By Maria Gitin
Special to the Sentinel Published Sunday July 20, 2014
Aug. 6 is the 49th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This landmark federal legislation prohibits racial discrimination in voting and led to removal of other barriers to voting that benefit people with disabilities, citizens with language differences and those whose work schedule requires weekend voting.
The act passed only after decades of civil rights activism. Well-known tragedies on the road to enfranchisement include the murder of four little girls in a Birmingham church, the assassination of three voting-rights activists during Mississippi Freedom Summer, and the “Bloody Sunday” attack on peaceful marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
These are the stories that most of us know, but for over a decade tens of thousands of African-American grassroots activists like Mrs. Rosetta Angion organized in obscurity. While working on voter registration project in 1965, I met Mrs. Angion, mother of 16 children in the rural community of Coy, Alabama, who somehow found time to participate in voting rights demonstrations. She told me that John Lewis, now a Georgia congressman and then leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, explained, “You were not a real citizen unless you could vote.” Her commitment was so strong that she allowed two of her young daughters to march on Bloody Sunday.
Following a presentation at Cabrillo College last year, a student asked me why he should register to vote. “After all, doesn’t voting just support the status quo?” Apparently, many agree with this discouraging view. Although better than the state average, only 34.8 percent of Santa Cruz County registered voters cast ballots in the recent primary election. Nationally, only 23 percent voted in the 2012 presidential election.
Why should we vote? There is a saying that bad officials are elected by good people who don’t vote. Low voter turnout results in a small fraction of voters electing officials who make decisions that affect all of us.
Thousands of courageous people like Mrs. Angion and her daughters risked their lives for your right to vote. To honor their legacy and to make your voice heard, please register now and vote in November. Visit Santa Cruz County’s elections website at www.votescount.com.
Maria Gitin will read from her book, “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight,” at Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 11.
On July 4, 1965, we had to hide out in the country because the segregationist were on a “patriotic” warpath against our voter registration workers. But on the 5th, we all gathered at the “Negro Playground” for a barbecue picnic. We white civil rights workers integrated the pool; it was the first time that blacks and whites swam together in Wilcox County AL. Nearly fifty of us – young and old, back and white – filled up the pool and stirred up the gritty dirt collected on the bottom, but the water was cooler than the 90 degree air and it was ours for the moment.
We stayed until dusk, eating watermelon, singing, talking. Some of the young men made jokes about their stereotypical love of watermelon. Near sunset we sang some songs like I Love Everybody and Change is a Comin. For a few hours here in the woods it felt that maybe we could hurry up that change in Camden, AL. Change was being hard fought but like the song said, there was no way it wasn’t going to come.
Later renamed the Bessie M. Munden Recreational Park, the playground was named for a teacher who collected money from the other teachers so that the children would have someplace to play since they were not allowed at the whites only parks in Camden. -Excerpt from This Bright Light of Ours, a memoir and stories from the Voting Rights Movement of 1965 by Maria Gitin,
© University of Alabama Press.
Mylka Hayden, Isaiah Love, Richard Chatmon, Torrence Phillips, Jamarion Wright photo © Samuel Torres Jr 2008
The most traumatic event of our voter registration drive in Wilcox County occurred on June 29, 1965. Our headquarters, Antioch Baptist Church had been vandalized several times so we thought it best to have someone there at all hours to protect project equipment and files. The group of teenagers watching the church that night—all of whom were between fifteen and eighteen years old—included Emmanuel Hardley, Robert Powell, Frank Conner, Charles Nettles and his younger brother Grady, Henry Robertson, William Truss, and one other teenager. Don Green would have been with them had he not still been in jail on his concealed weapons charge, and we were still worried for his safety.
The last time I saw Frank Conner and Emmanuel Hardley, who were beaten the worst, they were in Major Johns’s car heading to Good Samaritan Hospital with Frank looking like he was bleeding to death in the backseat. Robert Powell and the Nettles brothers escaped but were shaken and angered by the attack. At the time, the boys told both our leader Major Johns and my boyfriend Bob that they knew the men: they could see their faces through stocking masks. Major Johns told us the names as well. That same night, Don Green, who was still in jail in the solitary confinement bullpen, was beaten again, more severely than before.
On July 1, 1965, the New York Times published this account of the attack in the church:
Riddled with misinformation, no doubt received from Sheriff Jenkins who endorsed the attack, the New York Times article sharply contrasted with a press release by the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, vice president and treasurer of SCLC, issued July 1, 1965. The mistreatment of our SCOPE group in Wilcox was cited as yet another reason to hasten the passage of the Voting Rights Act:
“Field workers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and local Negro citizens engaged in voter registration projects throughout The South are being subjected to sinister harassments and brutal intimidations. . . . Wilcox County is one of the most infamous of the state’s Black Belt counties, where until recently not a single Negro was registered to vote.
