Linking the Generations

Willie H Parker 1965 FullSizeRender 2

Last week, Ms. Cassandra Vee Rodgers wrote to me on Face Book that she wanted to surprise her fiance, Mr Tyrone Bryant, by coming to meet me and having me sign a copy of “This Bright Light of Ours” for him because his father, Willie H Parker of Coy is featured on the book jacket. We had a wonderful visit yesterday.  Growing up, Bryant did not get to know his father well so he was surprised and happy to meet someone who knows about his father’s courageous Camden Academy Class of 1965.

Camden Academy students, including Willie Parker, Sim Pettway, Ralph Eggleston, and many others, participated in almost daily demonstrations from February-May of their senior year. They were tear gassed, beaten, cattle prodded, ridiculed and threatened with suspension, but they kept on with the encouragement and support of Camden Academy Chaplain TL Threadgill, and teachers Mr Parrish and Mr. Foster.

Learn more about the Camden Academy student movement in these books:TBLO book jacket_low res

“This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” by Maria Gitin www.thisbrightlightofours.com

“In the Shadow of Selma: The Continuing Struggle for Civil Rights in the Rural South by Cynthia Griggs Fleming

 

Freedom Summer 1965: #4 June 20

My First Mass Meeting

Sunday June 20, 1965 was one of the longest days of my nineteen year old life. We had been woken before dawn by threats from Klan members surrounding Antioch Baptist Church, then I attended my first African American church service before moving my meager civil rights traveling kit to Camden Academy girls dormitory which I hoped would be my home for the rest of the summer. At the Academy, we were threatened and eventually forbidden to stay because we were breaking the strict segregation code of Wilcox County, AL

IMG_0730_0067_067That evening, west coast seminary student John Golden drove some of us out to Little Zion Baptist Church in Coy to a mass meeting led by Rev. Daniel Harrell. Dan was our other SCOPE field director and director of 7 counties for the summer voter registration project. Major Johns was our county director and worked closely with Dan.

Despite my exhaustion I was on the edge of my pew for nearly two hours while first Dan and then Major Johns preached to a full house about getting out the vote, taking the next step to freedom. Major exhorted the crowd, “Don’t be waitin’ for the Promised Land. You can be in the Promised Land tomorrow. You can fulfill that promise: You can be a free man, free to vote! Get yourself registered. We need volunteers to carry folks into town, to help organize others, to take in some of our summer workers. You can sign up tonight with Mrs. Angion in the back. But get yourself registered first, that’s the first thing. You wanna be in that number! These students come all the way from Atlanta and California just to help us so we gotta show them we can help ourselves.” At the end of the meeting, Dan asked us new arrivals to stand, and the people applauded.
Late that night, I started coughing. I felt a fever coming on but before I could rest, I had to complete my first letter to my friends and supporters back home in California. Jeanne Searight, my college roommate and secretary at the Ecumenical House at San Francisco State College, typed and mailed my report letters to friends and supporters.

College Roomates 1965 Diane R, Lorraine Quan, Jeanne Searight, Maria Gitin (Joyce Brians)

College Roomates 1965
Diane R, Lorraine Quan, Jeanne Searight, Maria Gitin (Joyce Brians)

From my first letter, June 1965:

Dear Family and Friends:

This is another world. It’s a world where I, a 19-year-old white northern woman, am not free. I am not free to go into the white section of Camden, Alabama with a Negro.1 I am not free to work in civil rights and still relate to the Southern whites. I can’t go out after dark or go on a single date or swim in a public pool all summer. You people think you are free. When I was in San Francisco I thought I was free. But, we’re not free. I’m not down here fighting so any Negro can vote; I’m fighting for my rights—my human right to choose my friends as I please, to work with whoever I want, to worship with all peoples.

There is a Movement going on. God is acting in history. It’s God, not Martin Luther King, or James Bevel or Hosea Williams that is leading this movement. It’s faith that enables people to endure with one meal a day, four hours sleep, and one change of clothes. And they can still sing and shout praises.

When I finally crawled into bed, worried and scared about a hundred things, sick from the local croup, tired from the long meeting, I had a hope in my heart. It’s a hope I found in the midst of these people who live in the midst of hatred and degradation; I found it in the faces of the young Negro children and I found it in the voices of my fellow SCOPE workers. This hope is that We Shall Overcome.” – excerpted and condensed from Chapter 4, This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, Maria Gitin, University of Alabama Press. 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