Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday 2015

seattle mlk flyer1412_4511l_mlkdayflyerMany people knew and worked with Dr. King far longer than I and other Summer of 1965 voter registration project workers, but all of us understood that the love the local people felt for him was key to getting our foot in the door to talk about voter registration.  We developed quick questions to find a connection that would lead to the courthouse registrars office. Years later, I still am invited to share these stories in hopes they will inspire and restore trust in the democratic process. Here is a sample of one of my favorite talks.

KING COUNTY MLK CELEBRATION  Paramount Theater, Seattle WA January 15, 2015         Thank you. I am very pleased to be here with you in beautiful Martin Luther King Jr. County  – which full name I understand can be credited to community leaders including Councilmember Larry Gossett. I am in awe that in an area this size, with just 7.9% Black residents in the city of Seattle, that you can boast not one but two of the largest MLK Celebrations in the Northwest, a beautiful African American History Museum and a legacy of peaceful nonviolent demonstrations for justice including the 1960s school desegregation campaign led by Martin Luther King Jr.’s friend, Rev. Dr. Samuel Berry McKinney..       In my brief remarks today, I want to touch on two themes:

  1. Why Martin Luther King Jr. believed that the voting rights fight was worth risking our lives for and
  2. What guidance his teachings give us to fight injustice today. While we may be fond of MLK’s speeches about brotherhood and integration, it is his insistent call for nonviolent action against injustice that, for me, rings loudest across the decades.

I first heard that call when I was a 19 yr old freshman at San Francisco State College. I saw Dr King on television, calling students to action, inviting us to come South and join in the voting rights struggle after the violent attack on voting rights demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Dozens of young people – some of whom would soon become my close friends and coworkers – were beaten, tear-gassed and chased off the bridge that day; many were severely injured. The year was 1965. What I saw on grainy black and white television became known as Bloody Sunday, commemorated each year on the first full weekend in March at the Selma Jubilee. My dear friend and SNCC leader Charles Bonner described the scene in Selma as he and other young demonstrators walked toward the armed city and county officers on the bridge that day:

“We were just teenagers marching toward a blue sea of police armed with guns, tear gas, billy clubs. Those on horseback had long leather whips. But we were at peace with our fear, our courage, our hope that as the song we were singing goes, A Change is Gonna Come.”

Mary Alice Robinson was a 16 yr old high school student from an active but very rural community in Wilcox County, Alabama. She vividly recalls Bloody Sunday, “My sister Edna and I ¾lots of us from Coy¾walked together. When they turned the dogs on us, and tear-gassed us, I rolled downhill into some bushes. I got briars in my hand and left them there for a long time, as a reminder of what they did to us.”

Before I was assigned to spend the summer working with these courageous grassroots freedom fighters in Wilcox County, I attended an intensive Orientation, “a civil rights boot camp” in Atlanta headed by Rev Hosea L Williams.  He, Martin Luther King Jr, Dorothy Cotton, Septima Clark and other leaders taught us 400 white and 200 Black students as much history, philosophy and voting rights as they could cram into a 5.5 day 14 hr a day training. Later that year in a speech at Hunter College, Dr. King recapped some of what he taught us: [Bear in mind that Negro was the term he used and a term of respect at that time] “The powerful unity of Negro with Negro and white with Negro is stronger than the most powerful and entrenched racism.” Repeat “The powerful unity of Negro with Negro and white with Negro is stronger than the most powerful and entrenched racism.”

King scholar Lewis V. Baldwin wrote that King’s further comments emphasizw that, “King concluded that racial injustice will never end as long as whites throughout the world minimize or ignore the problem.”  Quoting excerpts from King again: “The cup of endurance has run over, and there is deep determination on the part of people of color to be freed from the shackles that they faced in the past. Now if the white world does not recognize this and adjust to what has to be, then we will end up with a kind of race war.”

Dr. King penned this warning in 1965, nearly 50 yrs ago. Today, many activists, commentators, even scholars predict that as a result of our failure to eliminate institutional racism, and due to a recent series of murders of unarmed Black men and the reaction of the white establishment to the ongoing demonstrations, that we are in a period that could be both as productive and tumultuous as the southern civil rights movement of the 1960’s. This civil unrest and indignations arises at the same time that a broad segment of the public is cynical about the electoral process, and discouraged about their own potential for economic advancement. We see decreased voter registration and participation numbers.  What does it mean for us as a county, a state, a country, if we have large numbers of people who do not believe they are heard, that they are represented, enfranchised?

