Talk to anyone over the age of 60 in Camden, Alabama, and they can tell you a story about Lummie Jenkins, the sheriff of Wilcox County from 1939 to 1971. According to newspapers across the Deep South, Percy Columbus Jenkins—also known as Sheriff Lummie, Mr. Lummie, or most often as Lummie—was “a superb raconteur,” a “master psychologist,” a “modern-day hero,” “tall, deep, and broad in the measure of his ideals, conviction, and human sympathies.” It was common lore that, unlike other sheriffs in the region, Lummie didn’t need to carry a gun, and he didn’t go prowling for suspects. Instead, he kicked back in his chair at his chinaberry-wood desk, packed his pipe with Prince Albert tobacco, and summoned the guilty parties to the Wilcox County Courthouse in downtown Camden simply by word of mouth. Out of fear or respect, the legend goes, suspects came in of their own accord.
The length of Lummie’s tenure as Wilcox County’s chief law enforcer—eight consecutive terms—broke records in Alabama. And because much of it took place before the dawn of Miranda rights, which were codified in 1966, there are countless uproarious stories about the sheriff’s knack for coercing a confession from anyone. Newspapers said he employed witchcraft, mind-reading, and dreaded doses of “Truth Medicine,” a glass bottle of Listerine he kept in his office that sported the disclaimer “Will paralyze you if you lie.” Lummie had powers, they said, that exceeded those of the ordinary lawman.
In this region of the Black Belt—so named for its rich, dark soil—the legacy of slavery hangs heavy in the air. Immediately before the Civil War, few Southern counties had more slaves than Wilcox. Sheriff Lummie’s domain comprised the city of Camden, four small towns, and a tangle of hilly two-lane highways and red-dirt roads that wove through the overgrowth of fallen cotton empires and pine woods. In 1960, there were some 18,000 residents in the county, 78 percent of them African American; today the population is about 11,600 and 73 percent African American. Both then and now, Wilcox has hovered near the top of the list of poorest counties in the nation.
In 2008, Lummie’s granddaughter Delynn Jenkins Halloran celebrated her grandfather’s gilded reputation by self-publishing a compendium of lightly edited newspaper articles and collected praise, titled Lummie Jenkins: The Unarmed Sheriff of Wilcox County. The authors of her crowdsourced book are largely, if not entirely, white family members, white journalists, white congressmen, white governors, white sheriffs of nearby Alabama counties, and their white wives. Sources on Lummie’s legacy also include, from autobiographical cassette tapes he recorded in his final years, the man himself.
On the cover of the 168-page paperback is a color photograph of the sheriff: jaunty grimace, white cowboy hat to match the white vest he wore over his brick-red shirt, and one of a few cherished pistol-themed tie clips glistening at the center of his chest. Taken for the Birmingham News in 1968, the photo shows Lummie leaning against a sheriff’s cruiser before the antebellum columns of the Wilcox County Courthouse in Camden, squinting through the fat lenses of his glasses.
I recently visited the site of his photograph. The courthouse looks exactly the same as it had in the Birmingham News photo; even the Jim Crow drinking fountain still protrudes, unmarked, from a patch of grass on the street corner. I’d been to the area a couple months before, in late August, to talk to the quilt-makers of Gee’s Bend, who live right across the river from Camden in the small African American community of Boykin. While I was there, I’d heard many mentions of the late sheriff, and of his granddaughter’s book.
I was hard-pressed to find a cup of coffee in Camden—Hardee’s was out—but I did come across copies of The Unarmed Sheriff twice. It was on a shelf at the Wilcox County Library, upstairs from Lummie’s former office in the courthouse, where a researcher helped me locate news clippings about the sheriff. (“Mr. Lummie!” she remembered warmly, and told me he had once given her family a puppy.) The book was also available for $16.95 at Black Belt Treasures, a shop packed with gifts and crafts that was about 500 feet from the courthouse door.
Otherwise, copies of The Unarmed Sheriff are hard to come by. There’s currently one used copy available on Amazon, where the book has two reviews. One gives it five stars: Awesome book. Very very good read. The other is a one-star review: Wait a minute wasn’t this the “infamous” Sheriff who beat the Black woman McDuffie to death with a rubber hose? … So thankful my father got me and my Mom out of Alabama as soon as I was born.
