All of us student civil rights workers thought that Daniel Harrell and his wife Juanita were the most glamorous couple in Wilcox County during the summer of 1965. Everyone agreed Juanita was as smart as she was beautiful. They both had been to college at Tuskegee Institute but could communicate with country folk and young children as easily as with northern college students.
According to their son Eddie, Juanita caught Valley Fever during a trip to California to visit relatives before he was born and died when he was scarcely a year old. Long time resident retired teacher Kate Charley told me, “Dan was one of the stalwarts who got things moving and organized. Juanita died young; it was very sad; they had a young son. Dan died in a terrible tragedy. There was a little black nightclub. Dan was in there trying to get people to come to some activity for the Movement and he got shot. They said it was a personal dispute, but I don’t believe that. We heard that there were some whites who got blacks to do their dirty business for them.”
As SCLC staff and as a private citizen, Dan gave his all to try to improve the lives of black folks in Wilcox County from early 1964 until his murder in 1979, shortly after he lost an election for county commissioner that they say was rigged . Most people who recall Dan and Juanita agree that they were major leaders, organizers and teachers, Many feel that their tragic deaths eclipsed other, better memories.
Cleo “Sandy” Brooks, minister and realtor in Coy recalled Dan in 2009. “Dan and I worked in 1971 and 1972 to fight for better schools; they were in sorry shape. We boycotted all the public schools until the state came in to take over. We closed that segregated system down.
“Dan accomplished a lot more than he gets credit for. He was able build a lot of homes through the Federal Housing Authority project. I am still trying to work to expand on that. Did you know that we formed the Coy Land Movement and bought forty acres that is still held in the name of SCLC? I live in one of those houses and there are other tracts all over the Coy area. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson gave an award to us for building housing for blacks in our community. Coy really was the epicenter of the Wilcox County Civil Rights Movement. We had more people on the bridge on Bloody Sunday than any other community and that’s a fact. No one knows that.” – Cleo Brooks (d. 2010)
Dan treated my then boyfriend Bob like a son and at the end of our summer project, they asked both of us to stay. We debated but believed that the time had come for white folks to leave The Movement and so with deep regret, we left two of the bravest and best civil rights leaders we had the privilege of working with. They live on in our hearts and that of their families.
© Maria Gitin 2012 all rights reserved, excerpt from This Bright Light of Ours 1965