Thanks Bruce Hartford for sending this terrific NY Times 1966 article by Gene Roberts. That month was the first opportunity for newly registered African American voters to elect their own candidates including sheriff. Military veteran Walter J Calhoun took on the challenge in deeply segregated Wilcox County, Alabama. Although he and the other Peoples Choice candidates did not prevail, they paved the way for future success. This in depth gives perspectives Black activists and the white establishment including fascinating quotes from Calhoun, Dan Harrell, former sheriff Lummie Jenkins, landowner Sam Hicks and others on both sides of a deep divide about race and politics.
To read and order article:
For more Wilcox County Voting Rights History: www.thisbrightlightofours.com
51 years ago yesterday, I was arrested along with 18 voting rights co-workers in Camden, Alabama. We were incarcerated in the old Camden jail which has since been torn down, not the old old jail which still stands. My 32 hrs. in jail were dramatic and frightening as I record in my book, “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” www.thisbrightlightofours.com.
Since the book came out, several others have shared their memories of these events. A white seminarian, John Worcester added his memories to my own. Being older and living at Camden Academy rather than out in the rural areas, he had a calmer perspective than I did as an impressionable teen. This is an excerpt from his report detailing our arrest sent to Junius Griffin, Public Relations Director for SCLC, dated July 6, 1965:
“On Monday, June 29, at approximately 12:30 p.m., Mayor F.R. (Reg) Albritton entered Antioch Baptist Church, the office and headquarters of the SCOPE project in this county. He had with him deputies and policemen who were armed. After being asked to show a search warrant, and showing none, they arrested 18* persons (see list below), leaving some in the church who were not arrested at this time. One youth, Don Green, was roughed up by one of the deputies. We have witnesses to this occurrence (I, Maria was one). Those arrested were booked on charges of “possession and distribution of boycott materials.” Within 30 minutes of this arrest, the bail was set at $1000 per person. At about 1;45 p.m. I was allowed to visit the jail – in the colored section – with Mr. Albert Gordon and Mr. James Ephraim. (This sentence is unclear, was James Ephraim in jail or visiting? ) Soon after that visit, bail was arranged for Mr. Gordon and he was released in late afternoon of the same day. It was at this time that Mike Farley was allegedly beaten by the other occupant of the cell – a man who had been there when Farley was jailed. Only a few who were in the Negro section were able to witness this beating. (I, Maria heard it and heard a much worse beating that took place later than evening. Mike called to us for help.)
[Worcester then gives descriptions of the legal disposition, those of us released without further charges “due to insufficient evidence” and those who signed bonds. His list of arrestees:
Adult Leaders: Mr. Albert Gordon and Rev Major Johns (director of Wilcox SCOPE project, SCLC staff)
Student workers: Don Green* ( Worcester mentions him, but forgot to list or count him in the roster of arrestees)
Joyce Brians (my name changed to Maria Gitin in 1970)
Celister Wright (from Coy)
George Shamburger (deceased)
Elmo Jones (deceased)
Sherry (Shari) Thurber
Ashley Stalworth (deceased)
Please share your memories of this arrest in the comment section for moderation and posting. Thank you!
In the early 1960’s farmers and residents of Gees Bend and surrounding areas intensified their efforts to get African Americans registered to vote in Wilcox County. Although 78% of population, no one had been allowed to register or to vote. In April 1963, twenty men from the Gees Bend region marched on the Wilcox County Courthouse. Their primary objective was to be able to vote on the commissioners to the powerful county agricultural committee which allotted federal agricultural subsidies and loans previously denied to Black farmers. Rev Lonnie Brown and farmer Monroe Pettway led this historic march after visits from Martin Luther King Jr and participating in organizing training from SCLC staffer Bernard LaFayette. LaFayette accompanied the men to the courthouse and shared the risk of arrest with the entire group. Although the men were denied access to registration, they were not arrested and returned peacefully proud of their accomplishment in reaching the courthouse, the first documented organized voter registration effort in Wilcox County.
Rev Lonnie Brown was a pastor at Pleasant View Baptist Church who worked as an insurance agent who visited his customers and potential customers on the tenant farms and plantations where they lived and worked. When he began recruiting potential voters along with insurance customers, white Wilcox County landowners organized and filed a trespassing complaint. Two of of the 28 white landowners who signed the complaint were George Findley and James Strother. At a recent presentation in Selma, AL a white gentleman told me that he was proud that his father refused to sign the 1963 complaint.
On behalf of Rev. Brown and local leaders, the U.S. Attorney General’s office brought an action against the landowners (US v Bruce: 353 F .2d 474;1965 US App. LEXIS 3942) and eventually dismissed the complaint, which allowed Brown and others who had prior permission, to once again organize on property where he had been permitted to sell insurance. In 1965, the Federal Court of Appeals found that the federal government made a “strong case” and that the property owners did in fact “intimidate and coerce” the black citizens of Wilcox County for “ the purpose of interfering with their right to vote.”
During the two years this case took place, Rev Brown was forced to sell insurance in adjacent counties, included Dallas County, as he was barred from entering the properties of his clients. His family continues to be active in Wilcox County politics.
Source: U.S. Court of Appeals, (1965), U.S. v Bruce, 353 F2d 474.
This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight www.thisbrightlightofours.com
Thank you to Park Ranger Theresa Hall, the rest of the staff and friends of Selma Interpretive Center for a great reception Monday June 6th. I so appreciate the attentive, interactive community members, friends who traveled from Camden and South Carolina and for the Montessori school children from Illinois who asked such great questions. Always a treat to see my canvassing partner, Robert Powell, friends Alma Moton-King and Anne Matthews, Rosetta Anderson and more from Wilcox. You made this a very special day for all of us. It was an honor to be invited by the National Park Service to share the long lost history of the Wilcox County Alabama Voting Rights Fight. http://www.thisbrightlightofours.com
Watch the video: Alabama Department of Archives & History https://youtu.be/HoBzhPYGV0k
We are excited to return to Montgomery Alabama to read and speak about the wonderful activists of Wilcox County Alabama during the 1965 Voting Rights struggle. Thank you Steve Murray, Director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, for your kind invitation. We look forward to a wonderful visit and to meeting old and new friends. Book sale and signing will follow the free noontime event. http://www.archives.alabama.gov/press_release/booktalk_pressrelease_Gitin_060716.pdf