Gee’s Bend is an unincorporated town, located deep in one of the Alabama River’s oxbow arcs. The geography of the area makes the town 38 miles from Camden by car via the nearest bridge over the Alabama River, or about six miles on the ferry, which reopened in 2006 after over 40 years out of commission. Today, the town is officially known as Boykin; the county replaced its historic name, from plantation owner Joseph Gee, in 1949, with the name of a segregationist senator. After Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, residents filed a request to rename it again, to King, Alabama. Fifty years later, it’s still Boykin.
The ferry has been out of commission for most of this year, but on an afternoon this past October, it is up and running. I drive aboard and ride it over the wide, flat reservoir to Gee’s Bend’s Welcome Center, which serves a free hot lunch to seniors on weekdays. There, a few women—all quilt makers—are picking over the carrot and raisin salad, or skipping directly to the Moon Pies.
When I ask Lola Pettway, 77, if she remembers Lummie Jenkins, she recoils and shudders. She shares a memory of Sheriff Lummie standing at the edge of a field, watching her family pick cotton. Nancy Pettway, 83, tells me about how, just before she was married, her fiancé shot a dog that had attacked him. Mr. Lummie, she said, came to the Bend, arrested her fiancé, and threw him in jail for killing the dog.
I leave the Welcome Center and drive a few miles to a farm down John Gragg Road. A silver Cadillac is parked askew near some hay bales in a field of cows. Barking dogs eagerly surround my car. I’m there to see John Gragg, 88, the son of a well-known preacher and landowner in the Bend, who comes to the door with his walking stick and invites me into the living room of his one-story 1930s farmhouse.
“Lummie Jenkins?” Gragg says. He sits back in his recliner, his walking stick resting on his knee. “He was the boss man.” He chuckles to himself. The music from an old black-and-white Western flares up from his television set.
I ask him if it’s true that Lummie didn’t carry a gun. “Didn’t carry a gun?” Gragg sounds amused. “He carried a gun and a nightstick.
“He had his snitches,” Gragg continues, “and they would tell him what he want to know.” As I continued to ask around the area, people told me about how Lummie would ride through and break up folks’ whiskey stills when Wilcox was a dry county. Or how, if he was in a mood and caught you on the wrong side of the river after Camden’s eight o’clock curfew, he’d make you swim home, even in the winter.
They remember in 1962, as the push for black voter registration began 40 miles away in Selma, how the county shut down the Gee’s Bend ferry, turning what had been a short passage across the Alabama River into an all-but-unmanageable journey. “We didn’t close the ferry because they were black,” Lummie supposedly said. “We closed it because they forgot they were black.”
Gee’s Bend residents also remember Dr. King’s visits in 1965, the rallies in Camden, and the march on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. They remember marching to Camden as children and teenagers, being blockaded by Lummie and Mayor F. R. Albritton at the town’s edge, being pummeled with tear gas and smoke bombs, getting arrested, reaching the courthouse, kneeling in the street, and refusing to leave. They remember the songs they sang. Some remember what happened to David Colston, what happened to Della McDuffie. Some would rather not remember that time at all.
Lummie Jenkins may have been a nonpareil in Wilcox County, but he was not an anomaly in the Jim Crow South, where sheriffs were considered more powerful than the American president. This fanatical rule by local law enforcement has a parallel today: the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), which was established in 2011, is a nationwide organization of right-wing local law enforcement officers who, according to the CSPOA’s website, share an interpretation of the US Constitution that gives the county sheriff “the Constitutional authority to check and balance all levels of government within the jurisdiction of the County.”
For decades, constitutional sheriffs across the country have been banding together and refusing to enforce federal legislation they didn’t agree with. In 1994, a group of sheriffs filed a suit against the US government over a law that would have police run background checks on people who bought handguns. They won; it was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled, for the feds to make local police enforce the policy. In 2013, sheriffs united, again, against Obama-era gun-control regulations. When Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, was pardoned by President Trump in 2017 for racially profiling Latinos in order to turn them over to immigration authorities, he became a celebrity among his fellow sheriffs in the CSPOA.
Before CSPOA, there were peace officer organizations—groups of law enforcement officials, organized state by state, who shared similar conservative and constitutional ideals. Lummie Jenkins was a loyal member of the Alabama Peace Officers Association, as well as vice president and president of the organization between 1959 and 1963. The Alabama Peace Officers Journal noted in 1975, “Lummie is not only respected and loved by his people in Wilcox County; he is the only officer I have ever seen walk into a meeting of law enforcement officers and get a standing ovation.”
Then and now, there is just one way for a constitutional sheriff to maintain the power apparently bestowed upon him by the Constitution: to keep getting elected to the office.
