Personal Stories from the Voting Rights Freedom Fight in Wilcox County Alabama

THIS BRIGHT LIGHT OF OURS by Maria Gitin

Read more about the book and upcoming events: http://www.thisbrightlightofours.com

For a long time, many Civil Rights Movement veterans didn’t talk about our experiences. Other people, famous people spoke about The Movement. But the hundreds, thousands of black, white, latino, native american and others who served didn’t find a forum to express ourselves. Many of us who were white, felt that it wasn’t our place, wasn’t our right to talk about something that we could and some of us did, walk away from.

Now that we are older, some of us look back at those times in a different way than we did then. With age, if you are fortunate, you think less about ME and more about WE. My work in the Wilcox County Voting Rights Movement was brief; a short summer in 1965, but it changed my life for ever. After discovering www.crmvet.org where others like myself write and discuss The Civil Rights Movement, I realized that I wanted to share my story of having the privilege to work with some of the most incredible people in the world, the local civil rights movement activists of Wilcox County, a small rural county in Alabama best known for its famous Gees Bend quilters and for being the summer home of filmmaker Spike Lee whose grandfather founded Snow Hill Institute there . The county seat of Camden is only thirty-seven miles from Selma and yet Dr. King led a march there on March 1st, a week before the infamous “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma which he did not attend. The brave Movement activists of Wilcox marched all that week and then convoyed over to Selma for the March 7th event where they were viciously attacked by billy clubs, tear gas and guns by mounted police and state troopers. Next month, we will reunite in Camden on March 1st and in Selma on March 7th to walk together under the banner “Wilcox County Freedom Fighters”.

A few years ago I decided to write about that summer, what I experienced as a young freshman from San Francisco State suddenly immersed in the center of the Deep South, trying to do my best to practice what we learned in six days of 14 hour long  Orientation in Atlanta.  When I was near the end of my memoir, I realized it made no sense unless I went back and found the people who shared the summer of 1965 with me. Over the four years, I interviewed, met with, researched and traveled back to gather stories from the black citizens of Wilcox county. In my writing, I recreate my experience of  being one of the smallest foot soldiers in a nonviolent army with an incredible array of courageous African-American activists fighting for a right denied to them for a century after it was granted by the US Constitution: the right to vote.

This book has two parts. Part I is a personal memoir of what it was like for me as a young woman, coming of age in the midst of the last battle of the Civil War: states rights v. federal right to vote. It is based on letters and notes that I wrote and kept all these years. Part II is testimony, the stories of more than 30 people who lived, worked and were committed to the Movement or are related to people I worked with in this rural county during that summer. The result, is a story that I hope will honor the memory of all those Wilcox County Civil Rights veterans who are my heroes. I also want to tell my story, what it was to be an ordinary, daily voter registration volunteer. You don’t have to be anybody special to be part of changing the course of history.

If readers of this book consider some of the lessons of the past in order to fuel your passion for change today, that will be wonderful. Ask yourself: What can I do, what organization can I join and support, how can I contribute to a more equal world, a more just nation and greater freedom for all?

I  hope that I have found a way to weave my story and the stories of other Wilcox County freedom fighters and their children into a quilt that can offer some comfort to those I worked with so long ago and intend to honor today. My dream that in some small way I can contribute to the ongoing struggle for peace and justice in Wilcox County, Alabama and perhaps, beyond.

Here I am, a college freshman signed up to be a civil rights worker in Wilcox County Alabama after the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma. At that time, my name was Joyce Brians, and my entire life was about to change.

12 comments on “Personal Stories from the Voting Rights Freedom Fight in Wilcox County Alabama

  1. Elbert and Gwen Goode says:

    This is great!

    Like

  2. Eve Haight says:

    Your story moves right along and you capture the horror not only of the entire racist reaction to the freedom movement, but also that of innocence confronting evil, and often being helpless.

    I love reading about how you threw yourself into the struggle without holding back at all. No wonder (my Aunt) Mary (Oppen) was so enamored of you.
    Love,
    Eve

    Like

  3. Patrick Teverbaugh MD says:

    Dear Maria,

    I loved the photos and the stories! Thank you for your activism then and now. All of the people you mentioned on this site have been so courageous and inspiring.

    Samuel has quite an eye with the camara.

    Like

  4. Carolyn Smith Taylor says:

    Maria, this is wonderful, simply wonderful. You have the gift and know how to draw people in. Thanks for being who you are.

    Like

  5. Brenda says:

    Maria, first I want to thank you so much for your commitment to this cause. I am so proud to know you. Your blog has allowed me to be a part of this historic event and I am humbly grateful.

    Like

  6. David Leon Baldwin says:

    Maria, thanks for your continued activism in the struggle for equality and justice. Highly regret that Linda and I couldn’t commemorate the 45th anniversary with you and others. Illness grasped us and seemed to not let go. The photos are great! Peace and Love from us to you and yours. DLB

    Like

  7. First of all, I want to say thank you for sharing your amazing experience of this Civil Rights Movement. I’m still crying, and is my privilege too to read this enormous quotation that you are sharing ” Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole stair case”
    Secondly, thank you for sharing your amazing support. This morning you helped me to understand a little bit more about the hard experiences people have been fighting decades and decades for all Fighters in their civil rights movements… we are proud of them. – Rosa Hernandez, Salinas, CA designer of Wilcox County Freedom Fighters banner

    Like

  8. cynthia says:

    Joyce Brians? Who knew? Your introduction to this journey is so engaging … I can’t wait to read more as you revisit the time, place, people and values of that experience, with the perspective of age and history.

    Like

  9. Kaz says:

    Thank you for telling this story that needs to be told. Can’t wait to read the rest!

    Like

  10. Joy Washington says:

    This is amazing. Now the buzz begins.

    Like

  11. luke says:

    Spectacular!! I’m moved. Luke

    Like

  12. bev says:

    hi maria — this is great!!

    Like

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