They hadn’t seen one another since 1967, in the midst of racial divisions across the state and country. Now, they were in the same room.
After years of thinking that the other one had died, Tom Millican, 69, and Doris Hutchinson, 64, were together again Sunday afternoon in Auburn, where they discussed their involvement with the Auburn Freedom League.
Hutchinson, along with her brother, Cary Torbert Jr., and others, first started the league in 1965 with the sole purpose of making a difference in town.
“We were teenagers, but we wanted to make a difference,” Hutchinson said. “We grew up seeing how our grandparents had been treated; they weren’t treated with any respect.”
Hutchinson, who was only 15 years old when the league started, said she had thought Millican had been dead for years until one of his family members, who still lived in the area, found her and told her about him.
“Everyone was always talking about Tom, what happened to him and where he was,” Hutchinson said.
As one of the sole white Auburn students that was a part of the group, Millican served as the vice president of the group, Hutchinson said, and was often like a man walking by himself a lot of times.
“A lot of white folks didn’t like Tom because he was for equal rights and stuff,” Hutchinson said. “They didn’t want change and they kind of ostracized him.”
Millican, who was 19 at the time and a student at Auburn University studying to become a teacher, had previously served with the Young Democrats group on campus before it was disbanded. It wouldn’t be long before he joined the league and became vice president, where he stood a part from many people in the community who he described as segregationists.
“I didn’t believe in any of that, and basically I believed that segregation was wrong,” Millican said.
Looking back on his time with the group, Millican recalled how he and others were arrested after a demonstration in Opelika. When he was taken to the local segregated jail, the deputy told the inmates how he was involved in civil rights and they proceeded to beat him.
“I was one of the first that bailed out of the jail,” Millican said. “Someone carried me over to Tuskegee to the doctor.”
Millican recalled how he would get beat in his dormitory hall as well and how he was disliked by many people in his classes. Despite the animosity toward him, Millican looks back on those years as some of the best in his life.
“It was the greatest honor that I ever got,” Millican said.
Hutchinson said that Millican’s strengths in the group were how he knew how to organize people and effectively protest, while Millican said Hutchinson was very popular in the community and could get anyone on her side. Together, they were a team.
“We didn’t look at each other’s color,” Hutchinson said. “It never phased us.”
By 1967, Millican had dropped out of school and was drafted. After basic training at Fort Benning, he went AWOL and worked a number of odd jobs before relocating to Atlanta.
According to Cary Torbert Jr., many of the league’s members had left by 1970 due to finishing school or getting jobs out of town. However, Torbert could notice a definite change in the county within the next few years as cities began to employ black officials and police officers.
“Over a period of time, I was lucky enough to see this thing come together,” Torbert said. “Things were still changing a little bit at the time. It’s all what started in '65 with us.”
Hutchinson said she is planning on contacting other members of the league to have meetings at White Street Baptist Church in Auburn, where the league would hold its meetings.
Follow Drew Taylor on Twitter @mrdrew_taylor