to know a lot of black people in the community through that work. And by then I was well-aware of white privilege and a little defiant toward the power structures in place.”
Jennie helped write policy for women’s and children’s issues in Alabama. She worked tirelessly on behalf of the impoverished and illiterate in Alabama. She supported women who ran for political positions. She even became an author, sharing the story of one abused woman, but in reality sharing the story of millions of women. Her book, As the Sycamore Grows, earned the praises of Alabama’s favorite son and fellow author, Rick Bragg.
The lessons she learned from all of that have served her well since Donald Trump got elected. Jennie says she is no longer wringing her hands the way she did all those years ago when those Freedom Riders were attacked in Anniston. When Trump took to Twitter to trash Nordstrom’s for dropping his daughter Ivanka’s fashion line for poor performance, Jennie responded not by shopping at Nordstrom’s but buying stock in Nordstrom’s.
During the Civil Rights era, Jennie didn’t march. But when the Women’s March took to the streets across this nation the day after Trump’s swearing in, Jennie was out front and center. And even though she is surrounded by Trump supporters in the Atlanta community where she now lives, Jennie refuses to accept Trump or his behavior as normal. Trump’s behavior has emboldened the wrong sort of behavior in people.
“When Mitch McConnell sat Elizabeth Warren down in the Senate, doing that honey child thing, you don’t get to speak to us like that. We are not going back to a 1950s way of treating women socially and intellectually,” Jennie said. “That is rude behavior. That’s a boasting and bullying way of behaving. I find that offensive and troubling.”
Most of the people in the Atlanta community where Jennie now lives are white, wealthy and educated. Jennie finds it difficult to understand their blind loyalty to a man like Trump. But she has also found a cadre of like-minded people not unlike the Freedom Riders of yore.
They started with just a handful of women, mostly neighbors, all distraught over Trump. The next week it doubled in size, with other senior citizens joining in. Every week since, it’s continued to grow, up to 100 from the original 10 people. “We are all committed to building bridges while continuing to stand firm for what is right,” Jennie noted. “We are a random group of blacks, Muslims, gays and some very active and articulate women. We get together and we are calling, and sending out post cards, and getting organized. And there are pockets of people like this all over the nation.”
There is no use, Jennie warns, of trying to reason with Trump’s devotees. “They have a total disregard for truth and fact. They aren’t bad people. Many of them are very kind and decent people, but they are willing to set aside hard facts and their own value system in support of this man. It defies reasoning. I don’t know how to deal with someone who is telling me God sent Trump. I avoid those people.”
When confronted by people in her community who are Trump supporters, Jennie simply says, “We are never going to agree on this, so let’s find something we can agree on.”
Jennie believes that Trump will take this nation right up to the brink of an abyss before Republicans will step in and stop him. “Change has to come from them,” she said. “He is so dangerous. He will do something that will cause people to say we have to claw our way back to law and civility.”
When healthcare goes and jobs don’t come. When those people who voted for him are hurting. Then we will reach across our political divides and embrace each other. But Jennie concedes, there’s an inherent danger in such a hope.
Recalling a time when she was campaigning for a spot on the Alabama Democratic Executive Committee, like her mother and father before her, Jennie sat on a Union Hall stage and listened as a woman running against her announced that Jesus Christ was with her that day.
“How do I run against Jesus Christ?” Jennie wondered.
It’s that very mindset – that Donald Trump has been anointed by Jesus Christ himself – that could cause Republicans to implode this entire Republic.
Their concern won’t be what’s good of the country, but rather solely for the sake of being “Right”.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of BURDY and the forthcoming CHRISTIAN BEND (Mercer University Press).