Ferry Finally Arrives At Gee's Bend

Forty-four years after service was halted, the Gee's Bend ferry is again connecting the mostly black residents of the Alabama town to the county seat. Randall Pinkston reports on the ferry's return.

In Alabama, the historic heart of the segregated South, change often comes slowly. But as CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston reports, today, it arrived.

More than four decades after the Gee's Bend ferry stopped running, a new vessel is once again crossing the Alabama River, connecting the mostly black residents of Gee's Bend to Camden, the seat of Wilcox County.

For 78-year-old Willie Quill Pettway, it's long overdue.

"Yeah, I want it to come back. That's what you call winning," Pettway says. "It didn't last. Treating me wrong don't last."

The "wrong" that Pettway is talking about was shutting down the ferry in 1962, stranding most of the poor voters who didn't own cars back then. to drive the 40 miles around a peninsula that is locked in by the river's muddy waters. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used the water's divide as a civil rights rallying point.

To this day, there is some dispute over why the ferry service was discontinued back in 1962. One reason given at the time was that the old ferry was needed to transport workers in another location on the river. But there's another view.

Hollis Curl, now the editor and publisher of the Wilcox Progressive Era, says he thinks it was largely due to the civil rights activity in the community. And he should know: Curl wanted the Gee's Bend ferry shut down in order to keep black civil rights workers from Camden.

When asked if the ferry reduced the civil rights demonstrations in Camden, Curl says they did. "But not nearly as much as some people, including myself, might have hoped," he adds.

Curl says time changed his beliefs, and that more than a decade ago, he began using his newspaper to lobby state and federal officials to buy a new ferry.

What does this ferry mean to this community?

"It will demonstrate a coming together of people in the country, further healing whatever racial divisions remain in the county," Curl says.

Some Gee's Bend residents doubt the ferry will heal old racial wounds. But on this day, any lingering differences gave way to celebration. For years, the residents of Gee's Bend had heard the ferry was coming. Today, they saw it arrive.