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

James “Arkansas” Benston Returns to Camden

Civil Rights Veteran James Benston Returns to Camden where he marched with Dr. King, SCLC and SNCC. Shown buying Maria Gitin's book at Black Belt Treasures.

Civil Rights Veteran James Benston Returns to Camden where he marched with Dr. King, SCLC and SNCC. Shown buying Maria Gitin’s book at Black Belt Treasures.

Excerpted from his own account – “Strider”/”Arkansas”/Jim Benston, a white Southern youth activist, wrote to me on February 18, 2010: 

So, that morning, 10th? I was commissioned to drive the van to Camden (from Selma),take these fresh kids with me & look out for them. No leadership training, no specified authority. Only (told me the) location of Camden Academy, & “support them.” I don’t remember who told me to take the van & its occupants to Camden. Maybe (James) Orange had come back into town.

So there I was, in charge of 3 or 4 Yankee kids who just showed up [including Bob Block, Richard Stephenson and Bruce Hartford], no experience;  3 or 4 Selma kids [including Charles Bonner, Amos Snell], experienced but younger, & me, at 20;going into battle in a town I had never been to, & knew nobody.  “Just do it!”  OK!

I only remember 2 adults from Camden, {probably there were more} the minister, who may have also been a teacher [Rev Thomas Threadgill and/ or Daniel Harrell], and a woman, probably in her 40s. It seems that we were about 30 or 35 total, mostly kids. We marched into town & were met by Mayor Reg (Albritton) & his boys, and a few Deputies, perhaps under separate authority. I recall some very brief speechifying, & then the minister kneeled us down to pray. There came a defining moment in my life.

A little girl, about age 12 was on my right, holding my hand.  One deputy strode up and stuck his gun in her face. His words were severe, which I do remember, or think I remember, it was so firmly planted in my Being. The deputy stuck his shotgun, [tear gas gun?]  into her face & spewed his words. In response to his threat of imminent murder, she squeezed my hand, then just held it firmly, looked into his eyes, and spoke calmly. “Mister, you do what you gotta do,  but I ain’t movin’ for nobody.” Those heart words almost knocked him off his feet.  He staggered back as though he had been smashed in the face by a beer bottle.A minute or two later came the tear gas. Everybody bolted, this was army combat tear gas, & thicker than on the Bridge in Selma.  There was no wind, Crying, running, vomiting, stumbling.   My only guide was that unknown little girl.  I could NOT let her down. so, I started singing, “Ain’t gonna let no tear gas  turn me ’round,  turn me ’round, turn me ’round,Ain’t gonna let no tear gas turn me ’round.I’m gonna keep on a walkin’   keep on a talkin’ Marchin’ up to Freedom Land !”

Within 10 seconds everyone was back on the line, singin’, clappin’ dancin,’  Marchin’ up to Freedom Land.That is when, & why the cops regrouped  &  came after me.They broke our armlock first, & then went for my head. In his book, “White Kids.” Reavis describes my being singled out and beaten in Demopolis later that summer, which was so similar to Camden that I had totally forgotten about it until I read (& edited) his book.

My being beaten was on Huntley-Brinkley that night,  & was seen by my grandmother’s sister in Birmingham. My Grandmorther, Mrs. Sam Wallace, was the President of the UDC    – that’s  United Daughters of the Confederacy  –  in Birmingham. My Aunt Jean from Chattanooga was visiting when they saw me on national news. They decided my beating and arrest was appropriate, & sent a bible to the Camden white folks’s church to deliver to me. – © James Benston 2010.

Contact “Strider” Benston and read more of his stories at http://striderben.wordpress.com/

“This Bright Light of Ours” to Shine in 2015 Martin Luther King Jr Celebrations

Sheryl Threadgill-Matthews brings BAMA kids to meet author Maria Gitin

Sheryl Threadgill-Matthews brings BAMA kids to meet author Maria Gitin

Save the date for talks in Seattle, Monterey and Palo Alto. Check back for details in a few weeks.

