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 

National Park Service: Selma to Montgomery Trail Talk

We are looking forward to joining old friends and meeting new Monday June 6th in Selma Alabama for a dynamic afternoon of sharing stories, photos and experiences from the Wilcox County Voting Rights struggle. This presentation is suitable for tourists, seniors, high school and older students and the general public. Please spread the word and bring your friends. Thank you, Park Ranger Theresa Hall for your warm invitation to add to the history of Selma and Wilcox.

Gitin Selma flyer

This Bright Light of Ours Returns to Alabama this June

June 7th in Montgomery

June 6th in Selma

Since the publication of “This Bright Light of Ours” in 2014, Maria Gitin has offered more than 35 presentations at universities, bookstores, museums, churches and temples, community centers,  and nonprofit organizations. Her presentations include first hand testimony and photos from grassroots veterans of the 1965 civil rights movement. Her talks are energized with civil rights songs, questions and discussions and by the introduction of other civil rights veterans and their families. She is excited to return to Alabama for these two public presentations and to attend the Crawford family reunion. 
Tuesday June 7 noon-1:15 PM This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the 1965 Voting Rights Fight in Wilcox County, Alabama
Book Talk with music, archival slides and stories Free and open to all.
Alabama Department of Archives & History
Milo B. Howard Auditorium
624 Washington Avenue
lorez Final book coverJkt_Gitin_finalMontgomery, AL 36130

 

Monday June 6 th 2-3:00 PM

The National Park Service, Selma Interpretive Center sponsors Maria Gitin at the Performing Arts Center 

1000 Selma Ave., Selma, AL 36701  www.thisbrightlightofours.com

 

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

 

Bob Fitch Alabama Photo ID Project:8

This is the 8th in a 10 part series of unidentified photos taken by civil rights photographer Bob Fitch in Alabama 1965-66.  Please share these photos, and the ones on the preceding 7 posts with your friends, family, and others who may be able to identify these Alabama civil rights activists, families and first candidates for office. Please contact Maria Gitin www.thisbrightlightofours.com with IDs, location, date and photo number. Or use the “leave a comment” box here. Thank you!

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Bob Fitch photos ©Bob Fitch Photo Archive Stanford University. All rights reserved.

Please Help Identify these Foot Soldiers for Freedom photos by Bob Fitch

 

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Bob Fitch photos ©Bob Fitch Photo Archive Stanford University. All rights reserved. Photos may be shared for educational non-commerical and identification purposes only.

Civil rights photographer Bob Fitch www.bobfitchphoto.com, activist, friend and historian, has asked for assistance in identifying some of his historic photos of the first African-American candidates who ran for election in Alabama in 1966. Few of them were elected the first time out but they paved the way for others who finally won in majority Black counties. Some photos are of those who worked on campaigns, friends and families. All were taken in Alabama 1965-66. These photos are part of the Bob Fitch archives at Stanford University Libraries and will soon be available for all to view and share, free of charge. To preserve the memory of the courageous local leaders, we ask your help in providing ID by name, county, office the candidate ran for and the # of the photo. You may post responses in the “leave a comment” box below, or e-mail me, Maria Gitin, civil rights veteran and author of “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight.” Find my contact information at  www.thisbrightlightofours.com

You may view these and more photos at: https://exhibits.stanford.edu/fitch/browse/black-candidates-in-alabama-1965-1966

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July 8, 1965 George Wallace Rally Riles up Whites

Camden Academy Girl's Dormitory was civil rights refuge Summer 1965

Camden Academy Girl’s Dormitory was civil rights refuge Summer 1965

From a note in SCOPE files 50 years ago today: Five carloads of SCOPE workers shot at by white men after being stopped by police. They were trying to leave town to avoid wrath of whites after Gov. Wallace rally in Camden attended by thousands.

My own memories of that night: Our leaders warned us that George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, infamous for his slogan “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever,” was coming to Camden to rally the already hostile whites. He planned to speak from a platform in front of the courthouse where our recruits attempted to register. Major Johns told us to get out of town, and so most of our workers left for outlying communities, but I stayed behind at Camden Academy with one of the white seminarians and my co-worker, Connie Turner.

Late that night, Connie crept up the stairs and knocked on my door. I barely recognized her. She had put a black rinse in her hair and had “ratted” it into a bouffant style to look more southern, then had gone with Washington Post reporter Paul Good to the George Wallace rally. Good had put her up to a risky adventure. Good boosted her up into a pecan tree on the courthouse square where she saw and heard the whole rally. Connie was breathless with amazement at the hatred Governor Wallace whipped up in the crowd.

Wallace had the crowd in a real frenzy. They were screaming, “Kill the N—-r Lovers!” Wallace told the cheering crowd something like: “Alabama and the rest of the God-fearing South are once again at war with the United States. This time we will succeed because God is on our side. He laid down the law of black and white. It is a crime to undo God’s creation of a superior and an inferior race. Nigrahs never can and never will be equal to white men. We will fight this fraudulent legislation, this so-called voting rights act with every weapon at our disposal. Tonight I tell you my friends that if you defend our freedom and our way of life by driving out these outside agitators, you will be doing the greatest service to this county, the great state of Alabama and to future generations.”

Wilcox County Courthouse, Camden 1965

Wilcox County Courthouse, Camden 1965

We huddled in the back and went to bed early but couldn’t sleep. That night, cars filled with our field workers were shot at as they headed to Coy to try to avoid the riled-up racists. No one was seriously injured but all were severely shaken, and two car windows were broken. If I hadn’t insisted on staying at the Academy, I would have been in one of those cars. Perhaps because the Klan thought we had all left town, no one came up to the Academy campus that night, but I still felt uneasy until Bob slipped into my bed around midnight. “Where were you?” I asked. “Don’t ask sweetheart, just be glad I’m here now. Here and alive.” He took me in his arms. – excerpted and adapted from “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” by Maria Gitin, University of Alabama Press. More: www.thisbrightlightofours.com