Happy 4th of July: 1965

Joyce Brians (Maria Gitin), civil rights worker 1965.

Joyce Brians (Maria Gitin), civil rights worker 1965.

This is one my letters home that I only excerpted from in my book. What was like for my family to be reading this around the dinner table, thousands of miles away? Today, I imagine the heartache, fear and pride that parents share as youth in Charleston and around the South continue to combat a new wave of murder and church burnings.

July 1, 1965

Dear Family,

Hi! Things have been really hot around here – in more ways than one. The nite (sic) after I got out of jail – the same night I phoned you – two of our local boys were beaten in the church. The church was sacked, doors broken down, gunshots in the walls. One boy who was beaten with a lead pipe is in precariously dangerous shape in the Selma hospital. We could only find a white doctor for him & he isn’t getting the best of care. The other boy was clubbed but is recovering nicely. The local crackers did the job – some of them are Sheriff Jenkins possemen during the day.

It is now July 2-

While I was in jail the white boy in the cell next to me was beaten by his white Southern roommate. I could hear him screaming & moaning. The guards gave Crow – his cellmate – cigarettes for beating him. It made me so sick I couldn’t eat anything so I gave my food – what little there was – to an insane man who was in the cell next to me. The trustees (Negroes who are guards) gave us a bad time.

It is now July 3 – every time I sit down to write to you someone calls a staff meeting or the phone rings. Anyway – jail was hideous but I ‘ll write you the gory details some other time. The nite I was released was the nite the two boys were beaten in our church. I phoned the hospital, newspapers, etc. I’ve developed a close relationship with one of the men (white) on staff. I can’ t say anymore about it because that is the kind of ammunition police could use if either of us gets jailed again. We stayed up all nite by the phone for further news. It was a miserable nite. At 5 AM another boy phoned from the church – he had been beaten, too.

The story was that 8 white men in stocking masks broke down both doors of the church, shot a hole in the wall & beat 3 boys with a lead pipe. I went to the church the next day and it was a mess.

(Again I must go – hope I finish this soon)

It is now July 5th – I had to move out of Camden Academy cuz I didn’t get a letter to (Principal) Hobbs in time. Besides, it’s too dangerous to be in Camden now.

Yesterday you never would have known we were having a Movement. We went to the Playground & swam & roasted hotddogs & danced & sang. It was a great day & no arrests were made for a change.

I am staying with a wonderful woman in Coy (one of Ethel Brooks’ neighbors or a relative) near Camden. I don’t know when I’ll get to write to you again.

I love you. Thanks for your letters – they mean so much. I got the dresses – the shift is really nice.

We’ll be canvassing voters all over the county for the next two weeks so its on the road for me. We’ll just stay at folks houses when evening falls.

Love, Joyce

PS

It’s 6:30 AM July 6th – and we are ready to go out in the field to canvass for voters. There are more little incidents all the time. One of the strongest local leaders [ Don Green ] a junior in high school, had some moonshine planted in his car. When he drove out of the Sawmill Quarter, the police were waiting for him. They took him to jail, put him in the bull pen – a cell with no windows or ventilation, harassed him, left him overnight & released him. He’s been beaten dozens of times, yet he’s a wonderful person [meaning, he wasn’t bitter or angry]. Well, our ride is here.

Much love, Joyce   – for more about this summer and the Wilcox County Voting Rights struggle in 1965, read “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” by Maria Gitin (formerly Joyce Brians). http://www.thisbrightlightofours.com

Wilcox County “First” Electeds – Featuring Jesse Brooks of Coy, AL

It was twelve years after twelve years after the first group of candidates ran for office and thirteen years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the first African Americans were elected in Wilcox County Alabama. BAMA Kids presented a celebration of this historic event and of Wilcox County Black History February 21-22nd. For more information: Wilcox Area Chamber of Commerce.

Jesse Brooksr and his daughter Ethel Brooks, Freedom Fighters. Bob Fitch photo 1966 @ Stanford University Archives.

Jesse Brooksr and his daughter Ethel Brooks, Freedom Fighters. Bob Fitch photo 1966 @ Stanford University Archives.

Farmer and military veteran Jesse Brooks was a man of action long before he was elected Tax Assessor in 1978. Beginning in 1965, with his wife Julia and daughter Ethel, he organized voter education and registration activities, worked on veteran’s and farmer’s affairs, and risked hosting outside civil rights workers. Both Jesse Brooks and Ethel were natural and SCLC trained leaders in the Wilcox County movement. When I met Mr. Brooks, he was optimistic and said that would run only if necessary to get honest people into office. He did not run on the People’s Choice” slate in 1966 but worked hard for those who did. Despite great organizing, African American candidates for county office continued to be defeated until November 1978 when Jesse Brooks was elected Tax Assessor, and Prince Arnold became Sheriff.

