Civil Rights Veterans Reflect on Fear, Courage, and Commitment

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

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

Civil Rights Veterans Gather Stanford MLK Institute April 2015

Civil Rights Veterans Gather Stanford MLK Institute April 2015

50 years of Fighting for Freedom Celebrated at Stanford MLK Institute

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.

July 12, 1965: Romance Blossoms as Attacks on Wilcox County Civil Rights Workers Continue

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!”

Gitin and Block at National Voting Rights Museum March 2010

Gitin and Block at National Voting Rights Museum March 2010

45th Reunion Charles Bonner & Maria in Selma at the Saint James Hotel March 2010

45th Reunion Charles Bonner & Maria in Selma at the Saint James Hotel March 2010

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

July 8, 1965 George Wallace Rally Riles up Whites

Camden Academy Girl's Dormitory was civil rights refuge Summer 1965

Camden Academy Girl’s Dormitory was civil rights refuge Summer 1965

From a note in SCOPE files 50 years ago today: Five carloads of SCOPE workers shot at by white men after being stopped by police. They were trying to leave town to avoid wrath of whites after Gov. Wallace rally in Camden attended by thousands.

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.”

Wilcox County Courthouse, Camden 1965

Wilcox County Courthouse, Camden 1965

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

4th of July 1965

Maria Gitin:

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:

Wilcox County Children are the Past & the Future Wilcox County Children
are the Past & the Future

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

Happy 4th of July: 1965

Joyce Brians (Maria Gitin), civil rights worker 1965.

Joyce Brians (Maria Gitin), civil rights worker 1965.

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

Dear Family,

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.

Love, Joyce

PS

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

Freedom Summer 1965: #4 June 20

My First Mass Meeting

Sunday June 20, 1965 was one of the longest days of my nineteen year old life. We had been woken before dawn by threats from Klan members surrounding Antioch Baptist Church, then I attended my first African American church service before moving my meager civil rights traveling kit to Camden Academy girls dormitory which I hoped would be my home for the rest of the summer. At the Academy, we were threatened and eventually forbidden to stay because we were breaking the strict segregation code of Wilcox County, AL

IMG_0730_0067_067That evening, west coast seminary student John Golden drove some of us out to Little Zion Baptist Church in Coy to a mass meeting led by Rev. Daniel Harrell. Dan was our other SCOPE field director and director of 7 counties for the summer voter registration project. Major Johns was our county director and worked closely with Dan.

Despite my exhaustion I was on the edge of my pew for nearly two hours while first Dan and then Major Johns preached to a full house about getting out the vote, taking the next step to freedom. Major exhorted the crowd, “Don’t be waitin’ for the Promised Land. You can be in the Promised Land tomorrow. You can fulfill that promise: You can be a free man, free to vote! Get yourself registered. We need volunteers to carry folks into town, to help organize others, to take in some of our summer workers. You can sign up tonight with Mrs. Angion in the back. But get yourself registered first, that’s the first thing. You wanna be in that number! These students come all the way from Atlanta and California just to help us so we gotta show them we can help ourselves.” At the end of the meeting, Dan asked us new arrivals to stand, and the people applauded.
Late that night, I started coughing. I felt a fever coming on but before I could rest, I had to complete my first letter to my friends and supporters back home in California. Jeanne Searight, my college roommate and secretary at the Ecumenical House at San Francisco State College, typed and mailed my report letters to friends and supporters.

College Roomates 1965 Diane R, Lorraine Quan, Jeanne Searight, Maria Gitin (Joyce Brians)

College Roomates 1965
Diane R, Lorraine Quan, Jeanne Searight, Maria Gitin (Joyce Brians)

From my first letter, June 1965:

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.1 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 single 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.

When I finally crawled into bed, worried and scared about a hundred things, sick from the local croup, tired from the long meeting, I had a hope in my heart. It’s a hope I found in the midst of these people who live in the midst of hatred and degradation; I found it in the faces of the young Negro children and I found it in the voices of my fellow SCOPE workers. This hope is that We Shall Overcome.” – excerpted and condensed from Chapter 4, This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, Maria Gitin, University of Alabama Press. www.thisbrightlightofours.com