To read original online visit the Santa Cruz Sentinel:
To learn more about the Freedom Summer of 1965 and the struggle for Voting Rights: http://www.thisbrightlightofours.com
Edited from a transcript of an April 11, 2015 gathering of civil rights veterans, students and scholars at the Martin Luther King Jr. Education and Research Institute at Stanford University. Read the entire transcript at Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement website: http://www.crmvet.org/disc/1504_fcc.htm and watch the 11 minute video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2cz6vJnWZs&feature=youtu.be
“Gradually I learn that even though I can’t see from any perspective but this one, (meaning my own), I can include other perspectives, understand that others have their own perspective, and each one is just and true as real as mine, even if we’re in disagreement. That’s a stretch of the heart muscle.” – Katherine Thanas, Abbott, Santa Cruz Zen Center
For myself, working in the Movement in the summer of ’65, going through experiences with my coworkers in SNCC and SCLC and the local people that I worked with in Wilcox County, Alabama stretched my heart muscle so much more than my brain. We had amazing orientations. By that time, voter registration project leaders had learned from CORE and SNCC, and their own experience. The SCLC SCOPE orientation was tremendous. We had workshops; we had great speakers: Hosea Williams, Bayard Rustin, Jimmy Webb, James Bevel and Martin Luther King himself. Septima Clark taught us how to sing. We had intensive orientation, and then suddenly we are plunged into this violently segregated environment, sharing the experience of being hated, reviled, shot at, arrested, in a very, very rural area.
I was assigned to Wilcox County Alabama. I was just 19 years old and trying to grapple with the reality of how dangerous it was. At first, I had so much trust and faith in my coworkers, our leaders and the people in the community. Before that summer, my sense of myself was that I was a weak, scared girl. That summer, I felt like I really became a woman.
It was so dramatic, the violence, the threats – I was afraid all the time. The boys, both the Black and white, always talked about how brave they were and “Oh no, they can’t do nothing to me.” I was just scared all the time. But because the local people were so brave, and they were protecting us, I had to act brave. But they were the courageous ones.
I didn’t know until I went back to write my book, This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight , that men in some of the familes who kept white kids were sitting up all night with shotguns while we slept. I had no idea at the time. They didn’t let us know that they had to keep up that level of protection to take in a white field worker. I honor those people. I owe them my life, literally, because people were trying to kill us.
Besides the locals, I witnessed incredible courage, role models in both SCLC and SNCC folks I worked with. I was fortunate to work with both groups, the respected reverends and the radical students. It was so exciting to be in the thick of these world changing events. The SNCC kids in Selma, especially Charles Bonner, really broke it down for me, in terms of theory. It was the beginning of my looking at social action critically. I suppose I could have done well to apply that learning in college but when I returned I was such a physical and emotional mess that it took me 15 more years to get a B.A. degree. My experience in the Movement, learning to see the sharecropper in Alabama not as somebody less than, but just somebody with a different perspective, different life experience – that was an invaluable lesson for me. You can learn from all people, not just people like yourself.
Discussion facilitated by Ron Bridgeforth. Other civil rights veterans included: Willie B. Wazir Peacock Wazir Peacock “Stand for Freedom” Video, Jimmy Rogers, Stu House, Kathleen Kolman, Mitchell Zimmerman, Bill Light and Roy Torkington.
Wilcox County and its county seat, Camden, share a voting rights history with Selma in nearby Dallas County. As early as 1963, Bernard and Colia LaFayette organized marches in Wilcox with Black citizens demanding the right to vote. Dr. King visited the county many times on his way to and from Selma and Montgomery. Hundreds of Wilcox students and adults joined the February Childrens’ marches in Selma, and were beaten off the bridge on Bloody Sunday. Selma activists came regularly to support the Wilcox demonstrations. Charles Bonner of Selma and Bob Block from California spent a night or two in the Wilcox County jail in April. Bob got cattle prodded in one march and then signed on to work with Dan Harrell, the director of seven SCLC SCOPE project counties who was based in Wilcox.