In January 1979, a formal inaugural ball and program was held in the Camden National Guard Armory on Whiskey Run Road to celebrate this great victory. When Jesse Brooks spoke he didn’t talk about his office or campaign promises. “I stand here before you as your tax collector,” he told his friends and neighbors. “But I also stand here tonight for someone else. I stand here as the grandson of a little Black slave boy who was brought down river from Charleston, South Carolina, to Lower Peachtree, Alabama, and sold for a thousand dollars. Thanks be to God there’s not going to be any more bidding off of human beings!”

It was a wildly emotional moment and Brooks stood in the center of it ramrod straight, letting the cheers and clamorous applause roll around him. It was a golden moment when the years of struggle, pain and despair were faced squarely and dismissed. The sufferings of that “little Black slave boy” had been vindicated.

Brooks did not fail to mention that what is ahead is more struggle, but “we plan to push forward until justice runs down like mighty waters,” using one of Dr. King’s favorite quotes from the prophet Amos. Mr. Brooks vowed to walk into the courthouse “just like John walked into Jerusalem” and begin working hard to build what he predicted will become “one of the best counties in God’s country.”

Compiled by Maria Gitin in Memory of Jesse Brooks, based on her personal friendship with the Brooks family, her book “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” www.thisbrightlightofours.com copyright University of Alabama Press 2014 and an article by Harriet Swift, “A New Day in Wilcox” http://beck.library.emory.edu/southernchanges/article.php?id=sc01-6_002 copyright Emory University 1979.

Remembering Kate Charley 1934-2013

For many years I spoke with Kate Charley, retired school teacher and community leader in Coy, AL at least once a month. She was beloved by many former students who visited often and was a forceful booster for projects to benefit the community such as the Bessie W. Munden Playground, the Camden Christian Academy and most of all, Little Zion #1 Missionary Baptist Church. In January 2013 at age 79,she passed of natural causes and was laid to rest in the church cemetery after a large, loving service. When I miss her voice, sharp insights and friendship, I re-read some of what she shared for “This Bright Light of Ours,” my book about Wilcox County voting rights in which her family was deeply involved.

Miss Kate Charley celebrated her African heritage

Miss Kate Charley celebrated her African heritage

Kate on Race Relations in Camden

“A bit of progress has been made, but schools are still segregated, housing is segregated. There’s been a little bit of progress in job opportunities in banks and government. But the white and Black employees don’t eat lunch together, and don’t get together outside of work. If we go in the bank now, they (whites) will treat us alright. They act polite enough in public, but don’t mix outside of work.

The KKK, segregationists are now lower key now. If they want something done – violence or whatever, they get a Black man to do it, give them money or drink or buy them a car. They get them to go agitate against the others who are trying to accomplish something, like our little school, the Camden Christian Academy. But they, the KKK, didn’t go away, they are just out in their hunting clubs, probably cryin’ in their beer.”

Kate on Loyalty

“ You are probably not a Dodgers fan because you live closer to San Francisco (Giants) but once I am loyal to something or someone, I stay loyal. I always liked the Dodgers. I had to get a new truck so when I was picking it out I said I believe I’ll take the blue one, you know “Dodger Blue”; that’s the truck I drive. I am loyal that way.”

Kate Charley, Maria Gitin, Iris Judson join in prayer for Wilcox County civil rights martyrs March 1, 2010

Kate Charley, Maria Gitin, Iris Judson join in prayer for Wilcox County civil rights martyrs March 1, 2010

Please share your remembrances of Kate and read more about this remarkable woman in “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” www.thisbrightlightofours.com

When the People had to Fight to Vote

In 1965, in Wilcox County AL and in countless majority African American counties all over the South, Black citizens rose up in a nonviolent battle for their voting rights. With pressure brought on Congress and President Johnson to finally sign the Voting Rights Act on August 6th, all were free to register. Despite extensive documentation of discrimination, federal registrars did not arrive until late August. Only then were citizens allowed to register at the “real” courthouse on the town square instead of here at the “courthouse annex” which was the old jail. The victory was sweet. Today, we have to fight to get out 28% of voters for any election. Let’s reflect on the sacrifices of our elders, and work to get everyone out to vote this November.

 Evidence of need for federal registrars under new Voting Rights Act. August 1965. J Worcester photo.

Evidence of need for federal registrars under new Voting Rights Act. August 1965. J Worcester photo.

Qualified citizens stand for hours to exercise their voting rights, denied for over 100 years. J Worcester photo. August 1965

Qualified citizens stand for hours to exercise their voting rights, denied for over 100 years. J Worcester photo. August 1965