During the 1960s civil rights movement, Molly Milner said she was supposed to be just a housewife who came from a family of strict Baptists.
It was a simple time, because she and her husband Ned, a Lutheran pastor were living in Ohio.
But when Ned is sent to be a pastor in Mobile, Alabama, the couple was thrust into the center of bigotry and racism.
In her new book, “Alligators and Me: My Life in Alabama in 1968,” Milner recounts she and her husband’s plight as crusaders who fell victim to the intimidation and threats of the Ku Klux Klan, but how African-American leaders rescued them.
“So, when all was clear, we’d sneak into our house quickly and retrieve what we needed for a few days,” Milner writes in the 272-page book, published by Shoe Button Press. “I was continually watching out for potential danger lurking in otherwise everyday actions, and anytime I was with my husband, my senses to possible violence became heightened,” she said.
Milner said Mobile was filled with “alligators” — people who might “snap her up and drag her down into the murky depths if she steps out of line.”
The young couple fell into a perilous swamp that tested their resilience and their marriage, she said.
“As a couple of northern White kids, we had been raised outside of Cleveland, so an assignment to the deep south was a startling turn of events for us,” Milner said. “Before long, civil rights activities began demanding more and more of Ned’s energies at the expense of his church duties. I was pretty much house bound at the beginning, so the demonstration of bigotry was fairly subtle for me, that is until I started work as a case worker for the welfare department.
“In that job and with continued involvement in the social life of the church, the outward effects of racism began to dominate my life,” she said. “In my job I confronted situations such as medical workers unwilling to serve my Black clients and I soon realized the welfare institution itself was designed to keep poor folks — mostly Blacks — in a strangle hold of poverty and disgrace.”
Profound historical events of 1968 like the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., anti-war marches and civil rights protests all melded together to form a dramatic and deeply emotional backdrop to Milner’s life.
Her husband chose to be arrested in a march protesting lack of jobs for Black residents in Prichard, a small community on the edge of Mobile.
The arrest was a bit unusual because all other Whites in the line of march stepped out of the street when arrests were being made.
“Ned was arrested as the only White face with about 100 Black people and was so disappointed with his White colleagues that he stated to a journalist as he was being shoved into the paddy wagon, ‘I am sick of being White,'” Milner said.
Community response was powerful, she said. Anger and hatred provoked phone threats to Milner on the night of the arrest while her husband remained jailed.
“The Klan told me they were going to burn him alive, and a direct call to me from the Mobile police department told me should anything happen where I thought I would need help, I was not to call them as they didn’t think I deserved it,” she said.
Friends and church members took the couple in until, with the help of African-American leaders, they found what they considered a relatively safe home.
Still fearful of attacks from the Ku Klux Klan, they moved into an all-Black neighborhood.
“I was naively ignorant of the implications for my life of my husband’s actions,” Milner said. “Although we had moved into the center of a caring and protective group of Black neighbors, and Ned was taken in as an honorable member of the Black clergy, I learned through the supervisor of the welfare department that I also had become a target for the hateful elements of our city.
“I had always wanted to teach and the school system I believed had refused to offer me a job because of Ned’s civil rights involvement,” she said. “A Black neighbor spelled out a plan for me to challenge the school district with a civil rights lawsuit. In response, I was hired to teach in an all-Black school in rural Bayou la Batre in the southern end of the county. It was here that I realized the alligators in my life were not only a metaphor, but also a reality as I organized small alligator walks and hunts with my students.”