Martin Luther King Jr. is widely recognized one of the world’s greatest leaders, but he was a leader who always prodded us to do better, be better. Never rest on a single achievement, a voting site opened, a school integrated, even an unjust law changed – He encouraged us to push on and on, always pushing towards justice.

One of his more familiar quotes is a favorite of mine: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all – indirectly.” King’s familiar words offer both challenge and encouragement but we sometimes turn away from his less comforting quotes such as his insistence that we as a society, a whole society, cannot rest until we have eliminated racism from every aspect of our social and cultural institutions. Racism is as he said “that hound of hell which dogs the tracks of our civilization.”

Too many civil rights martyrs, most of them Black, most of them unknown to this day, were injured and some died fighting for the right of African Americans to vote. This is our theme today, the importance of that right to vote for all of us. I want to emphasize as Dr. King did, that the right to vote was not the end of the struggle but that it was a large step towards full citizenship. A right that enables all Americans, most especially those who had been denied voting rights based on race, to participate fully in the affairs of their community, this country and our world.

Mrs. Rosetta Angion was mother of 16 children, including Mary Alice Robinson who I quoted earlier, but she still found time to work in the Wilcox County Alabama voting rights movement. Her home in rural Coy was a rest stop, a place we picked up and dropped off our voter lists, a place where people waited for rides to go into the courthouse in Camden to attempt to register to vote.  She shared some of her memories of with me: Mrs. Angion recalled, “I’ll never forget sitting up watching TV, seeing Dr. King in other places marching, and whatever they tried to do they accomplished because he came there. I remember saying, ‘Lord I wish he would come to Wilcox County,’ and he did. I will never forget him coming here.

We were tear-gassed and beaten with sticks just because we wanted to vote. I remember marching in Camden, going to meetings, and then the great day when we stood in the rain to get registered, the day Dr. King was there. He stood on the jailhouse steps and spoke. Earlier, I found out that the only way you become a real citizen is to vote. After that I did everything I could to improve the lives of my community.”

Martin Luther King shared the Mrs. Angion’s conviction that you are not a full citizen if you cannot, do not vote, in his quote that is our theme for today: “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind – it is made up for me.” Dr. King is warning us that not voting is equivalent of enslavement: lack of ability to vote means that we do not possess ourselvesthat others make up our minds for us.

And as Mrs. Angion so movingly reminds us ” the only way you become a real citizen is to vote.”

For more by Maria Gitin: www.thisbrightlightofours.com 

Bob Crawford Jr. Freedom Fighter

 

We honor the memory of Bob Crawford Jr. who played a role in the Civil Rights Movement that few knew of at the time. Over the past ten years, he and his family have become my family too. I mourn with them, even as we celebrate his long and legendary life. He told me that his role in the Movement was to set an example by being a successful Black man in America: a veteran, a teacher and devoted father and husband. Then, he’d laugh and say, “Well, I couldn’t taken the nonviolent position; I was more of a Deacons for Defense kind of man,” and laugh his big laugh. I loved to talk with him, hear his stories and share in the joys and sorrows of his wife Jessie, and his grown children. Although his home going is this coming Saturday, we will never stop loving him and remembering just one more great “Bob Jr.” story. “Don’t call me Robert, I’m just Bob!” Crawford.

Luke (formerly Bob) Bock who stayed at the home of his parents Bob and Georgia Crawford, stalwart leaders in the Pine Apple area of the county, did not know that their school teacher son Bob Jr came over nights when Black and white civil rights workers were sleeping in his parents home. Bob Jr came to protect the young SNCC and SCLC workers, sitting up all night on a camp chair with a shotgun to make sure no one hurt his parents, their home or the field staff.

Bob Crawford Jr., taught high school in Monroe County for many years. Over many hours of animated conversation, one of the things Crawford stressed to me was education, “One of the best things about having a primarily African American school system is that now they can teach the whole story. I specialized in American History after I got my masters degree. One of my teachers told us ‘Don’t fool those kids and tell them what the Alabama history books say; it is strictly a white man’s history.’