In Camden, the county seat, local whites Tuesday night broke into a house of God, Antioch Baptist Church, fired a shot gun blast against the wall and brutally beat seven Negro teenagers, two of them so badly they had to be hospitalized.”
Please share your memories and comments at the “Leave a comment” link here. Read more about these courageous young men, in their own words, in “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight.”
During the summer of 1965, one of my favorite leaders was Major Johns. He was one of our SCLC field directors who was strict with his young recruits and who always looked out for us. Born and raised in Plaquemines, Louisiana, Rev. Major Johns was instrumental in the civil rights movement in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana for at least a decade, yet he has scarcely been mentioned in books until the publication of “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight.”
In 1960, five years before we met him in Camden, AL he was arrested along with other Southern University students for sitting-in at a Kress lunch counter in Baton Rouge as part of a multi-state Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) de-segregation drive. When they got out of jail Major Johns and two classmates stood on a school bus while he made a rousing speech. They and other CORE members organized a march to the state capitol of more than three thousand Southern University students to protest segregation and the arrests of students participating in sit-ins at segregated drugstore soda fountains and bus terminals. According to authors of “A More Noble Cause” , Major Johns was the chief strategist for the walk outs. All of the arrested students were expelled from Southern University and barred from all public colleges and universities in the state. In 2004, long after Major’s death, the student civil rights leaders were awarded honorary degrees and the state legislature passed a resolution in their honor.
Jesse Smith, was a teenager who had shown Luke and me around Lower Peachtree in 1965. He recalls Major spending time at their family home and at his father Rev. Smith’s church. “Major Johns, once in while he would talk about the black history of America —Crispus Attucks and all that. He was so inspiring. He’d quote from the Constitution about the right of the people to form or abolish this kind of government. There was so much power in his words; that man could speak!”
Major served in Wilcox County for more than six months in 1965 and in many other areas before returning to Louisiana where he fulfilled his dream of becoming a divinity school graduate and ordained minister, before he died of an aneurism at age 44. His survivors include children: Major Johns Jr, Cynthia Johns, Kenan Johns and his brother William, sisters Mary and Ella. I would be glad to hear from other survivors. More about Major is in my book “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” www.thisbrightlightourours.com
Excerpted from my letter of June 20, 1965 about the 5.5 day SCOPE/SCLC Project orientation that I and 400+ students attended prior to being assigned to our counties. I would be assigned to Wilcox County, AL. But did not know that at the time. Coming from northern California, I was filled with missionary zeal and idealism which is reflected in my letter. At age 19, I had high hopes for our country and great respect for the leaders of our project. SCOPE was directed by Hosea L Williams with the intention to use (mostly) white college students to support local communities in their efforts to secure the African American vote. At that time “Negro” was the preferred term of respect by African American leaders.
Dear Family and Friends:
This is another world. It’s a world where I, a 19-year-old white northern woman, am not free. I am not free to go into the white section of Camden, Alabama with a Negro. I am not free to work in civil rights and still relate to the Southern whites. I can’t go out after dark or go on a date or swim in a public pool all summer. You people think you are free. When I was in San Francisco I thought I was free. But, we’re not free. I’m not down here fighting so any Negro can vote; I’m fighting for my rights—my human right to choose my friends as I please, to work with whoever I want, to worship with all peoples.
There is a Movement going on. God is acting in history. It’s God, not Martin Luther King, or James Bevel or Hosea Williams that is leading this movement. It’s faith that enables people to endure with one meal a day, four hours sleep, and one change of clothes. And they can still sing and shout praises.
Early Sunday morning we arrived at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia. We were assigned to our dormitories and given meal tickets. About 400 people attended the orientation. The very first evening we sat for 2-1/2 hours in the gym in 100-degree weather where we met and listened to the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Rev. Hosea Williams, SCOPE project director, was the main speaker. He gave us a pep talk and introduced us to the people we would be working with, including a large number of professors from top colleges and universities. We closed the evening by joining hands and singing “We Shall Overcome” followed by a closing prayer.
Monday, June 14, really began the intensive week-long session. Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, VP at large and treasurer of SCLC, told us the history of SCLC beginning with the famous day when Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus any longer. For those who would like more background history for this organization, I suggest reading The Negro Revolt by Louis Lomax, which also gives the history of the other civil rights groups.
Hosea Williams then gave us a long and fine talk on “Why We are Here.” He made us see our responsibility and our obligation. As has been said so many times, “none of us are free until all of us are free.”
In the afternoon we heard the history of the whole civil rights movement from SCLC staff member, Bayard Rustin. Following that we broke up into small workshops to discuss the speech. The faculty members lead these sessions and two or three staff members sat in on them. Many of our more practical concerns were dealt with here. [ Check back for more or - read the book]
-Excerpt from “This Bright Light of Ours” @University of Alabama Press 2014. For more about the Orientation and the book: www.thisbrightlightofours.com