The first time a black man tried to register to vote in Wilcox County was in 1958, or so the legend goes. The man, a minister in his 80s, said he had waited his whole life to act on this right. Allegedly, when he arrived at the courthouse to register, he was shot to death. The first group of men from Gee’s Bend who attempted to register at the courthouse in Camden in 1963 were all aware of this story.
Even if they could overcome the fear of death and register to vote, black residents of Wilcox confronted the near-certainty that their job and their homes were at risk if they did so. And registration itself was not easy. As of April 1965, the voter registration office in Camden was open for business twice a month. If you had a way to get there and you did manage to register, you would still need a white voter to vouch for your character in order for your registration to be validated. Naturally, no white voters were willing to vouch for black voters. As of January 1965, registration of eligible African American voters in Wilcox was 0 percent, while white registration was at 113 percent. (Maintaining the status quo was so important to Wilcox’s white voters, even some of the deceased were allowed to stay on the rolls.)
In February 1965, during a civil rights march in Camden, Dr. King approached Sheriff Lummie in a crowd outside the courthouse with a request: would Lummie himself vouch for voters of color? Onlookers remember the sheriff was courteous, but caught off-guard. He explained plainly to Dr. King that, well now, being “in politics” as he was, he couldn’t vouch for any individual voters; it just wasn’t the way that particular law worked. True or not, Dr. King must have known there was nothing more he could push for that day—not with Lummie, at least.
The following month, the sheriff of Dallas County, Alabama, Jim Clark, made international headlines for the violence he and his officers brought down on marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, on what became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Local news coverage celebrated Dr. King’s march and vilified Clark; the exposure was so instrumental to the cause that when Clark checked in to the local hospital with chest pain after seeing the papers, civil rights demonstrators gathered outside, picketing even while praying for his speedy recovery.
The press wouldn’t be a problem for Wilcox’s sheriff, at least not locally. Hollis Curl, publisher of the Wilcox Progressive Era, was an old friend and hunting buddy who would later eulogize Lummie warmly in the Selma Journal. Unlike the Chicago Defender and the Washington Post, Curl’s paper didn’t run a word about the marches, smoke bombs, and tear gas in Camden in 1965. In his ability to command the local press, Lummie was not at all like Clark, but instead resembled a different, infamous anti-civil rights law officer of his time: Laurie Pritchett, police chief of Albany, Georgia.
If Jim Clark had galvanized the civil rights movement, Pritchett, who was called the smartest of Dr. King’s adversaries, was at the opposite end of the scale. His tactics included mass arrests, the control of white racists, a mastery of public relations, and a cordial relationship with King himself—tactics Pritchett learned in part from his own studies of civil disobedience and the strategies of Mahatma Gandhi. To combat Dr. King without any unwanted press attention, he preempted activities of the voting rights movement of November 1961 by calling on every Georgia sheriff in a 70-mile radius to help him jail demonstrators. Over three years, they would quietly jail nearly 2,400 protestors.
Pritchett’s success was of great interest to Alabama authorities. Birmingham public safety commissioner Bull Connor offered Pritchett “an outrageous sum” to take a short break from his police chief duties and come on as an adviser in the Alabama capital that spring. As the civil rights movement grew, white men in positions of authority knew they, too, had to organize if they wanted to stay in power.
Like Pritchett, Lummie didn’t stand with a gun in the doorway of segregated local grocery stores or restaurants when African Americans fought Jim Crow and asked to be served. He kept the racial divide in check by imposing fear. When visiting civil rights leaders asked for Lummie’s protection while they ate at a local restaurant, he let them know, amicably, that this was not one of his duties, and that they’d best give him their addresses. When asked why, he responded, anticipating the restaurant owner’s response to their presence, “I’d just like to know where to send your remains.”
“He was the lawless lawman,” says Sheryl Threadgill Matthews, who, at 15 years old, became one of the first two black students to integrate Wilcox County High School in 1967. There was no police protection for students like her in Wilcox County, and no punishment for the classmates who physically abused her daily. She wasn’t getting much of an education, she says, so her enrollment there lasted only a year before she returned to Camden Academy, the black Presbyterian secondary school where her father, Reverend Thomas Threadgill, was a chaplain. “Lummie didn’t play by the book,” she tells me. “He did whatever he wanted.”
In early 1965, with Dr. King’s encouragement, students at Camden Academy began to organize. They attempted marches to the courthouse almost daily. But civil rights leaders knew the students were no match for local authorities, so they sent for help. Camden Academy became temporary housing for student leaders who came from elsewhere to help with voter registration efforts in the summer of 1965. One student Matthews remembers was Maria Gitin, a skinny, white 19-year-old on summer break from university in San Francisco. She had seen the attacks of Bloody Sunday on national television and left home to enlist in a ten-week voter registration program in Wilcox County.
