In 1965 we were inspired when Dan Harrell told us about Reverend Lonnie Brown and farmer Monroe Pettway leading a handful of courageous residents from Gees Bend try to register to vote in Camden in 1963. They succeeded in filling out the registration forms but were denied on the basis of the Alabama requirement that new voters be vouched for by an already registered voter. Since no Blacks had been allowed to register and no whites registered in the county would sign the supporting witness form, their applications were denied. He said that their case on appeal and they were sure to win by next year. That’s why we had to educate and register voters now, to be ready for when the law would finally insure voting rights. And so walk and talk we did.
In 2008, when I returned to the small isolated community that I vividly recalled—the full immersion baptism in Foster Creek, the beautiful voices of the Pleasant View Church ladies—Gees Bend had become the most famous of all of Wilcox County’s tiny communities, primarily because of its quilters.
After art dealers discovered the quilts in the early 1970s, they became collectors’ items. Now the quilts are displayed in locked cases in museums instead of warming walls and covering beds in drafty shanties where we had seen them in 1965. Despite all the national attention, nearly 40% of the seven hundred souls in Gees Bend still live below the poverty line and the unemployment rate is the highest in the state.
When Luke and I sat down in the Quilter’s Cooperative lunchroom with three quilters, they pointed out a photo of Mary McCarthy, the VISTA worker who they credited for founding their quilting cooperative even though most histories credit two men, a white minister and a white art dealer. Read Linda Hunt Beckman’s first-hand account of the change in the quilters fortunes after our work there and an alternative to the usual romanticized view of the community.
from This Bright Light of Ours 1965. Watch this site for publication updates.