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Willie McCray

Civil rights organizer Willie Lawrence McCray was born on March 4, 1942, in Columbus, Georgia, to Willie Cedric McCray and Gussie Pearl Bussy McCray. Growing up near Fort Benning, McCray attended Jenson School and Carver Vocational High School. In 1960, he moved to Atlanta. Drawn into the Albany Movement by his cousin, McCray was arrested, and his life changed forever. Soon, he was hired as a staff member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Based at 360 Nelson Street in Atlanta and serving under the management expertise of Ruby Doris Smith, McCray’s role was to get money to bail organizers out of jail. He retrieved and fixed the cars of the civil rights organizers at SNCC’s motor pool at Interstate 20 and Spring Street. Each car was provided with a CB radio. McCray’s first job was driving a load of books from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Holly Springs, Mississippi. Witness to his share of traumatic events, McCray followed the movement through Freedom Summer in 1964 and 1965’s March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

McCray was with Willie Ricks and Stokeley Carmichael (Kwame Toure) when they called for “Black Power.” As SNCC moved towards Black Power, McCray ended up in jail for a year in 1966, and as the movement faded, McCray resettled in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He met fellow activist Hellen O’Neal at SNCC’s New York Office and they were soon married.

McCray was director of security for the Ohio Historical Society’s National African American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio. McCray has two grown sons and a grandson and a granddaughter.

McCray passed away on October 11, 2006 at the age of 64.

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George Washington Carver High School

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Bring It On.

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Pie (Sweet Potato)

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Security manager and civil rights activist Willie McCray (1942 - 2006 ) served as a staff member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) under Ruby Doris Smith, and was later part of the movement toward Black Power in SNCC. McCray was also director of security for the Ohio Historical Society’s National African American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio.


Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee

National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center

Antioch Publishing Company

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Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Willie McCray's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Willie McCray lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Willie McCray describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Willie McCray recalls race relations in Columbus, Georgia

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Willie McCray describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Willie McCray describes his parents' personalities

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Willie McCray describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Willie McCray describes his childhood community of sharecroppers in Columbus, Georgia

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Willie McCray describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Willie McCray recalls his childhood activities in Columbus, Georgia

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Willie McCray describes his grade school education

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Willie McCray talks about moving to Atlanta, Georgia after leaving school

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Willie McCray recalls how he joined the Civil Rights Movement

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Willie McCray remembers being recruited to SNCC

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Willie McCray describes the organization and leadership of SNCC

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Willie McCray describes the work of the SNCC in Mississippi

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Willie McCray describes the operations of SNCC

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Willie McCray recalls serving as an SNCC driver

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Willie McCray describes the dangers he faced as a driver for SNCC

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Willie McCray recalls his covert operations as a SNCC driver

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Willie McCray recalls being arrested in Alabama while working for SNCC

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Willie McCray recalls participating in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Willie McCray reflects upon the differences between SCLC and SNCC

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Willie McCray remembers the murders of civil rights activists

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Willie McCray remembers the leaders of the Selma to Montgomery march

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Willie McCray recalls the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Willie McCray recalls the impact of the 1964 Democratic National Convention

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Willie McCray recalls living in New York City during the mid-1960s

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Willie McCray remembers moving to Yellow Springs, Ohio

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Willie McCray recalls serving a year in a federal penitentiary

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Willie McCray talks about his desire to return to the South

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Willie McCray describes his work at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Willie McCray describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Willie McCray reflects upon his career in social activism

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Willie McCray describes the beginning of the Black Power movement

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Willie McCray describes the origin of the Black Panther symbol

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Willie McCray explains his opposition to the Black Panther Party

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Willie McCray describes his civil rights work in Yellow Springs, Ohio

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Willie McCray reflects upon his life

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Willie McCray reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Willie McCray reflects upon his family life

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Willie McCray describes how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Willie McCray narrates his photographs







