The majority African American Wilcox County resident toiled at hard labor in sawmills, fields, canneries and other agricultural industries before and after the Civil Rights Movement. Some folks were tenants and some owned their own farms. Everyone of every age worked hard. Many youth today cannot imagine the toil of the generations before them. These photos by Bob Adelman were taken 1965-70 in Wilcox County, Alabama. Note from Gloria L. Grimsley-Nious: “My mother, Mrs. Senniem M. Grimsley, sold seeds, fertilizer and brought the cucumbers from the black farmer’s for the SWAFCA.”
This is the second half of a lengthy letter I wrote to my friends, family and supporters while working with SCLC and SNCC in Wilcox County, Alabama during Voting Rights Summer 1965. I was a 19 yr old and my comments reflect my limited background as well as concern to respect the rules laid out for us by our county director Mr. Albert Turner. [See parens and notes below the letter for additional explanations.]
“On Tuesday Sheriff Jenkins said we had to vacate the church which we had been using for an office. We refused until he moved us out at gunpoint. At this time he also told Charles Nettles, a local student leader, [and his father Sylvester] that [they] he couldn’t let the white civil rights workers who were living in his house stay any longer.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday things were a little quieter. We planned our strategy for the following week. On Sat. night I made it into Selma to the Chicken Shack for some dancing [drinking] and fun. Sunday was the 4thof July and the local crackers were in high spirits. Most of us spent the day with a family [Jesse and Margaret Brooks] out in Coy – wishing we were really independent.
Monday was a holiday so we all went to the Negro* playground. We swam, roasted hot dogs, and sang songs. It was hard to believe all the horror of life around us when I was in the pool teaching little kids to swim. The Negro pool is 1/4 the size of the white pool and there are 3 times as many Negroes and whites in the area.
I got up at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday and headed out for Boiling Springs. We had to get the folks to register these next five days because we won’t be given any more days until August. I walked over 10 miles of cow pasture with a local Negro and spoke with people about voter registration. That evening we had a student mass meeting and organized the kids to canvass the area the next day. We were quite successful in Boiling Springs and sent 5 carloads of folks to Camden the next day.
On Wednesday, I worked in Pine Apple. It is a small area – most of the Negroes work in the white man’s sawmill. They were scared and lied to us. It was a very discouraging day. [In my letter I did not mention the warm reception I received at the end of the day at local activists Bob and Georgia Crawford’s home while visiting my boyfriend Bob who stayed there.]
Thursday I spent a good, long day in Arlington. We walked about 20 miles and visited about 30 homes. The people in this isolated community were apprehensive but anxious to learn more about registration. I recruited some local people to show me around and help me canvass. We’ve found our luck is usually better if neighbor speaks to a neighbor about the subject. The next day several carloads of people went to the courthouse [to register] from this area.
Thursday night Gov. Wallace spoke in Camden. No Negroes or civil rights workers were present because Wallace had hundreds of his “goon squad” protectors with him. After he left, two people in a car going out to Coy were shot at by city policemen for no reason. Incidentally, I was supposed to have been in that car, but I stayed at the Academy.
Today, Friday July 8th. I went to the Arlington area again with a Negro boy [Robert Powell] and girl, and a white male SCOPE worker. We were walking along Highway 5 when we noticed a white man in a pickup truck with a shotgun on a rack slowing down. We kept on walking and he turned around and came up behind us. He tried to run over us but we jumped into a ditch. After he tried it a few more times we turned around and headed into a Negro café. We tried to call the Academy but that line was busy. The woman who owned the place was so excited and upset that she made us leave before we could get the call through. We ran and hid in the woods. Our friend had recruited his buddy by this time and was cruising back and forth in front of where we were hiding. The Negro boy changed shirts with the white boy and went to phone again. Almost everywhere he stopped people were too afraid to even let him in the house; obviously someone has been threatening and harassing the people. He finally got the call through and after about an hour a staff car came for us.
I wasn’t particularly scared, just provoked. These kind of incidents are exactly what scare people out of registering. Today at the courthouse they [the registrar] were far too slow. Now they say they won’t give us tomorrow to file so we may have to demonstrate. I hope not. The whites are in a brutal mood. If we do demonstrate the SCOPE people will probably not be allowed to participate.
I wish could write more and more often, but I seldom get the chance. We move from house to house, day after day. I don’t stay at the Academy any more, but I can still get my mail here.
Once again I thank you for your prayers and letters.
From Camden with my prayers,
Joyce Brians (Maria Gitin)
Negro: The preferred term of respect by African Americans at that time.
Lack of black names:We were expressly told not to identify any local blacks, particularly students, by name because they would suffer the consequences where we were gone. Although we were on a first name basis at the times, looking back I am very sorry now that I can only name a my brothers and sisters in courage who identified themselves to me years later. High school student Robert Powell more than once protected me and showed me how to survive in his community. I often wonder were we as kind and as open hearted as we thought we were or did we seem arrogant and ignorant of what they had endured before we arrived? Did they realize how much we did know about their heroic struggle? Did they know we were considered the ‘Mop up crew’ of the civil rights voting struggle, as Andy Young referred to us at Orientation? Did they expect us to stay and continue the fight? Dan Harrell asked us to stay but the SNCC students from Selma told us to leave.
