Freedom Summer 1965: Sunday June 20, 1965 #2

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

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

Fearing the armed men might return, I spent a restless night on the floor of Antioch Baptist church,while my exhausted co-workers slept and our leader, Major Johns, kept watch over us. He asked us to clean up before the deacons arrived to prepare for morning services. I splashed cold water on my face and ran a comb through my straight hair, and pressed my hot hands over my wrinkled dress before joining others on the steps to greet incoming parishoners.

“I couldn’t help but look around the sanctuary, hoping I wasn’t staring rudely. The church people were all Black, which was unfamiliar to me. Some of the adults smiled and welcomed us, some looked away, some looked anxious. The ladies fanned themselves with paper fans from Brownlee’s Funeral Parlor with bible verses printed on one side. I’m sure Rev. Freeman gave a wonderful sermon, but I could scarcely keep my eyes open in the hot humid sanctuary where I had spent a sleepless night. Kids were all over us before and after services. “Where ya’ll from? Do you know Dr. King? Why is your hair like that [straight]? Are you comin’ to our house?”
“Yes, Dr. King sent me. That’s right, I hope to visit your family. Are your parents registered?” I tried to remember what we’d been told to say, but when it came to my hair, I just offered, “Would you like to touch it?” Two little girls stroked my long, straight brown hair, and one said, “Oooh it’s soft!” I had read about the study that was used in Brown v. Board of Education in which the black children preferred white dolls to ones that looked like them, so I quickly and sincerely said, “Well, I like yours more. It keeps its shape better in this heat.” Excerpt from Chapter 4 “This Bright Light of Ours”  www.thisbrightlightofours.com

@ Bob Adelman

@ Bob Adelman

I tried to practice what we had learned at the SCLC SCOPE Orientation in Atlanta a week earlier. Our mission was to assist the African American community with voter registration and to demonstrate that our belief in equality. At first, variations of the local dialect made it difficult for me to understand everything the local adults and children said, but smiles and hugs were a universal language – especially with the children – and they helped me catch on.

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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

Why we must vote

By Maria Gitin

Special to the Sentinel Published Sunday July 20, 2014

Link: http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/Opinion/ci_26180697/Maria-Gitin:-Why-we-must-vote

Aug. 6 is the 49th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This landmark federal legislation prohibits racial discrimination in voting and led to removal of other barriers to voting that benefit people with disabilities, citizens with language differences and those whose work schedule requires weekend voting.

The act passed only after decades of civil rights activism. Well-known tragedies on the road to enfranchisement include the murder of four little girls in a Birmingham church, the assassination of three voting-rights activists during Mississippi Freedom Summer, and the “Bloody Sunday” attack on peaceful marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

These are the stories that most of us know, but for over a decade tens of thousands of African-American grassroots activists like Mrs. Rosetta Angion organized in obscurity. While working on voter registration project in 1965, I met Mrs. Angion, mother of 16 children in the rural community of Coy, Alabama, who somehow found time to participate in voting rights demonstrations. She told me that John Lewis, now a Georgia congressman and then leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, explained, “You were not a real citizen unless you could vote.” Her commitment was so strong that she allowed two of her young daughters to march on Bloody Sunday.

Mrs Rosetta Angion at home where we picked up canvassing lists and potential voters in Summer 2965

Mrs Rosetta Angion at home where we picked up canvassing lists and potential voters in Summer 2965

Following a presentation at Cabrillo College last year, a student asked me why he should register to vote. “After all, doesn’t voting just support the status quo?” Apparently, many agree with this discouraging view. Although better than the state average, only 34.8 percent of Santa Cruz County registered voters cast ballots in the recent primary election. Nationally, only 23 percent voted in the 2012 presidential election.

Why should we vote? There is a saying that bad officials are elected by good people who don’t vote. Low voter turnout results in a small fraction of voters electing officials who make decisions that affect all of us.

Mary Ann Angion Robinson shows me where she was attacked on March 7, 1965

Mary Ann Angion Robinson shows me where she was attacked on March 7, 1965

Thousands of courageous people like Mrs. Angion and her daughters risked their lives for your right to vote. To honor their legacy and to make your voice heard, please register now and vote in November. Visit Santa Cruz County’s elections website at www.votescount.com.

Maria Gitin will read from her book, “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight,” at Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 11.

Major Johns – SCLC Field Director and Civil Rights Hero

Major Johns, center with other student protesters at Southern University in Baton Rouge

Major Johns, center with other student protesters at Southern University in Baton Rouge

During the summer of 1965, one of my favorite leaders was Major Johns. He was one of our SCLC field directors who was strict with his young recruits and who always looked out for us. Born and raised in Plaquemines, Louisiana, Rev. Major Johns was instrumental in the civil rights movement in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana for at least a decade, yet he has scarcely been mentioned in books until the publication of “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight.”