“You had to go to a foreign county to get a true history. I got information from a friend, a retired military man who collected history from other countries. France and Spain wrote more competent histories that told the truth about US history. Negroes were involved in cattle drives, in the Gold Rush. I read some of these books and learned that Negroes were everything from outlaws to ministers, but that never was mentioned in the regular high school history books. So I inserted the information into my teaching. During the Revolutionary War they didn’t say that there were Black soldiers fighting on both sides, mostly for the North. In South Carolina you had Negro congressmen, but no Black leaders were ever mentioned, except maybe George W. Carver and Booker T. Washington. Negro engineers like Horace King built nearly every bridge that connected Georgia and Alabama—never told us anything about that, but I taught my students all of that. They [the administration] reprimanded me for teaching the truth, presenting the facts. But I didn’t get fired, I resigned to get a better paying job. I had two sweet little girls to put through college. Believe it or not, back then, driving truck paid better and had better benefits than teaching school.”[i]

Bob Crawford Jr’s sacrifice of a prestigious teaching job for trucking was well rewarded by all three of his “little girls” successes in life.  Bob Crawford’s oldest daughter, Debbie C. Porter, retired after teaching 28 years in the Baldwin County Alabama School System. Middle daughter, Joy Crawford-Washington, is currently the Associate Director of Public Relations at the University of South Alabama, and the youngest, Jessietta C.Thomas, is a principal at Hayneville Road Acceleration Academy in Montgomery, Alabama. All are active in community, church and service work.

More of the Crawfords’ family story and their  involvement in the Civil Rights Movement is included in my book, This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Wilcox County Freedom Fight, University of Alabama Press 2014 – www.thisbrightlightofours.com

Social Protest & Women’s Leadership Talks set at Candler / Emory University October 17th

Maria Gitin will appear as a guest lecturer in Dr. Robert Franklin‘s graduate seminar October 17th, speaking about Women’s Leadership and her experience in the 1965 Voting Rights Fight in Wilcox County Alabama. Joining her will be her canvassing partner Robert Powell, Wilcox County native and student activist who worked with Maria during the summer of 1965.

Maria will also participate in an evening panel discussion on Social Protest Across the Generations with Johnny E Parham, a Morehouse and Clark Atlanta student activist and former director of the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund; Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee and Adelina Nicholls, executive director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR).

candler.emory.edu/news/releases/2018/10/panel-to-explore-social-protest-across-generations.html

Direct link to registration: bit.ly/1968panel

In Memory of Grady Nettles

Mrs. Mattie Nettles in her flower garden

Mother of Grady, Charles, Larry, David, Loretta and four more.

Sending condolences to friends and family of Grady Nettles on his passing. Grady was one of the active students, in fact his whole family was active in the Movement registering voters, protecting the church from the KKK, housing civil rights workers and registering their children to integrate the white schools – all at great risk to their family. In 2009 Grady told me: “They burned down my mother’s house while all them children were in it sleeping. They killed a lot of the farm animals, but we got out and she didn’t give up. She died peacefully with family at her side.” May he now rest with his mother and brothers, and be remembered as a hero among the Wilcox County Freedom Fighters.

I still remember the morning he and his brother rushed upstairs to tell me and Bob that the KKK had broken into the church and destroyed our mimeograph machines, cut the telephone wires and torn up the placards we had made for picketing white stores that would not hire African Americans. He was agitated, but not discouraged. He was right there with us when we were all arrested, yet went back to working in the Movement as soon as we were released.

The Nettles had ten children. All were active in some way, and all paid a heavy price for their courage. Local activists like Grady and the rest of the Nettles were the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement. It was an honor to know him. May he rest in blessed memory.

Letter Home July 26, 1965 Part II

Boiling Springs Methodist Church (AME)
Boiling Springs Methodist Church (AME)

 

Part II of a letter from 19 yr old civil rights worker Maria Gitin in Wilcox County AL July 1965:
I was invited to a Methodist (Boiling Springs AME Church) revival meeting on Thursday night and went in hopes of speaking to the people about registration as they came out. We don’t ever ask to talk about civil rights in a church service because many folks haven’t seen the correlation between Christianity and social action. At the conclusion of the preacher’s long and emotional sermon he asked me to speak. I was quite surprised and pleased. I tried to relate my talk to his sermon and I received a good response from the congregation.
The rural people are very serious about their religion. Partly, I suppose, it is an emotional outlet for their frustrations. These are an oppressed people. But, even more, I can sense that they are really aware of the grace of God. They know they are lucky when their children live to the age of twelve, when the crops are not ruined by rain, when a white man doesn’t shoot their children for helping me canvass. You see, God is the only one who can help them because no one else will. I don’t want to romanticize the Southern Negro, because there is nothing romantic about being hated, harassed and oppressed but these folks have a certain kind of pride and dignity that I have never seen before. And they are freer in a sense than those who try to keeping them down I think their freedom comes from knowing that they are right.
Now, not all the Negroes are with the Movement…obviously or we would have cleaned up the mess years ago. There are hundreds of Uncle Toms and Aunt Janes who say “Mister Charlie has been so good to me…I can’t turn agin him now.” Some people have been pushed so low that they just don’t care anymore. There are those who for a pack of cigarettes will give Mr. Charlie a list of everyone in the Movement so he can fire them, and whip them, and try to hold them back.
But I don’t think Mr. Charlie – symbol of the white man – is going to keep folks down. I don’t think Uncle Tom – symbol of the humble, scared Negro – is going to help them down. The people who are fighting for their freedom value it above their lives. And I’ll bet you the devotion you’ll find here to freedom exceeds any you’ll find among our troops in Viet Nam. We are a nonviolent army, marching steadily towards one goal – freedom NOW!

