POLICE, PROTESTOR STRIKE UP UNEXPECTED LIFELONG FRIENDSHIP
You wouldn’t think a man who was often in and out of jail would become friends with the man putting him there time and time again. But that’s exactly what happened for Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Charles Steele Jr. and former Tuscaloosa Police Chief Ken Swindle.
The unlikely pair reminisced together at the Martin Luther King Unity Breakfast earlier this month.
Steele’s arrests in the 1960s came as he was fighting for his rights as president of the local SCLC chapter.
“Even before (Swindle) became chief I could come by and talk to him about what my plans were,” Steele said. “I would always inform him on the marches and demonstrations, and that I would probably break a restraining order.”
It wasn’t every arrest, but Steele was often taken into custody by then-Officer Swindle. Those arrests led to long bouts of chatting during Steele’s trips to jail.
“I understood what he was having to do, and he understood my job,” Swindle said. “His foresight, what (Alabama Sen.) Steele has is just unreal, and he knows how to work with anybody.
Steele’s civil rights protests gave way to a long, storied career, including his election as the first black Tuscaloosa City Council member and his election as one of the first black men elected to the Alabama state senate.
One arrest in particular still stands out, Steele said, when he and about five others held a sit-in at a local motel.
After sitting on the floor for about 30 minutes, they knew the arrests were coming. And so was Swindle.
“He came in with that smile he always had,” Steele said. “He came over to me, looked at me and he said ‘Mr. Steele, I’m sorry but I’m going to have to take you down. We have to arrest you.’ ”
Steele said he asked if he could sit for a few more minutes. Swindle said no, Steele couldn’t, because Swindle had a job to do. But the ride downtown was one of equals, not an officer and the man he was arresting. They sat side by side in the front seat.
“He said ‘I believe in what you’re doing, Charles,’ but he sure had a smile when he put the cuffs on me,” Steele said.
It didn’t stop there. Steele said the bond he built with Swindle has lasted a lifetime. Swindle agreed.
“(State Sen.) Steele is a class act, and I enjoyed working with him and being around him,” Swindle said. “Those were times when we were moving forward in society. A lot of changes were being made, and he and I both understood those changes, and we respected each other.
In 2019, the SCLC honored Swindle with the Realizing the Dream Award.