The Beginnings of this Book
In the Spring of 2008, I began to write a book that I expected to be a simple memoir based on letters I had written home from my 1965 summer in the civil rights movement in Wilcox County, Alabama.
In 1965, Wilcox County was famous for employing one of the meanest sheriffs, PC “Lummie” Jenkins, and supporting a vicious branch of the Ku Klux Klan. Despite an 87% African-American majority, fewer than twenty-four men were registered voters before our voting rights project that summer. Beating, fire-bombing and eviction of African-American citizens who attempted to register were commonplace.
Our Southern Christian Leadership Conference SCOPE project volunteers stepped into a decades long violent struggle heated up that Spring by waves of brave student demonstrations from Camden Academy and Antioch Baptist Church. The arrival of “outside agitators” brought the struggle to a boil as the racists were infuriated that a small cadre of white students joined a previously all black struggle. Civil Rights photographer Bob Adelman told me ” They were fighting the last battle of the civil war.” Governor Wallace endorsed and the Klan enforced resistance to existing federal laws with illegal arrests, death threats and elimination of jobs and housing for all who dared participate in The Movement.
I began writing a memoir based on seven lengthy letters and notes that I had sent to my college roommate during the summer of 1965. Jeanne Searight McEwan typed, mimeographed and mailed my first hand accounts to a small group of supporters in California. About twenty years ago, she gave me a complete set. I was amazed at how brave I sounded when what I recalled most was being terrified all of the time. I wondered what I’d blocked out and what happened to the locals there who had so impressed me with their courage, creativity and movement strategies.
In November 2005 I attended a small reunion of SCLC and SNCC workers from the Bay Area Civil Rights Movement Veterans (www.crmvet.org) and began to put this book together. My dear friends and fellow field workers, Charles Bonner and Bob/Luke Block, helped fill in gaps in each other’s memories. My author-activist friend Bettina Aptheker began meeting with me to advise me on the project. I was fortunate to have brief but regular conversations with author-friend James Houston before he passed; he counseled me to return to Wilcox to recapture the spirit of the place. I spoke with civil rights photographer Bob Adelman at length. He encouraged me to go visit some of the people and places where I had been and he had photographed in “Down Home”, a photo essay of Wilcox County published by McGraw-Hill.
Soon I realized I could not rely only on my memory, my letters. I needed to visit the people and places and hear their stories. Through the kind graces of Wilcox residents Alma King, Sheryl Threadgill, Kate Charley, Arzula Johnson, and others, I reached a handful of people who led to a phone tree branching into more than fifty interviews over the next two years. Intensive Internet searches led me to lost leaders and their families, to distant relatives and misplaced articles, to the sad news of comrades who died violently and far too young.
A four-day visit in October 2008, and a nine-day visit in 2010 shifted the emphasis of the book from a personal memoir to the stories of people working in the voting rights movement in Wilcox County at that time. My book is not a sociological study but a collection of personal stories – mine, theirs – ours.
These letters, articles, conversations and visits were only the beginning of reconnection and new connections. More to come….