Denny Abbott, a longtime advocate for children, the poor and crime victims in South Florida, grew up in Alabama, where he received an early education in man’s inhumanity to man.
In his new memoir, They Had No Voice: My Fight for Alabama’s Forgotten Children ( theyhadnovoice.com), Abbott, 74, describes just how intricate and degrading racial segregation was in Montgomery.
Black people not only had to sit in the back of the bus; they could not sit in the same row as whites, even across the aisle. If all the “white” seats were taken and a white person boarded a bus, the first row of blacks had to stand and let that person sit.
Blacks had to pay the driver in front, then get off and go to the rear door to board, so they wouldn’t walk past white people.
“Sometimes they’d pay the driver, but the bus would pull away before they could get on,” Abbott writes. “Other times they barely made it.”
The segregation surrounding him became a crucible of conscience for Abbott, who committed himself to helping people at risk.
In Florida, he ran and greatly improved juvenile detention centers for the Department of Children’s Services. He co-founded the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center with John Walsh, and served as its national director.
“He's always been a champion for children," said Walsh, the America’s Most Wanted host whose son Adam was abducted at a Hollywood mall in 1981 and murdered. "I think he knew our pain, our frustration, our hurt and my anger. I have great respect for Denny and the fact that he guided us."
Abbott, who lives in West Palm Beach, also worked as coordinator of victims services for Palm Beach County. But it is his early years in Alabama that dominate his memoir.
In 1961, as a 21-year-old with a degree in sociology, he found a job as a probation officer with Montgomery County. That included eventual contact with juvenile offenders detained at the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children at Mt. Meigs.
Abbott, and his co-author Douglas Kalajian, begin his story in dramatic fashion: “When I was a young man in the 1960s it was my job to deliver black children to a slave camp on the outskirts of Montgomery, Alabama.”
“I’m talking about a place where children as young as twelve were held by brute force and put to hard labor in the fields,” Abbott writes. “They were worked until they dropped and when they dropped they were beaten with sticks. Often they were beaten for no reason at all and sometimes they were forced to have sex with the men who beat them.”
The boys and girls detained there received no schooling or counseling, no medical treatment unless they were seriously ill. They were poorly fed, and the facilities were overcrowded and filthy.
They were used as forced labor on farms belonging to members of the facility’s board of trustees, all of whom were white. They were regularly beaten with mop handles and fan belts.
“Welcome to the South of the 1960s,” Abbott writes. “In many ways it was no different from the South of the 1860s.”
Montgomery had become a major venue in the civil rights movement, and Abbott recalls seeing Martin Luther King Jr. many times on the streets of the city.
In 1963, he was made chief county probation officer. He used his position to get a bond issue passed and to replace a substandard county detention center in Montgomery. He also won funding to greatly expand his staff. But that did not affect the facility at Mt. Meigs.
One day in 1969, five teenage black girls showed up at the probation offices asking to see “the boss.” They were all former detainees at Mt. Meigs.
“The girls took turns describing a nightmarish routine of hard labor, beatings and sexual abuse,” Abbott writes.
He had received other accounts of mistreatment at the facility, but had found no support from local or state officials to improve conditions there. That day he decided to act.
Together with a local lawyer, Abbott chose a path he knew would make him a reviled figure in local circles: He decided to use the federal courts to change Mt. Meigs, the same federal courts that were imposing desegregation on the South.
“Going to federal court or any federal agency would be viewed as treason by many people I knew,” Abbott writes.
A suit was filed alleging that the constitutional rights of children at Mt. Meigs were being violated. Retribution was quick. Abbot’s boss suspended him from his job for filing the suit without permission.
“Neighbors walked back into their homes whenever I stepped into the yard,” he writes. “Shopkeepers I’d patronized for years turned their backs when I walked into their stores.”
The U.S. Justice Department confirmed the facts alleged by Abbott. The state was forced to investigate, and the governor, Albert Brewer, admitted that the children had been victims of “some cruel punishments.”
To avoid federal intervention, the state of Alabama transformed Mt. Meigs within months, ending forced labor, introducing schooling with qualified teachers and setting guidelines for corporal punishment.
“There would be no more beating with hoe handles and fan belts,” Abbott writes.
Abbott went on to file a successful federal suit challenging segregation in Alabama orphanages that earned him anonymous telephone threats and cost him his job.
He has continued his advocacy in retirement. His latest cause is trying to get the Florida Legislature to force summer camps to obtain licenses and perform background checks on employees. That effort was prompted by a series of articles in The Palm Beach Post about camp counselors with criminal histories including sexual offenses.
“Children have no power of their own; they don’t vote and they don’t make campaign contributions,” Abbott says. “We all have individual and collective responsibilities for the nurturing and protection of children.”