Read more in “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight”
www.thisbrightlightofours.com

Letter Home July 26, 1965 Part 1

Boiling Springs Alabama

Boiling Springs: A Good Road with Good People

July 26. 1965                                                                                      Camden, Alabama

Dear Friends and Family,

Things are more peaceful now in Wilcox County…at least on the surface. A recent meeting of the local Klan drew a crowd of 2,000 according to Camden’s Mayor Albritton but there haven’t been any more incidents that we are aware of. Since there are only two more days of registration this summer* the white folks are not too worried anymore.

We haven’t come anywhere near our hopes of registering thousands of Negroes. About 500 have been actually registered in Wilcox this summer. The SCOPE people have been hampered by local people and by administrative conflicts. But more than anything it was hampered by you. By all of you who didn’t put pressure on Congress to pass the Voting Rights Bill; by everyone who didn’t write his Congressman; by everyone who didn’t voice his opinion of this bill. If we had the bill to work under this summer we could have registered 100 persons a day, five days a week, all summer long. I’m sadly disappointed in the American people for letting such a vital piece of legislation sit around in Congress at such an important time.

If everyone would use their democratic power to get things right, there would be no need for direct action. But, I’m afraid more blood will have to be shed before this battle is won. If the citizens of American won’t set themselves free legally we will once again have to take to the streets in moral protest.

I spent the week before last working in the community of Boiling Springs. To give you an idea of the living conditions, and not to get sympathy, I will tell you of some of my experience. I organized a group of local youth, 13 yrs and up, to go canvassing with me. We split into teams of two to cover a radius of 10 miles. Our objective was to talk with the people, to encourage them to register, and to notify them of the Sunday night mass meeting.

Houses in Boiling Springs are about 2 miles apart on the average. There are no paved roads, no electricity, no running water or telephones. Few people own cars. Women often work 10 hrs. a day at the rate of $1 a day in the okra canning factory. Poverty is normalcy here. Probably everyone there is eligible for Economic Opportunity loans but they can’t get them since Federal programs are administered by segregationist county officials.

The second day there I broke holes through both my shoes and had to go barefoot the rest of the time. Sometimes we walked 15 miles a day. But, all the other kids [local Black kids] were barefoot too. If they are lucky enough to have a pair of shoes they are saved for Sundays.

Read more about Freedom Summer 1965 – “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” University of Alabama Press

www.thisbrightlightofours.com 

Notes:

* The 1965 Voting Rights Act was finally signed into law on August 6th. After that, there was daily voter registration

Families who had children who remember working and walking with me included the Burrells (Voncille) ,  Lawsons (Albert, Alversal) and Robinsons (James). There were many others before and after we were there.

SNCC CIVIL RIGHTS WORKER SCREENING

During SNCC Mississippi Freedom Summer three teenage volunteers were murdered within the first three days: Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner. The following summer, when my cohort was recruited by SCLC to join local leaders and students registering voters in the Deep South, we went through intensive briefings, training and interviews to determine whether we would be helpful or not helpful to the Movement. Before being accepted as a 1965 Voting Rights volunteer, I sat through interviews in Berkeley with Dave Fogel and others, using the SNCC questions.

One question: What will you do when a redneck stops you on the street, pushes you around and calls you a dirty m-f-n lover?  Stopped me cold. I didn’t really expect that although once in Wilcox County, AL there were many incidents of being yelled at and threatened.  Of course, a nonviolent response was the only acceptable answer. These forms I have are old, but I hope you can read the rest of the document.