“Lummie Jenkins: not my favorite subject!” Gitin emails me in response to my interview request. She memorialized the sheriff in her 2014 memoir of the civil rights movement, This Bright Light of Ours, as a “notoriously cruel,” “bandy-legged,” “homely” man who endorsed and enforced segregation, and lent his full support to the local Ku Klux Klan, “all while shaking hands and patting black children’s heads.”
Gitin spent a traumatizing night at the Camden jail, listening to a fellow organizer being brutally beaten in a neighboring cell. (“He was always arresting us,” she says about Lummie, as we talk over the phone from her home in California. “Every few days.”) Upon her release, she had to pass through the sheriff’s office, where she was heckled by Lummie and his deputies, who were laughing and passing around a jar of moonshine. “He was far from unarmed,” she says. “He pretty much always had a big shotgun with him. Like a deer-hunting rifle.” It had been pointed at her the previous day, when he had come to round up her group from a local church and bring them to jail for “conspiracy to boycott.”
White students in Gitin’s program were paired with African American locals. Her canvassing partner was then-16-year-old Robert Powell. Now living in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Powell still has family in Wilcox County. He laughs out loud when I ask him on the phone about the “unarmed sheriff.”
“He was just a ruthless, mean, mean man,” Powell assures me. “His name was in a lot of songs we used to demonstrate with: ‘Ol’ Lummie you can’t jail us all—segregation is bound to fall.’ I’ll never forget some of those songs. He couldn’t stand it. There wasn’t much he could do at the time with 150 or 200 people demonstrating, besides jail us all. And the jail wasn’t big enough to hold all of us.”
By the end of the summer of 1965, when Gitin headed back to San Francisco, the number of black voters registered in Wilcox County had gone from a couple dozen to 500, and with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act that August, the vouching rule was overturned. Federal election supervisors would arrive in time to see that black voters got to cast ballots in the elections that fall.
“We had a café on the side of the road, right down there,” John Gragg tells me in October, while we sit in his house in Gee’s Bend. He points over his shoulder, toward where Route 5 joins the top of the bend to the west. In his slow, low voice, he tells me, “They went in there, beat her up, and killed her.”
On a Saturday in 1953, just a few minutes after midnight, Sheriff Lummie and his officers entered an African American–owned café in the nearby town of Alberta, to enforce a law that no music be played on Sundays. The place was bustling, and when Lummie and his deputies stormed in, most people fled or took cover. But not the owner’s wife, Della McDuffie; she was paralyzed and used a wheelchair. Multiple witnesses reported that Lummie ordered her to get up and go to bed, and when she couldn’t, he beat her with a rubber hose. Despite her husband, William McDuffie’s, frantic care and the arrival of a doctor, she was dead within an hour. William would later recall seeing a trickle of blood running out of his wife’s ear and down her face.
The family fought back. Future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, then a lawyer and head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, wrote to the Justice Department and asked them to open an investigation. But the evidence against Lummie and the Wilcox County police was scarce: Della McDuffie’s death certificate attributed her death to “a preexisting blood condition,” and her husband mysteriously drowned a year into the investigation. The Justice Department wrote to Marshall to tell him they would not be taking any action on the matter. The surviving McDuffies suffered house fires and death threats before leaving Alabama behind.
There were many deaths in Wilcox around that time—specifically, suspicious deaths of African Americans, in which Lummie never ruled any foul play. In 1966, David Colston was en route to a funeral and then a rally, to discuss the election of local African Americans to office, when his car was rammed by another driven by a white farmer, James Reaves. When Colston got out of his vehicle, Reaves shot him once, in the head. After the murder, Reaves turned himself in to Sheriff Lummie. There is confusion over what happened next: some reports say that, after turning himself and the murder weapon in, Reaves fled; others say Lummie sent him home. Reaves was never punished for the crime, which went on record as being the result of heated tempers during a traffic accident.
After Colston’s murder, Wilcox’s white residents were emboldened, leaving guns on their car seats and dashboards for all to see. Black residents in Wilcox and elsewhere knew Reaves’s violence was not just against Colston; it was against all of them. Colston’s funeral portrait was hung in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headquarters in Selma—“a literal picture,” Jet magazine reported at the time, “of Alabama Negros’ drive to secure the vote.”
Less than two weeks after Colston’s death, an African American grocery store owner named Walter Calhoun put on a suit, drove down to the Wilcox County courthouse, and filed to run for sheriff.
