This is an excerpt from my original letter written from SCLC’s Summer Community Organization and Political Education Orientation project in June 1965 in Altanta Georgia. Please note that the entirely African American leadership of this project used the terms “Negro” and “The Negro” as the preferred term of respect for blacks at that time. As a white teenager, I soaked up their words and tried to transcribe or paraphrase them for my supporters back home in California. The Orientation lasted for 5.5 days & nights. The 14-hour a day schedule was packed with lectures by famous and soon to become famous civil rights leaders, workshops, discussion groups and films, punctuated by constant singing of Freedom Songs taught to us by Mrs. Septima Clark. I attended virtually every session including Sunday evening pre-sessions, took copious notes and mailed them to my dear friend Jeanne Searight in San Francisco who transcribed and mimeographed them to send to people who donated funds for my participation.
© Maria Gitin – all rights reserved.
Excerpt from my first letter to Supporters June 1965….
Monday, June 14, really began the intensive week-long session. Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, VP at large and treasurer of SCLC, told us the history of SCLC beginning with the famous day when Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus any longer. For those who would like more background history for this organization, I suggest reading The Negro Revolt by Louis Lomax, which also gives the history of the other civil rights groups.
Hosea Williams then gave us a long and fine talk on “Why We are Here.” He made us see our responsibility and our obligation. As has been said so many times, “none of us are free until all of us are free.”
We had a discussion and general announcements and then adjourned for lunch. Food in the South is something else. My stomach is beginning to adjust to grits, collard greens, okra, and black-eyed peas. We had little meat or milk and no desserts or fresh fruit. I have a feeling we Northern Fat Cats are going to come home skinny.
In the afternoon we heard the history of the whole civil rights movement from SCLC staff member, Bayard Ruskin. Following that we broke up into small workshops to discuss the speech. The faculty members led these sessions and two or three staff members sat in on them. Many of our more practical concerns were dealt with here.
After dinner Dr. King was scheduled to speak, but he wasn’t able to come. However, Joseph Ruah, counsel for Leadership Council on Civil Rights gave an informative presentation on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He said the only reason the bill was passed was because Martin Luther King dramatized the need for it.
Mr. Ruah went over each section of the bill with us in great detail, both its provisions and its shortcomings. This is the first bill that really makes any difference. The other side is licked. Now we must gain legal equality in the last mile. We can create test cases rather than going on word-of-mouth evidence.
We were allowed to ask questions about implementing and strengthening this bill. Many of us sat up far into the night and discussed the ’64 bill and its possibilities of ending job, housing and economic discrimination. I think it is a good bill, but we must put it into effect ourselves.
Tuesday the 15th was nonviolence day. This was one of the most fascinating subjects to me. I talked to men, women, and children—black and white– who have had their “heads whipped” by state troopers and who can still honestly sing I Love Everybody.
Rev. James Lawson, Director of Non-Violent Education said “violence is a man-made force. But nonviolence can also be a force. Nonviolence is the courage to be—to insist on one’s own existence. There should be compassion and solidarity between all persons. Every man is me—even my enemy. When you love people you enable them to become human. Nonviolence is contagious and it does work.” He urged us to back all boycotts. “Civil disobedience forces people to take a new look at their policies. They will accept the responsibility if we just act as though we expect them to.”
Rev. Andrew Young, a handsome dynamic leader in the field of civil rights, gave us some more inspiration and understanding about nonviolence. We had workshops to discuss nonviolence. Kids who had been beaten and whipped told us that it doesn’t really hurt that much when you know you have a reason for taking the beating.
In the afternoon C. Van Woodward of Yale University addressed us about “The Relationship of Southern History to the Negro Revolt.” He said the South has a separate history from the rest of the nation. Secession, Civil War, and Reconstruction occurred only in the South. We must learn from past history. We have a tendency to reject the past and treat it as a burden rather than a guide. The Negro started out with ideological handicaps. Darwin’s theories really perpetuated racism. The clergy and labor movement ignored the Negro problem. Even socialists didn’t do anything for the Negro in the 19th century.
Mr. Woodward then went on to explain that every federal program from Reconstruction to the 1964 Civil Rights Act was blocked from reaching Southern black citizens both by active state and local legislation and by racist attitudes and lack of understanding by whites that their own interests in a prosperous South were intertwined with those of African Americans.
We sang freedom songs that night as we did whenever we had free time. I began to feel that they call soul in the songs. The freedom songs are the heartbeat of the Movement. When we are joyous we sing Freedom is a Comin’ and when we’re tired we sing Hold On. For every occasion there is a song to express our feeling.
By Wednesday, June 16, we were beginning to get pretty tired. Long evening discussions, parties, and little food are standard in the Movement. It’s strange but true that the tireder and the hungrier we got, the more sure we were that it was worth it. Never have I learned so much in such a short time.
