In Memory of Frank Connor

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January 20, 2018

When I last saw Frank Connor, he was laying in the back of SCLC Field Director Major Johns’s car with a gash in his head that was pouring out blood.  He had been attacked along with seven other young men who were guarding Antioch Baptist Church where our voting rights campaign was headquartered. It was June 29, 1965 and Frank was just sixteen years old.

When I re-located Frank in Pensacola, Florida in 2010 he told me that he barely survived that attack by the KKK. He was in the hospital in Selma for months. His parents separated during that time, and he had to return to live with his father near the church where he was beaten, which was very hard for him. Frank suffered traumatic brain damage and was unable to graduate with his own class at the Academy. He missed six months of school but did graduate with the Camden Academy Class of 1971. Despite this horrible attack, he later married, had children, and earned a good living as a truck driver before his retirement. We spoke on the phone several times both before and after I quoted him in “This Bright Light of Ours.”  At first he was reluctant to share his story but later he told me that it was a relief.

This is an excerpt from his story, “It was as scary as I never knew what. I didn’t know if I was going to get killed. They didn’t want blacks and whites to be together but that was no cause to try to kill us. That took us completely by surprise, to come in a church like that. A certain part of my body holds that always. I put my hand on my head and I thank the Lord I didn’t die. I was bleeding all over. The doctor said I only had a 50 percent chance to live.

“I had revenge in my mind for many years. When I visited, I didn’t even want to walk up through town. I’d just go to my brother’s house and stay there. There are some low-down white people there. If they could get the power again, they’d do the same thing over again. They don’t think we are people. But they’d be surprised this time. Not me, I wouldn’t take up arms against them, but there are some that would, for sure. I was losing blood like you know what. But I made it. My mind is not like it used to be. I had fear in my mind for a long time but the Lord helped me through”

Frank called me back a few weeks later. Our conversations had brought that terrible night back vividly. I apologized. He said, “No, it is always there in the back of my mind. There is no way to forget it completely. I felt like I woke to find the shadow of death was hovering over me. Just before the man began to beat me with a lead pipe, I instinctively put my arm over my eyes; I didn’t want them to blind me. Two men hit me over and over and over, like they would never stop. The Lord must have been protecting me; otherwise I could be blind. Or dead.

“Me and a bunch of other guys went to a class reunion a few years back and they talked about that like we were heroes or something. I tried to block it out of my mind. I left to go to New York in 1968. Living in Camden, it was a nightmare . . . a real nightmare, I tell you.”

Frank Connor may not have wanted to be a hero, but all those young women and men who put their lives on the line for racial equality, the right to vote and to desegregate schools are heroes to me. May he rest in peace and blessed memory and all who mourn be comforted.

For more stories of the young people who risked their lives for civil rights, please read “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” (University of Alabama Press 2014)  www.thisbrightlightofours.com 

Antioch Baptist Church, Camden

Antioch Baptist Church, Camden AL June 1965 Photo by John Worcester

Historic NY Times Article on Wilcox County 1966 Elections

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Thanks Bruce Hartford for sending this terrific NY Times 1966 article by Gene Roberts. That month was the first opportunity for newly registered African American voters to elect their own candidates including sheriff. Military veteran Walter J Calhoun took on the challenge in deeply segregated Wilcox County, Alabama. Although he and the other Peoples Choice candidates did not prevail, they paved the way for future success. This in depth gives perspectives Black activists and the white establishment including fascinating quotes from Calhoun, Dan Harrell, former sheriff Lummie Jenkins, landowner Sam Hicks and others on both sides of a deep divide about race and politics.

April 17, 1966 Wilcox County strategy session with State Senate candidate Lonnie Brown, Walter J Calhoun, candidate for Sheriff and SCLC leader Daniel Harrell

April 17, 1966 Wilcox County strategy session with State Senate candidate Lonnie Brown, Walter J Calhoun, candidate for Sheriff and SCLC leader Daniel Harrell

To read and order article:

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9F0DE2D7113EE43BBC4F52DFB266838D679EDE&legacy=true

For more Wilcox County Voting Rights History: www.thisbrightlightofours.com 

24 Hours in Jail for “Conspiracy to Boycott” in Camden, Alabama 1965

51 years ago yesterday, I was arrested along with 18 voting rights co-workers in Camden, Alabama. We were incarcerated in the old Camden jail which has since been torn down, not the old old jail which still stands. My 32 hrs. in jail were dramatic and frightening as I record in my book, “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” www.thisbrightlightofours.com.

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These young men went to jail for your right to vote – What will you do to protect voting rights?