January 13, 2015: Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle WA 

7 PM This Bright Light of Ours – Author Book signing event   http://www.elliottbaybook.com/

January 14, 2015: Open Windows School, Bellevue WA – MLK student assembly speaker

January 15, 2015: MLK Seattle Celebration 33rd Anniversary, King County, Seattle WA

The Voting Rights Fight, Keynote speaker for community celebration honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday. For more information:http://www.mlkseattle.org/

January 22, 2015: YWCA Monterey County

This Bright Light of Ours: Presentation, reading and book signing.  Details forthcoming.

January 28, 2015: Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University

This Bright Light of Ours: Presentation, reading and book signing Details forthcoming.

Temple Beth El Book Launch Celebration

Temple Beth El Book Launch Celebration

Praise for Maria Gitin Presentations

Thank you! thank you! Thank you! Your contribution to the “Voice of Conscience: Civil Rights, Post-Civil Rights and the Future Freedom Struggle” was the highlight. You are a remarkable friend and colleague. As Director of the Program in African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt and on behalf of the program committee we thank you. – Victor D Anderson, Vanderbilt University

I learned a good bit from your presentation. I referenced you in the final chapter of” A Child Shall Lead Them.” Your book will be a valuable resource, and will be one I will want to use in my King course. – Rufus Burrow Indiana Professor of Christian Thought and Theological Ethics, Christian Theological Seminary

Maria’s passion, compassion, and love for the people of Wilcox County shines through in her lecture. I count it a privilege to meet someone who is so genuine and is part of living history.DeeAnn, student University of South Alabama

“This Bright Light of Ours” to Shine in 2015 Martin Luther King Jr Celebrations

Sheryl Threadgill-Matthews brings BAMA kids to meet author Maria Gitin

Sheryl Threadgill-Matthews brings BAMA kids to meet author Maria Gitin

Save the date for talks in Seattle, Monterey and Palo Alto. Check back for details in a few weeks.

January 13, 2015: Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle WA 

7 PM This Bright Light of Ours – Author Book signing event   http://www.elliottbaybook.com/

January 14, 2015: Open Windows School, Bellevue WA – MLK student assembly speaker

January 15, 2015: MLK Seattle Celebration 33rd Anniversary, King County, Seattle WA

The Voting Rights Fight, Keynote speaker for community celebration honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday. For more information:http://www.mlkseattle.org/

January 22, 2015: YWCA Monterey County

This Bright Light of Ours: Presentation, reading and book signing.  Details forthcoming.

January 28, 2015: Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University

This Bright Light of Ours: Presentation, reading and book signing Details forthcoming.

Temple Beth El Book Launch Celebration

Temple Beth El Book Launch Celebration

Praise for Maria Gitin Presentations

Thank you! thank you! Thank you! Your contribution to the “Voice of Conscience: Civil Rights, Post-Civil Rights and the Future Freedom Struggle” was the highlight. You are a remarkable friend and colleague. As Director of the Program in African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt and on behalf of the program committee we thank you. – Victor D Anderson, Vanderbilt University

I learned a good bit from your presentation. I referenced you in the final chapter of” A Child Shall Lead Them.” Your book will be a valuable resource, and will be one I will want to use in my King course. – Rufus Burrow Indiana Professor of Christian Thought and Theological Ethics, Christian Theological Seminary

Maria’s passion, compassion, and love for the people of Wilcox County shines through in her lecture. I count it a privilege to meet someone who is so genuine and is part of living history.DeeAnn, student University of South Alabama

George Ow Jr to Introduce Maria Gitin at Bookshop Santa Cruz

Community Leader and diversity champion George Ow Jr. will introduce Maria Gitin’s reading and book signing event at Bookshop Santa Cruz
Monday August 11th 7:30 PM
Free and open to All

Read More about the Book: http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/news/ci_26286254/local-writer-maria-gitin-looks-back-at-civil

Daniel Dodge Sr, Maria Gitin, Felipe Hernandez, Mavel Arujo and George Ow Jr NAACP Banquet 2014

Daniel Dodge Sr, Maria Gitin, Felipe Hernandez, Mavel Arujo and George Ow Jr NAACP Banquet 2014

Bookshop SC event flyer