In 1960, five years before we met him in Camden, AL he was arrested along with other Southern University students for sitting-in at a Kress lunch counter in Baton Rouge as part of a multi-state Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) de-segregation drive. When they got out of jail Major Johns and two classmates stood on a school bus while he made a rousing speech. They and other CORE members organized a march to the state capitol of more than three thousand Southern University students to protest segregation and the arrests of students participating in sit-ins at segregated drugstore soda fountains and bus terminals. According to authors of “A More Noble Cause” Rachel L. Emanuel and Alexander P.Tureaud Jr., Major Johns was the chief strategist for the walk outs. All of the arrested students were expelled from Southern University and barred from all public colleges and universities in the state. In 2004, long after Major’s death, the student civil rights leaders were awarded honorary degrees and the state legislature passed a resolution in their honor.

Jesse Smith, was a teenager who had shown Luke and me around Lower Peachtree in 1965. He recalls Major spending time at their family home and at his father Rev. Smith’s church. “Major Johns, once in while he would talk about the black history of America —Crispus Attucks and all that. He was so inspiring. He’d quote from the Constitution about the right of the people to form or abolish this kind of government. There was so much power in his words; that man could speak!”

Major served in Wilcox County for more than six months in 1965 and in many other areas before returning to Louisiana where he fulfilled his dream of becoming a divinity school graduate and ordained minister, before he died of an aneurism at age 44. His survivors include children: Major Johns Jr, Cynthia Johns, Kenan Johns and his brother William, sisters Mary and Ella. I would be glad to hear from other survivors. More about Major is in my book “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” www.thisbrightlightourours.com

Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) Project Orientation Part I

Excerpted from my letter of June 20, 1965 about the 5.5 day SCOPE/SCLC Project orientation that I and 400+ students attended prior to being assigned to our counties. I would be assigned to Wilcox County, AL. But did not know that at the time. Coming from northern California, I was filled with missionary zeal and idealism which is reflected in my letter. At age 19, I had high hopes for our country and great respect for the leaders of our project. SCOPE was directed by Hosea L Williams with the intention to use (mostly) white college students to support local communities in their efforts to secure the African American vote. At that time “Negro” was the preferred term of respect by African American leaders.

 L to R- Benjamin Van Clarke, Stoney Cook, Carl Farris, Andrew Marquette, Richard Boone w/ Hosea Williams at SCOPE House in Atlanta 1965

L to R- SCOPE Staff Benjamin Van Clarke, Stoney Cook, Carl Farris, Andrew Marquette, Richard Boone w/ Hosea Williams at SCOPE House in Atlanta 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. 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 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.

Early Sunday morning we arrived at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia. We were assigned to our dormitories and given meal tickets. About 400 people attended the orientation. The very first evening we sat for 2-1/2 hours in the gym in 100-degree weather where we met and listened to the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Rev. Hosea Williams, SCOPE project director, was the main speaker. He gave us a pep talk and introduced us to the people we would be working with, including a large number of professors from top colleges and universities. We closed the evening by joining hands and singing “We Shall Overcome” followed by a closing prayer.

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.”

In the afternoon we heard the history of the whole civil rights movement from SCLC staff member, Bayard Rustin. Following that we broke up into small workshops to discuss the speech. The faculty members lead these sessions and two or three staff members sat in on them. Many of our more practical concerns were dealt with here. [ Check back for more or – read the book]

-Excerpt from “This Bright Light of Ours” @University of Alabama Press 2014. For more about the Orientation and the book: www.thisbrightlightofours.com

SCLC’s SCOPE project in Wilcox County Summer 1965

June – August 1965 SCLC’S Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) project – Wilcox County

Hosea L Williams with his top SCOPE staff outside the Freedom House in Atlanta in the Summer of 1965. As stated by his daughter, Dr. Barbara Williams Emerson in February 2012, "It is a good photo from the period, but it says nothing, or everything, about female participation": L to R- Benjamin Van Clarke, Stoney Cook, Carl Farris, Andrew Marquette , and Richard Boone. – Courtesy Barbara Emerson Williams. Copyright, all rights reserved.

Hosea L Williams with his top SCOPE staff outside the Freedom House in Atlanta in the Summer of 1965. As stated by his daughter, Dr. Barbara Williams Emerson in February 2012, “It is a good photo from the period, but it says nothing, or everything, about female participation”: L to R- Benjamin Van Clarke, Stoney Cook, Carl Farris, Andrew Marquette , and Richard Boone. – Courtesy Barbara Emerson Williams. Copyright, all rights reserved.

SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Project) SCOPE (Summer Community Organization and Education) project, directed by Rev. Hosea Williams, was part of an already active Alabama Voter Education Project that coordinated (or attempted to coordinate) efforts between multiple civil rights organizations. As many as 600 black and white college (and some high school) students were assigned to six states for ten weeks after a 5.5 day 14 hr a day intensive Orientation in Atlanta, GA June 14-19, 1965.

In Wilcox County, five white northern student volunteers joined SCLC’s Dan and Juanita Harrell, and Major Johns, two

Dan Harrell in front of Antioch Baptist church

Dan Harrell in front of Antioch Baptist church

(perhaps three) white seminary students from California and some SNCC field workers from Selma to support local leaders in voter education, voter registration and leadership development. In early April, Californian Bob Block, who had walked all five days of the March to Montgomery, came over from Selma with Strider Benston, Bruce Hartford and Charles Bonner to join a Camden Academy student demonstration led by Ralph Eggleston, Sim Pettway and other students. Block was recruited by Dan Harrell to stay on as SCLC field staff. Local activist Ethel Brooks was also on SCLC SCOPE staff that summer. Students Robert Powell, Grady and Charles Nettles, Don Green, and Frank Conner; Mary Alice Robinson and Betty Anderson were some of the many Camden Academy activists working with SCOPE on voter education and registration after their own demonstrations all spring. Local adult leaders included: Rev. Thomas L Threadgill, Mr Albert Gordon, Mrs Rosetta Anderson, Mrs. Virginia Boykin Burrell and many others from the rural areas of Wilcox County. About 30 total local and field workers canvassed all summer, resulting in 500 new registered voters before the passage of the Voting Rights Act in August. Soon after passage, more than 3,000 Wilcox residents were registered, creating a new African American majority.

Charles “Chuck” A. Bonner of Selma SNCC began to coordinate voting efforts in Wilcox County with SCLC and later, SCOPE. Bob Block and I (Joyce Brians/Maria Gitin) belonged to SNCC and SCLC. SCLC/SCOPE workers were the majority in Wilcox County that summer. Most local residents didn’t know or care who were with except for being “sent by Dr King” and “with the Movement.” Local white segregationists called us as “outside agitators.”

Ethel Brooks SCLC Wilcox County field staff

Ethel Brooks SCLC Wilcox County field staff

 

For more about SCOPE and Voting Rights in Wilcox County, AL  This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight by Maria Gitin: www.thisbrightlightofours.com

More about VEP: http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_voter_education_project/

This Bright Light of Ours Prepares to Launch: Save These Dates!

To stay current with Maria Gitin & friends events and appearances, and to leave comments about the book, please visit www.thisbrightlightofours.com

Upcoming Events and Appearances 

Maria with Charles Bonner, Karina Cervantez and Javier de la Paz

Maria with Charles Bonner, Karina Cervantez and Javier de la Paz

Saturday February 15th – Oakland, CA, Holy Names University Social Justice Forum, Voting Rights panel with civil right attorney Charles A Bonner and Watsonville Mayor Karina Cervantez. Register for this great conference: The Dream Lives On: A Call to Action http://www.hnu.edu/SocialJustice

Thursday February 20th Aptos, CA– 6-7:30 PM West Coast Book Launch, Reading, & Signing at Temple Beth El, 3055 Porter Gulch Rd,  Free and open to the public with hosted reception.

Honoring Martin Luther King Jr at Temple Beth El

Honoring Martin Luther King Jr at Temple Beth El

Thursday March 6th  Camden, AL —  6-7:30 PM  Alabama Book Book Launch Celebration at the Lena Powell Convention Center 211 Claiborne Street in. Camden native son, Rev Dr LV Baldwin will come to give the invocation. Brief program with reading, historic slides and recognition of the 30+ families and individuals who contributed stories to the book. Free and open to the public with hosted reception, book sales and signing.

Freedom Fighters: The Next Generation

Freedom Fighters: The Next Generation

Sunday March 9th Selma, AL– Participate in the Selma Jubilee bridge re-enactment ceremony. Meet under the Wilcox County Freedom Fighters banner outside Brown Chapel.  Families may make T-shirts or posters with family and civil rights hero photo on them. Please spread the word to everyone who lived or worked in the Wilcox Movement. 

Thursday, March 13th Mobile AL – 6:30 PM Museum of History, Book talk, signing and reception. 251-208-7246 or http://www.thisbrightlightofours.com