Nightmare In Alabama: The Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder Story
Updated: Sep 6, 2022
By: Donald V. Watkins ©Copyrighted and Originally Published (via Facebook) on April 13, 2014; Republished on February 12, 2018 and August 24, 2020.
Author's Foreword: When this article was first published in 2014, I had no idea that a large part of white America in 2021 would welcome a resurgence of the voter suppression laws and techniques that Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder fought so hard to get rid of four decades ago. In light of ongoing efforts by Republicans nationwide to (a) block new voting rights legislation in Congress and (b) install a kleptocratic form of "white minority rule" in states where they control the governor's office and legislature, I want to remind all Americans of interracial goodwill exactly how this voter kind of suppression works in practice. For African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, we have been down this road many times before and it was never a pleasant experience.
Nearly thirty-four years ago, a federal judge in Montgomery, Alabama bravely ended the five-year nightmare of two black victims of Alabama’s often unprincipled and racially biased criminal justice system. On April 13, 1984, U.S. District Court Judge Truman Hobbs used the power of the federal bench to throw out the voter fraud convictions of Pickens County civil rights activists Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder.
Both women were long-time and well-respected advocates for civil rights and social justice in West Alabama. They were also my friends.
Falsely Accused of Voter Fraud
In 1979, Pickens County prosecutors accused Maggie and Julia of casting absentee ballots for 39 elderly residents without the voters’ permission. They were formally charged with multiple counts of voter fraud.
Maggie and Julia denied any wrongdoing and said the Pickens County political establishment targeted them. Both women said they were encouraging voter participation from blacks who had difficulty voting. They thought the ballots in question had been properly authorized and handled by election officials in the 1978 Democratic primary runoff election in Pickens County.
An all-white jury subsequently convicted both black women of voter fraud. Maggie was sentenced to four years imprisonment, while Julia received the maximum five-year prison sentence. These were the stiffest sentences the State of Alabama had ever handed down in voter fraud cases. Similar offenses for white voter fraud offenders in Alabama during this era were treated as misdemeanors and resulted in small fines.
The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the convictions. Maggie and Julia’s trial and convictions quickly drew national attention.
Maggie was 50 and Julia was 69 when their legal nightmare began.
Maggie and Julia spent 11 days in prison and 10 months in a work-release center before being paroled. Judge Hobbs threw out the convictions of both women, saying their constitutional rights had been violated "because they were tried for offenses for which they were never charged.”
A Stellar Record of Community Service
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 and 80s.
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.
Visiting Maggie and Julia In Prison
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.
Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder are American heroes. 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.
Photo: Julia Wider (left) and Maggie Bozeman (right) circa 1983.