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March 21, 1982
Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

March 21, 1982

On March 21, 1982, the Atlanta Daily World reported that the Southern Rural Women’s Network held a summit in support of Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder. Bozeman (fifty-one-years-old) and Wilder (sixty-nine-years-old) were imprisoned in early 1982 after an all-white jury in Pickens County, Alabama, found them guilt of voter fraud. In 1979, prosecutors accused Bozeman and Wilder of improperly casting thirty-nine absentee ballots. Bozemen and Wilder denied the charges and said they had were working to encourage voting participation among elderly black residents of Pickens County, most of whom were illiterate. The jury found the women guilty and sentenced Bozeman to four years and Wilder to five years in prison, the stiffest sentences for voter fraud in the state’s history. The women spent eleven days in prison and ten months in a work release center before being paroled. Their case drew national attention and Wilder credited the national NAACP, Ben Chavis, Lani Guiner, Joseph Lowry, and Ben Boyd with helping to get their conviction overturned.

Attorney Donald Watkins, who worked with Bozeman and Wilder on civil rights issues in Pickens County, remembered the women in an article, “Nightmare in Alabama: The Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder Story”:

I had known Maggie and Julia since 1973 when I became a civil rights lawyer in Alabama. During the 1970s, I handled the NAACP’s school desegregation cases in Pickens County. These women were part of my local support group. When I was there working, Maggie escorted me to meetings in and around the County. She would feed me meals and provide me housing in her home. All of this occurred at a time when it was unsafe for black civil rights lawyers to eat in local restaurants or stay in motels that catered to white patrons in Pickens County.

Maggie, who was a junior high school math teacher, was the bravest woman I have ever met. She did not know fear of or submission to white segregationists. She stood tall and walked tall.

Julia was a community center worker and president of the Pickens County Voters League. Her spirit, energy, and passion for civil rights work were unrivaled.

I always worried that something terrible was going to happen to Maggie and Julia because they were so fearless when it came to pursuing voter participation and equal justice initiatives for blacks in Alabama. They were not afraid to fight for a better Alabama. Maggie wanted her daughter Punta to have a greater chance in life than she could ever experience. She was willing to die for her Punta’s emancipation from the second-class citizenship reserved for blacks in Alabama during the 1970s.

While working in Pickens County on a high profile employment discrimination case a couple of years before Maggie’s arrest, I was taken by the white County school superintendent to the old courthouse and shown the “picture in the window.” It was an image of a black man looking outside at the mob that would later lynch him. A lighting strike captured the expression of horror on his face and permanently embedded it in this courthouse window like a photograph. The superintendent’s message to me was clear – leave town before we lynch you.

When I told Maggie about the incident, she explained who the innocent man in the window was, and immediately rallied more people to protect me during my stay. She became my protector and warrior-queen from that day forward.

After Maggie and Julia were tried and convicted, I went to visit them at Alabama’s infamous Tutwiler Prison for women. I had been to the prison before to visit female inmates who had been convicted of violent crimes and drug offenses. This was my first time visiting political prisoners at Tutwiler.

It was gut wrenching to walk down the hall to a small visitor’s room for lawyer-client visits. I sat down and waited for the guards to bring Maggie and Julia to the room. I was sad, angry, and depressed. When the door opened and they walked in, we all embraced one another. It was an outward expression of my love and concern for them and an attempt to make them feel safe, even if for only a moment. I did not want to let them go. They were in prison uniforms and clearly worn out by the whole ordeal. Their lives had been turned upside down. They were now living a nightmare.

Maggie and Julia cried throughout my visit, and I tried my best to console them. Prosecutors had successfully framed them. They were in pain and hurting. For that moment in time, I was helpless. Two proud, brave, decent, and law-abiding women had been reduced to inmate numbers on the back of prison uniforms by the mighty state of Alabama. Their only crime was their deep and abiding belief in participatory democracy in America. They had the audacity to practice this belief in Pickens County. The state of Alabama was now making them pay a heavy price for legally helping black citizens exercise their constitutional right to vote.

When my visitor’s time was up, I was sick and empty. I knew I had to leave them in their pain and misery. I vowed that I would work with their legal team to get them out, and that I would not stop until they were free. I made each one of them look me in the eyes as I told them I was coming back to get them out. I hugged and kissed Maggie and Julia as I said goodbye. The walk back to my car was the longest walk of my life, as I was filled with anger.

Judge Hobbs finally enabled me to release my anger when he ended their nightmare. Relief replaced my anger, and gratitude overwhelmed me as I embraced them in freedom.

Maggie died in 2004. Julia died a few years earlier.

Today, I salute their life’s work—Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder will forever be American heroes to me. They sacrificed everything so that all of us could live, work, and vote in a better Alabama. They endured the pain and suffering of an Alabama nightmare before God delivered them to the warm sunshine of freedom on earth and eternal peace in heaven.