Since the book came out, several others have shared their memories of these events. A white seminarian, John Worcester added his memories to my own. Being older and living at Camden Academy rather than out in the rural areas, he had a calmer perspective than I did as an impressionable teen. This is an excerpt from his report detailing our arrest sent to Junius Griffin, Public Relations Director for SCLC, dated July 6, 1965:

worcester 2 in friendship circle

“On Monday, June 29, at approximately 12:30 p.m., Mayor F.R. (Reg) Albritton entered Antioch Baptist Church, the office and headquarters of the SCOPE project in this county. He had with him deputies and policemen who were armed. After being asked to show a search warrant, and showing none, they arrested 18* persons (see list below), leaving some in the church who were not arrested at this time. One youth, Don Green, was roughed up by one of the deputies. We have witnesses to this occurrence (I, Maria was one). Those arrested were booked on charges of “possession and distribution of boycott materials.” Within 30 minutes of this arrest, the bail was set at $1000 per person. At about 1;45 p.m. I was allowed to visit the jail – in the colored section – with Mr. Albert Gordon and Mr. James Ephraim. (This sentence is unclear, was James Ephraim in jail or visiting? ) Soon after that visit, bail was arranged for Mr. Gordon and he was released in late afternoon of the same day. It was at this time that Mike Farley was allegedly beaten by the other occupant of the cell – a man who had been there when Farley was jailed. Only a few who were in the Negro section were able to witness this beating. (I, Maria heard it and heard a much worse beating that took place later than evening. Mike called to us for help.)

[Worcester then gives descriptions of the legal disposition, those of us released without further charges “due to insufficient evidence” and those who signed bonds. His list of arrestees:

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Mr Albert Gordon, civil rights leader and teacher. Photo courtesy Bob Fitch Archives Stanford University

Adult Leaders: Mr. Albert Gordon and Rev Major Johns (director of Wilcox SCOPE project, SCLC staff)

Student workers: Don Green* ( Worcester mentions him, but forgot to list or count him in the roster of arrestees)

Joyce Brians (my name changed to Maria Gitin in 1970)

Connie Turner

Ann Nesbit

Lester Core

John Davis

Paul Ford

Roosevelt Washington

Johnny Jackson

Celister Wright (from Coy)

George Shamburger (deceased)

Elmo Jones (deceased)

Harris Knight

Sherry (Shari) Thurber

Judy Harmon

Ashley Stalworth (deceased)

Mike Farley22 Mike Farley beaten about the face in jail

Please share your memories of this arrest in the comment section for moderation and posting. Thank you!

Lonnie Brown, Wilcox County Voting Rights Hero

In the early 1960’s farmers and residents of Gees Bend and surrounding areas intensified their efforts to get African Americans registered to vote in Wilcox County. Although 78% of population, no one had been allowed to register or to vote.  In April 1963, twenty men from the Gees Bend region marched on the Wilcox County Courthouse.  Their primary objective was to be able to vote on the commissioners to the powerful county agricultural committee which allotted federal agricultural subsidies and loans previously denied to Black farmers. Rev Lonnie Brown and farmer Monroe Pettway led this historic march after visits from Martin Luther King Jr and participating in organizing training from SCLC staffer Bernard LaFayette. LaFayette accompanied the men to the courthouse and shared the risk of arrest with the entire group. Although the men were denied access to registration, they were not arrested and returned peacefully proud of their accomplishment in reaching the courthouse, the first documented organized voter registration effort in Wilcox County.

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Lonnie Brown, Gees Bend organizer and leader. Ran for AL State Senate District 19 in 1966. Photo courtesy Bob Fitch Photo Archives Stanford University Libraries

Rev Lonnie Brown was a pastor at Pleasant View Baptist Church who worked as an insurance agent who visited his customers and potential customers on the tenant farms and plantations where they lived and worked. When he began recruiting potential voters along with insurance customers, white Wilcox County landowners organized and filed a trespassing complaint. Two of of the 28 white landowners who signed the complaint were George Findley and James Strother. At a recent presentation in Selma, AL a white gentleman told me that he was proud that his father refused to sign the 1963 complaint.

On behalf of Rev. Brown and local leaders, the U.S. Attorney General’s office brought an action against the landowners (US v Bruce: 353 F .2d 474;1965 US App. LEXIS 3942) and eventually dismissed the complaint, which allowed Brown and others who had prior permission, to once again organize on property where he had been permitted to sell insurance. In 1965, the Federal Court of Appeals found that the federal government made a “strong case” and that the property owners did in fact “intimidate and coerce” the black citizens of Wilcox County for “ the purpose of interfering with their right to vote.”

During the two years this case took place, Rev Brown was forced to sell insurance in adjacent counties, included Dallas County, as he was barred from entering the properties of his clients. His family continues to be active in Wilcox County politics.

Source: U.S. Court of Appeals, (1965), U.S. v Bruce, 353 F2d 474.

This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight www.thisbrightlightofours.com 

Speaking about Wilcox County Freedom Fighters at the Foot of the Bridge in Selma

Thank you to Park Ranger Theresa Hall, the rest of the staff and friends of Selma Interpretive Center for a great reception Monday June 6th. I so appreciate the attentive, interactive community members, friends who traveled from Camden and South Carolina and for the Montessori school children from Illinois who asked such great questions. Always a treat to see my canvassing partner, Robert Powell, friends Alma Moton-King and Anne Matthews, Rosetta Anderson and more from Wilcox.  You made this a very special day for all of us. It was an honor to be invited by the National Park Service to share the long lost history of the Wilcox County Alabama Voting Rights Fight. http://www.thisbrightlightofours.comFullSizeRender-3 Gitin Selma flyer FullSizeRender-2 FullSizeRenderFullSizeRender-1IMG_2565 (1)IMG_2566 (1)