James Bevel, SCLC Director of Direct Action told us that Negroes all over the country have been prevented from sharing in the accumulated knowledge of society. They have been exploited and their humanity has been destroyed. “We haven’t been able to end segregation by integration; we have been tricked. Busing New York kids to white schools doesn’t give them equal education. Segregation is a smoke screen. The Civil Rights Bill of 1964 says that Negroes are human but the white folks won’t admit it. The Negroes don’t even want to vote, they have been so humiliated. We must ask them to work with what they have. That is how the Movement started and that is how it gets its strength. Many reforms are needed. When the people in Harlem regain their humanity they will burn that down that eyesore, that entire area. The money, the power is in the hands of the federal government and we must get our power from them.”
Michael Harrington, author of The Other America, spoke next. He told us ” The most hampered citizen of the United States is at the same time the most dynamically aware person in the USA. Sixty percent of the Negroes live in the South and forty percent in the North. In the South Negroes are mostly in urban areas. In 1950 the Negroes quit moving north because indigenous leadership arose in the South. The Church became the basis for the freedom movement. Really, in the North they aren’t given education or decent jobs, anyway. The Negro entering the economy now is faced with a bad situation. Industrialization can no longer use unskilled or uneducated workers. Since Negroes are poor they are less educated, less politically aware, and less able to do anything about it. But, out of this unique suffering came the Negro militant spirit. The Negro Movement (10% of the population) acts as a catalyst for social reform. Negroes called attention to poverty. The Civil Rights Movement is breaking up the Dixiecrat-GOP coalition. From 1938 until recently they really ran the country. Goldwater campaigned to this coalition and ended up really shattering it.”
He went on to explain that President Johnson’s War on Poverty was likely only to reach ‘the cream of the poor’ unless we get the 1965 Voting Rights Act passed. I paused to reflect that it was supposed to have passed in April, but not to consider what that meant for our work in the counties.
Our county assignments were made and a person from each county gave a short talk. Randolph Blackwell, Program Director for SCLC, talked about community organizing. There will be leaders and organizations in every community we will be working in. “Be sensitive to the leadership. Don’t base your analysis on education or economics. In the Negro community leadership is determined differently. Don’t have preconceived notions about who can and cannot be involved in voter registration. Watch for unique situations. Lines of thought and action go more along age groups than any other factor. Senior citizens may be in the program but they bring their backgrounds with them. They think they are radical, but they really aren’t. Don’t offend them by implying they are out of focus. The young adult segment will be the best trained. They will feel they have a right to determine policy in the community. Beware of taking part in something that will alienate the rest of the community.
Youth leaders (16-23 years) are desirable, energetic, and capable. Identify with this group but be careful you don’t get caught up in believing that the ends justify the means. There must be guidelines. Don’t waste your time trying to restructure the values of the people you work with. Try to work within their accepted value structure. Be flexible. You can’t afford to be dogmatic. If there are community organizations, work with them. Avoid cliques. The key to success is working with sensitivity with them. Stay out of arguments. We need not defend ourselves. You do not have to defend SCLC. You have not come to confront the white community. We are justified if our project is carried on in a fashion that will bring the Negro community through this experience intact.”
Mr. Albert Turner, an activist leader from Marion, GA [where Jimmy Lee Jackson’s murder that launched the Selma march to Montgomery took place] told us how to organize a civic meeting. In the rural South locate the meeting where the most people can be reached. “Find a building that is not too fancy or too obvious. Elect officers to run the organization. Get some by-laws. Hand pick the first members. Get independent farmers who can’t be fired. Don’t meet on nights when something else is doing.”
Big Lester Hankerson, specialist in street-corner registration, had only this to say “Don’t give up when you are turned away. Get them to register!!!!”
Golden Frinks, a nonviolent leader from North Carolina told us about mobilization of the community for direct action. “Find out who the white leaders are and who the Negro leaders are and who the minister is. Find the kids and play with them. See what needs to be done in a particular area. Learn a lot about the county. Create confidence but don’t act like you know it all. Call for 6- to 13-year-old kids to meet and the parents will come out of curiosity. March them to the courthouse to demonstrate.”
Hosea Williams spoke specifically about SCOPE: “You are a representative of SCLC. Be careful how you say what you say. No matter how bad the local leadership is, don’t degrade them. Build confidence in the local leaders so when we leave we don’t leave them alone. Talk to them on their level. Know a little theology, talk religion. Keep the kids constructively busy. Find a liberal reverend who can set up mass meetings. Canvas the area. Keep the meetings short. Be convinced that you can do something. Forget yourself and become an instrument of the local people.”
Rev. Dan Harrell, the staff person from my county, spoke last. He reiterated what the others had said and added that it is important not to create conflicts. “We are all working for one goal . . . voter registration!”
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Parts of this letter, other letters and statements from others who participated in the SCOPE project can be found at The Bay Area Civil Rights Veterans website http://www.crmvet.org