Calhoun was evicted from his store two days after announcing his intentions. With ongoing encouragement from Dr. King, who made multiple visits to the Bend, blacks continued to register to vote. Meanwhile, Lummie undertook a campaigning tactic he had never before tried in his life: interracial hand-shaking. “I’ve always tried to protect people of both races and the people know it,” he told a New York Times reporter in 1966. “I believe I’m going to get votes from both sides.”
Perhaps he did. White federal election supervisors were appointed to watch over the polls, but there was no voting assistance for the illiterate, and even if you could read your ballot, that didn’t change the fact that ballot counters were white, and polling places were white businesses. There was no guarantee that all black citizens’ votes would be counted, or that they would feel safe voting for the candidate they wanted, or that they would not be punished for voting at all.
In the 1966 election for sheriff, of the 6,198 votes cast in the race, Lummie beat Calhoun by a margin of 722. Lummie bragged that his “Negro votes” were cast because he had “never mistreated them.”
But four years later, the unthinkable finally happened: in the 1970 election, the 69-year-old Lummie lost to his opponent—former Mayor F. R. Albritton—by just 93 votes. John Gragg’s vote was among them.
“The other man catered to the nigger vote,” Lummie lamented to Bob Adelman, a photographer who covered the civil rights movement. “He made speeches to them. He went to their churches. I’ve never done that.” The Alabama Peace Officers Association would print that Lummie Jenkins had “retired.” Allegedly, he went out with a vow to “fill the jails with niggers” before he left office.
Lummie didn’t retire from the law completely—Albritton went on to make him a sheriff’s deputy—but his absolute power had been taken away. The shift was a small but significant one that showed Wilcox County was finally ready for a change. The county proved its readiness two terms later, in the election of November 1978, when an even more remarkable thing happened: Albritton was beat out by Prince Arnold, a 27-year-old black schoolteacher from the tiny unincorporated town of Pine Apple.
Arnold would go on to serve eight terms, just as Lummie had, tying for longest-serving sheriff in the state. A month after Arnold was elected, but before he took office, Lummie Jenkins died of a heart attack at the age of 77.
At that time, Sheryl Threadgill Matthews was a social welfare officer at the Alabama Department of Human Resources. “My coworker, a white lady, came up to me at the water fountain,” she remembers. “She said to me, ‘Mr. Lummie said he would die and go to hell before he see a black man become sheriff. And, well, I guess he sure did.’”
In the summer of 1965—the same summer that white residents shot at and tried to run down Maria Gitin, Robert Powell, and the other voting rights activists as they campaigned around Wilcox County—19-year-old Jefferson Beauregard Sessions was living in Camden, a recent graduate of Wilcox County High School. In 2006, as the United States Senator from Alabama, Jeff Sessions voted along with the rest of Congress to unanimously extend the 1965 Voting Rights Act, although he complained that it was outdated and unfair to the history of his state. “I am worried because [the extension] does little to acknowledge the tremendous progress made over the last 40 years in Alabama and other covered jurisdictions,” he said at the time. “Today is not 1965, and the situation with respect to voting rights in Alabama and other covered jurisdictions is dramatically different from 1965. I would have expected Congress to recognize this tremendous progress.”
In 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, Sessions championed the decision, which restricted federal oversight of voting rules in nine states, handing authority back to local government. Within two years, Alabama instated a requirement for state-issued identification at the polls, then proceeded to close the offices where this identification is issued in every county where 75 percent or more of the registered voters were black—28 counties in total, Wilcox included. For disenfranchised black voters, this was far from “tremendous progress.” But according to Sessions, the near-end to the “intrusive” voting rights legislation was “good news for the South.”
“We put our lives on the line to try to create some type of change, as a people, as a race of people,” says Robert Powell, who canvassed with Maria Gitin in 1965. “But Camden is still a segregated place to this day.” There is currently not a single white student enrolled at Wilcox Central High School. “Even with all the struggles and sacrifices we made,” Powell says, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Many of Wilcox County’s elected officials are African American—including Earnest Evans, the sheriff, who has held the position since 2010. In a photograph on Evans’ 2018 campaign website, the sheriff stands before the columns of the 1976 Wilcox County Courthouse Annex, which is similar to the Greek-columned main courthouse that Lummie posed in front of, but newer. Evans’ sheriff’s badge shines on his suit jacket. His gaze points toward the horizon. Underneath the photograph is a reminder: “In the election on June 5, 2018 you will need a Photo I.D. to vote.”