Willie McCray talks about moving to Atlanta, Georgia after leaving school
Willie McCray recalls his covert operations as a SNCC driver
So when you were in school, what did you see in your future in terms of jobs? Did you think you'd be doing the same thing your father [Willie C. McCray] did, or did you see yourself doing something else?$$Well, the vocational thing was coming on to the market, and the woodwork shops and the metal shops, and all of these were supposed to be the key to the future. And a lot of black males was pulled into vocation education, not so then high school education, so they would get into these sweatshops and not go in to college. You know, it was a whole different teaching is what I'm trying to say. You know, you didn't get your biology or your geometry, none of that. You just got to basically learn how to read a line gauge, a ruler, and you know, five sixteenths, and you cut it at five sixteenths of an inch, you know. So that's the difference that I've seen. And then just like I say, the kids that came behind me, you know, was able to go on and make other choices, which was very few choices when I was a young man in my teen years. You know, it was just out of the norm, and, you know, that's just the way it was so you didn't think about it really, you know.$$So when you left school [Carver High School, Columbus, Georgia], you said you went to Atlanta [Georgia]?$$Yes.$$Okay, it's 1960?$$Yeah.$$All right. Now why did you move to Atlanta?$$My cousins, I had a couple of cousins that had moved few months prior. And they came back to Columbus [Georgia], and I told 'em I wanted to go back, and I hopped in the car and took off. Got a job a few days later, freight elevator operator, and I didn't think about it being long term, it was just a job at the time. And I don't think I was even thinking about six months from that date or a year or twenty years, that was just, you know, I guess that's the same way young peoples are today. You don't worry about making sure that you got enough points to get social security when you need it (laughter), you know. I mean if you don't work you don't get the points (laughter), so, and I found that out real fast. So, but I got there and I lived with my cousin for a couple of months. And I was able to get, you know, my own rooming house in those days you could get a room for ten or fifteen dollars a week and one meal a day, you know, usually the supper meal, so it was good. You know, in a new city that's on the move, and you're a part of it. And didn't realize how much part of it I would become, you know, a few months after that.$Now you had to be real cool in the position you were in I suppose because (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Right, because that that was one of my things, "Don't go to jail, McCray [HistoryMaker Willie McCray] (laughter)."$$Okay, so if you if--I mean if they knew that you were the one with the bail money, if they knew that you were the one, you know, driving people [for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)].$$Right.$$So how did you conceal what you're doing, I mean how did you--how were you able to move through so smoothly to get things done?$$Because I moved--most of my deliveries was made between two a.m. and six a.m. in the morning. When daylight came I was headed back to Atlanta [Georgia]. We would time it to get into Jackson [Mississippi] at three a.m. or four a.m. in the morning. This dude is supposed to be getting his coffee and his eggs at this point. We ain't got to worry about him out here on the road. You know, it's after three a.m., so most of the stuff we did would be did in those hours--predawn hours, you know. And that seemed to be the safest time to do it, most of the trouble we had would be from midnight to two a.m., it kind of seemed like it quieted down after three a.m. And we have white females in the car, we would cover 'em up with blankets make him stay on the floorboards with headlights coming, and stuff like that. And once we go through--say you was living at the third house on this lane, and we'd be driving if we didn't hit the dimmers three or four times to let you know who we was, he'll blow you right off the highway. These were blacks, you know, didn't know who you were and what you was up to, so you had a signal. And that's why we was able to survive, I mean, you know. We, you know, they came up with it this way we gonna do it, and we did it, it worked.$$So, so did you ever get stopped?$$Oh, several times. I got stopped one time, this wasn't in--it was in West Virginia. I can't recall now what I went to pick up, I was picking something up. And the load shifted, and that's one reason I wanted to see how--what you stack in my trunk anymore when I take off, because the weight went. And the judge asked me, could I share butter beans, I said, "Do you want em for supper?" (Laughter) And they put them in a bowl, let 'em go, so I thought, hey, I sat there, and I shared butter beans man.$$That's what you had in the truck?$$No, that's what he wanted. That's what he was doing.$$Okay.$$And he wanted to know, did I know how, I said, "Bring me the bowl," shit you ain't got to do nothing. "I can get 'em in the bowl," shit, I sat there and shared butter beans. I think I ended up, oh, I don't know, ten or fifteen dollars, it was a lot of money, but then it wasn't a lot of money when you look at it today. But it, you know, no more than that basically I'm working for somebody else, I don't know what's in there, you know, I'm just a driver.$$Okay, so that was your response if somebody asked you who you were and what you doing (simultaneous)?$$(Simultaneous) Yeah, right. And plus, I had a Georgia license I didn't have a New York license. See they thought all the trouble was coming from the northern blacks. They never gave us any credit at all, we was too dumb and ignorant to know what was going on, or to have any input at all. But they didn't know that we was right there doing it for 'em. There was no way none of those groups, Bob [Robert Parris Moses] or any of the rest of them, could've did anything if it hadn't been for the work that we was doing. Their project would have been through, but nobody talks about it.$$That's right, I mean that's a significant role, I figured it had something to do with it.$$Yeah.$$But you all knew you were (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Yeah, we had maps on the wall with pins in it, red pins meant safe, you know, white pins meant this, blue pins meant this, you know, you can get gas here. You can get a--you know, if your car breaks you can go over there and get this--if this happened, you know, and that's the way we moved. I knew how long it took me to get from Atlanta to Tuskegee [Alabama]. Tuskegee usually would be my first stop going that way, the next stop would be Meridian [Mississippi], the next stop would be Jackson, depends on which way we were going. If you were going the other way, go Montgomery [Alabama], Birmingham [Alabama], you know. So, and it was planned, you know, it was prepared before me, and that's the way it really worked. Just like I say, when you were supposed to be at a place, and you wasn't there, that's what upsetted folks. They knew it would take me three hours to drive from here to Birmingham. If I wasn't there within those three hours, they would turn around and send a car back looking for me on the highway.