This is one of a series of letters I wrote to friends, family and supporters while doing field work for Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Wilcox County Alabama as a college student volunteer. How have things changed? How have they stayed the same?
June 30, 1965 Camden, Alabama
Dear Family and Friends,
On Monday, June 28,1965 at 11:00 a.m., I was at the residence of Charles Nettles. I looked out the window and saw a Lane Butane truck [KKK] parked by Antioch Baptist Church. There was a white man by the truck holding a large stick in his hand. There were a large number of Negro* children in front of the church, so I ran across the road to see what was happening. Some of the little girls threw their arms around me and I hugged them and told them to go on home.
Then I went on into the church. Most of the SCOPE staff was sitting in the font pews. Mayor Albritton was there with several policemen and posse men with guns. I sat down with the others and they asked me my name, age and whether or not I was a paid staff member. I replied no to the last question.
Then they asked us to get in the police cars. Eighteen arrests were made at this time. When we arrived [at the jail] they asked us to line up. The boys were asked, one by one, to put their hands against the wall while a policeman frisked them for concealed weapons. One Negro boy [Don Green, SCOPE worker], who was standing right in front of me, had a small pocket knife in his stocking. The policeman jerked it out, handed it to another man and pushed the boy into the hallway so forcefully that he hit the wall. Then policemen said to book him on a concealed weapons charge. When it came time for the girls to be frisked the policeman took great delight in running his hands up and down as he told us we had nothing to fear. One by one they checked our names off and sent us upstairs to a small cell.
For a short time we all stayed in one cell. There were five white girls [me, Connie Turner and Ann Nesbitt of SCOPE, Judy and Sheri of SNCC], one white man and fourteen Negro men. I had to go to the bathroom so they turned their heads, but it was embarrassing for all of us.
After a while they asked all the ‘colored’ men to step out. They put them in a large cell across the hall from us. Then they took Mike Farley, the one white man, into a cell one away from us girls, on the same side.
We sat on the two bunks and talked. A little before 1:30 we heard some commotion in Mike’s cell. I heard loud noises like someone was being punched and falling against the cell wall. Mike was yelling. This continued for a short time – maybe 3 or 4 minutes. I was sick with fear and revulsion at what I could imagine happened to him. We joined hands and I prayed very hard.
After a long time Mike yelled down to us. He said that the guard had made Crow, his white southern cell mate, beat him. He said he felt like his head was broken and that he needed a doctor badly. We tried to offer encouragements but there wasn’t much we could say.
A few minutes after the beating the jailer came and took Connie Turner out. Shortly after [without returning her] he came and got me. He said “I wish I wasn’t taking you to the firehouse” He followed me down the stairs [with a gun in my back]. and I didn’t say anything more to him. I went into the firehouse and sat down next to Connie. There were several posse men and policemen standing around. John Worcester [one of the white seminarians]and we discussed possibilities of bail. There weren’t any funds for our county at that time. One of the posse men had a jar with some clear liquid in it [Wilcox was a dry county]. He asked both Connie and I to smell it. It was sweet and alcoholic. We said we hadn’t smelled anything like that before and they all laughed. Connie and I returned to our cell together under the supervision of the policemen.
Around 4:30 they [black inmate trustees] brought us five plates of beans and cornbread. We ate some of it then most of us passed the remainder of our food to O.T , a psychotic man in the cell next to us. I couldn’t eat anything.
We tried to lie on the bunks with two on one and three on the other but it was hot and sticky. The toilet didn’t work and urine overflowed onto the floor. The cell was filthy dirty. The water in the sink didn’t work so our only access to water was the hot shower. When we finally decided to try to sleep we dragged one mattress onto the floor. Two of us lay on the floor, one on the top bunk, and two on the bottom. They didn’t turn out the lights so we had to unscrew the light bulb.
Around 11 o’clock Mike yelled to us that he thought Crow was going to beat him again. He asked us to arouse the guard. We thought perhaps there was some way to talk Crow out of it so we hesitated. But as Mike’s voice grew more urgent and we heard a few sound slaps, we began pounding on the cell wall with our fists and shoes. Mike yelled, “Guard, guard.” It took several minutes before the jailer arrived. We couldn’t hear what happened after that – we could only hear loud voices.
I was numb with anxiety and pain from an old back injury. My main concern was for Mike and the people on the outside…who could know what kind of harassment the local folk were getting, with all their leaders in jail? I finally fell asleep from exhaustion around 3 a.m. At 5 a.m I awoke to find a black hand stroking my hair and my face. It was O.T. in the cell next door. I tried to move my head further away from the bars but there wasn’t room enough so I got up again and paced the floor.
At 5:30 a.m. they brought us breakfast. It consisted of 3 biscuits, a strip of bologna, and some imitation syrup. None of us had much stomach for it. The trustees kept coming round behind our cell and looking through the bars and reaching their hands in. It made it rather difficult to go to the bathroom or take a shower. I was so revolted that I couldn’t even speak to them.