Almost as soon as we met, Bob and I fell in love. I guess Charles wanted to keep Bob on his team so recruited me into Selma SNCC, although I continued to work with SCOPE in Wilcox County as well. We had many adventures and misadventures that summer, both together and separately. The racists were absolutely outraged at this new wave of “outside agitators” who arrived to join the “hangers on from the March,” as some snidely referred to whites who hadn’t gone back north. But Charles was thrilled to have us there and always made us feel at home in Selma. He began educating me on SNCC philosophy and tactics which seemed so cool compared to what I learned from our SCLC reverends. But I loved our “Revs” as we called most of our adult leaders. Out in the field, it took both SCLC and SNCC tactics and support just to stay alive. Charles would sometimes drive us away from (and sometimes into) danger in a powder blue SNCC Valiant. Our county project leader, Major Johns, rescued me from potential attack more than once in his ’52 Chevy.
Bob and I were seldom allowed to work together, but when we could get together, we met in Selma with Charles and his girlfriend Janet to party and to share stories. One day in July, I was with a small, integrated team canvassing for voters in a remote area outside Arlington. A couple of white men in trucks roared up and tried to run us over. They had guns, too. We spent that afternoon hiding in ditches, and running through pine forests while my local canvassing partner, Robert Powell, tried to get a call through to our project leaders to come rescue us.
Bob told us that his afternoon canvassing with Dan Harrell had been even more exciting. “Dan and I were walking along when this white guy appears out of nowhere. I mean we didn’t hear him comin’, see a truck, nothing. Just like that, he takes his pistol, raises it right to Harrell’s head and presses it against his temple.”
“You know I would kill you as soon as look at you, doncha?”
“I believe I do,” was all that Dan replied.
Read the full story: https://thislittlelight1965.wordpress.com/2010/06/15/bob-dan-the-man-with-a-gun/
Then I told Bob what happened out in Arlington, about being chased all afternoon by white men in pickups with rifles. “He must’ve been related to my guy. Dan didn’t even tell me about what happened with you!”
Forty years later, Charles, Bob (now Luke) and I had a reunion, with some other civil rights veterans. We swore we’d go back some day and walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge together. In 2010, 45 years after our first meeting, we marched over that bridge with thousands of other foot soldiers in the Selma Jubilee Bridge Re-enactment Ceremony. I am so grateful that we lived to share these stories and to continue our friendship.
Excerpt and adaptation from “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” by Maria Gitin, copyright, University of Alabama Press 2014. www.thisbrightlightofours.com
My own memories of that night: Our leaders warned us that George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, infamous for his slogan “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever,” was coming to Camden to rally the already hostile whites. He planned to speak from a platform in front of the courthouse where our recruits attempted to register. Major Johns told us to get out of town, and so most of our workers left for outlying communities, but I stayed behind at Camden Academy with one of the white seminarians and my co-worker, Connie Turner.
Late that night, Connie crept up the stairs and knocked on my door. I barely recognized her. She had put a black rinse in her hair and had “ratted” it into a bouffant style to look more southern, then had gone with Washington Post reporter Paul Good to the George Wallace rally. Good had put her up to a risky adventure. Good boosted her up into a pecan tree on the courthouse square where she saw and heard the whole rally. Connie was breathless with amazement at the hatred Governor Wallace whipped up in the crowd.
Wallace had the crowd in a real frenzy. They were screaming, “Kill the N—-r Lovers!” Wallace told the cheering crowd something like: “Alabama and the rest of the God-fearing South are once again at war with the United States. This time we will succeed because God is on our side. He laid down the law of black and white. It is a crime to undo God’s creation of a superior and an inferior race. Nigrahs never can and never will be equal to white men. We will fight this fraudulent legislation, this so-called voting rights act with every weapon at our disposal. Tonight I tell you my friends that if you defend our freedom and our way of life by driving out these outside agitators, you will be doing the greatest service to this county, the great state of Alabama and to future generations.”
We huddled in the back and went to bed early but couldn’t sleep. That night, cars filled with our field workers were shot at as they headed to Coy to try to avoid the riled-up racists. No one was seriously injured but all were severely shaken, and two car windows were broken. If I hadn’t insisted on staying at the Academy, I would have been in one of those cars. Perhaps because the Klan thought we had all left town, no one came up to the Academy campus that night, but I still felt uneasy until Bob slipped into my bed around midnight. “Where were you?” I asked. “Don’t ask sweetheart, just be glad I’m here now. Here and alive.” He took me in his arms. – excerpted and adapted from “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” by Maria Gitin, University of Alabama Press. More: www.thisbrightlightofours.com
Sending love and support to all who celebrate Independence Day by taking a stand for Justice, Equality and the end of Racism. Fireworks are just fine too! Special shout out to my friends in Possum Bend, AL – I know you will remind your children and grands of the sacrifices made for them to enjoy this celebration.