By 11:30 they took Connie, Anne and myself out of our cell. We were then driven by Officer Sanders over to Mayor Albritten’s gas station. We three girls went in and talked with the Mayor. He then asked us our names and ages and where we went to school. Then he gave us a fatherly lecture on how we shouldn’t hand out boycott handbills [because it is a felony in Alabama and will ruin your chances to go back to school]. We, in fact, had not been handing out anything at all [although a boycott was in progress]. We were released. Anne returned to the church immediately [to begin typing up affidavits for the FBI and incident reports for SCLC]. Connie and I first took showers at the Academy and then returned to the Church. I immediately went down to the Wilsons Quarter when I am in charge of the voter registration program. I went from house to house telling people of my experience [and urging them to register to vote].
*Negro was the preferred term of respect by African Americans at that time.
For more about my experience and that of my coworkers read: “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight.” www.thisbrightlightofours.com
In recent conversations, someone asked again what I thought we accomplished and what we did not. In this 1988 journal entry, I wrote something that still feels true today: People ask what was it like? Everyone and their sister is writing MLK and Civil Rights Movement retrospectives. “Mississippi Burning” glamorizes the Movement. The Movement. The Movement meant everything, everybody: opportunity, equality, peace and freedom. It meant housing, education, jobs. It meant cleaning up or tearing down slums, an end to the problems of violence, alcoholism and hard drugs.
It meant integration – now a dirty word to many. It meant celebrating your roots yet accepting we are all one. It didn’t mean having quotas for “people of color”, African Americans – it meant everyone was seen so equally that nobody would even consider race as a qualification or disqualification for anything. It meant media didn’t use qualifiers for non-white, non-male descriptions. Eg. “Tom Jacobs, black male age 24” v. “Tom Jacobs age 24.”
We will all be all brothers and sisters who love, respect and encourage each other. We wouldn’t only be there for ‘our’ people. We would each each other’s food and celebrate each other’s holidays (and it wouldn’t be called appropriation because we’d be doing it together with the cultural group leading). We planned to turn America into a world leader in brotherhood, political action and volunteerism. That meant we would create with our own hands and voices whatever we needed to fulfill this very American dream.
The Movement intended to shake the political system so that the wealthy, selfish, bigoted people would fall down like rotting fruit. We’d elect the young, the bright, the inspired. We dreamed of a new Kennedy and King, not caring what they looked like but how they stood up for those values. That’s what the Movement meant back then. We didn’t know we were dreamers, we believed this was possible. And that’s what kept us going.
March 2010Named for Elizabeth M. Parrish who was fired from her teaching position, along with her husband Lawrence Parrish and many other Camden Academy teachers who supported the students in their fight for school equality. Camden public schools today are legally integrated but no white children attend public school after the 4th grade. De facto segregation continues. Due to lack of cooperative economics and a depressed tax base, both white private schools and majority black public schools suffer low test scores. Despite these disadvantages, children at this pre-school are well- cared for by Director Gloria McDole and her dedicated staff. The children are lively, intelligent, interested in learning and as you can see, absolutely adorable.
Donations to purchase supplies, food, toys and educational tools may be sent to:
EM Parrish Day Care
PO Box 370
Camden AL 36726
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VOTING RIGHTS EXHIBIT & PRESENTATIONS WITH PAJARO VALLEY ARTS
Vote! Your Vote is Your Voice / ¡Vote! Su Voto es Su Voz, is an exhibit of art and historic artifacts with films and educational programs about historic and current voting rights issues, to run April 3-May 26, 2019 at Pajaro Valley Arts gallery, 37 Sudden Street, Watsonville, CA 95076
Thursday April 25th 6-8 PM This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight – A special presentation
NOTE SPECIAL LOCATION: Watsonville Civic Building Community Room (4th Floor)
Originally co-imagined with Bob Fitch, I’m honored to serve as both curator and presenter of this important exhibit. Vote! seeks to educate, inspire, and develop greater interest in the nonpartisan democratic process. We draw on the involvement of current and former Watsonville residents who wein the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and Chicano Voting Rights action of the 1980’. We will share our experiences through art, educational panels, and film. Selections of Bob Fitch photos and Maria Gitin’s civil rights movement archives illustrate their experience as young voting rights workers in Alabama. Artifacts from Santa Cruz County Elections Clerk Gail Pellerin and Watsonville City Clerk Beatriz Vasquez Flores will be on display. A visual timeline developed by local artists guides visitors through voting rights history. Contemporary art work by regional artists highlights current events and responds to the question: What does the right to vote mean to me?
All events are free, bilingual and appropriate for students as well as adults. Contributions to Pajaro Valley Arts free bilingual programs are always welcome. Sponsorship opportunities are available.
For interviews and information about the exhibit and educational programs:
Maria Gitin firstname.lastname@example.org
www.pvaarts.org or call the gallery: 831.722.3062