Originally posted on Wilcox County Freedom Fighters:
Freedom was still elusive for Black Alabamans on this hot July 1965 holiday. But we escaped to the Bessie W. Munden Playground just outside Camden to play in the pool, eat watermelon and talk about the future when everyone was equal. This playground was made possible by Mrs. Bessie W. Munden, a teacher who asked/pressured : ) every teacher at Camden Academy to contribute $20 a year to buy this parcel of land that to this day is the main recreational park in Wilcox County. At that time, it was known as “The Negro Playground”, since the children were not allowed to play in any of the white parks or common areas, not even the state park. The story of our integrating the old pool is told in an earlier post. Independence Day at Bessie W. Munden Playground
To all the freedom…
View original 67 more words
This is one my letters home that I only excerpted from in my book. What was like for my family to be reading this around the dinner table, thousands of miles away? Today, I imagine the heartache, fear and pride that parents share as youth in Charleston and around the South continue to combat a new wave of murder and church burnings.
July 1, 1965
Hi! Things have been really hot around here – in more ways than one. The nite (sic) after I got out of jail – the same night I phoned you – two of our local boys were beaten in the church. The church was sacked, doors broken down, gunshots in the walls. One boy who was beaten with a lead pipe is in precariously dangerous shape in the Selma hospital. We could only find a white doctor for him & he isn’t getting the best of care. The other boy was clubbed but is recovering nicely. The local crackers did the job – some of them are Sheriff Jenkins possemen during the day.
It is now July 2-
While I was in jail the white boy in the cell next to me was beaten by his white Southern roommate. I could hear him screaming & moaning. The guards gave Crow – his cellmate – cigarettes for beating him. It made me so sick I couldn’t eat anything so I gave my food – what little there was – to an insane man who was in the cell next to me. The trustees (Negroes who are guards) gave us a bad time.
It is now July 3 – every time I sit down to write to you someone calls a staff meeting or the phone rings. Anyway – jail was hideous but I ‘ll write you the gory details some other time. The nite I was released was the nite the two boys were beaten in our church. I phoned the hospital, newspapers, etc. I’ve developed a close relationship with one of the men (white) on staff. I can’ t say anymore about it because that is the kind of ammunition police could use if either of us gets jailed again. We stayed up all nite by the phone for further news. It was a miserable nite. At 5 AM another boy phoned from the church – he had been beaten, too.
The story was that 8 white men in stocking masks broke down both doors of the church, shot a hole in the wall & beat 3 boys with a lead pipe. I went to the church the next day and it was a mess.
(Again I must go – hope I finish this soon)
It is now July 5th – I had to move out of Camden Academy cuz I didn’t get a letter to (Principal) Hobbs in time. Besides, it’s too dangerous to be in Camden now.
Yesterday you never would have known we were having a Movement. We went to the Playground & swam & roasted hotddogs & danced & sang. It was a great day & no arrests were made for a change.
I am staying with a wonderful woman in Coy (one of Ethel Brooks’ neighbors or a relative) near Camden. I don’t know when I’ll get to write to you again.
I love you. Thanks for your letters – they mean so much. I got the dresses – the shift is really nice.
We’ll be canvassing voters all over the county for the next two weeks so its on the road for me. We’ll just stay at folks houses when evening falls.
It’s 6:30 AM July 6th – and we are ready to go out in the field to canvass for voters. There are more little incidents all the time. One of the strongest local leaders [ Don Green ] a junior in high school, had some moonshine planted in his car. When he drove out of the Sawmill Quarter, the police were waiting for him. They took him to jail, put him in the bull pen – a cell with no windows or ventilation, harassed him, left him overnight & released him. He’s been beaten dozens of times, yet he’s a wonderful person [meaning, he wasn’t bitter or angry]. Well, our ride is here.
Much love, Joyce – for more about this summer and the Wilcox County Voting Rights struggle in 1965, read “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” by Maria Gitin (formerly Joyce Brians). http://www.thisbrightlightofours.com