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 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

Marching toward Freedom’s Land

Youth demonstrators 45th anniversary commemoration

Former youth demonstrators 45th anniversary commemoration

Looking Back on Wilcox County in the 60’s-70’s from the 21st Century

There were far more people who were active in the Movement and far more violent incidents than I had been aware of during my short stay in Wilcox County in the summer of 1965. As it turned out, nearly every former student of Camden Academy was in at least one march, whether forbidden to do so or not.  We outside civil rights workers saw only a partial snapshot of any given moment. Some schoolteachers gladly let the children go and even joined them in their almost daily marches and in boycotting businesses that wouldn’t hire Blacks. March after march was held from 1965 to 1972 because the Wilcox County School Board continued to defy federal orders to provide integrated, equal facilities, and materials to all public school students.

Developer and minister Cleo Brooks (deceased) was one of the hundreds of students who participated in school integration marches. Because he was very young and kept near the back, he noticed that every day when they marched from the church to the courthouse, there was a white line chalked on the pavement. In 2009 he told me, “The powers that be put that line there to indicate where we had to stop marching that day. But it kept moving forward about ten feet a day. Someone higher up must have told them we were going to get there someday. We would arrive at the courthouse and we were going to win the right to equal public schools. They just wanted to make it as slow as they could.”

Rosetta Anderson, Camden activist

“We had so many marches, for years actually, so I don’t recall all of the dates,” Mrs. Anderson went on to say. “‘Big Lester’ Hankerson of SCLC led one march with lots of our local leaders. Four hundred twenty-nine people were arrested that day, including my daughter Lena Jo.  The students were getting more militant by then, ‘Lock us up honky!’ was part of what they chanted as hundreds were placed under arrest. They took the students out to Camp Camden in busses. Those were some times, I tell you!” (2011)

Read more about This Bright Light of Ours: http://www.thisbrightlightofours.com

This Bright Light of Ours

My beloved husband Samuel Torres Jr

My beloved husband Samuel Torres Jr

SNCC Buddies Luke (Bob) Block, Maria Gitin and Charles (Chuck) Bonner 2005

SNCC Buddies Luke (Bob) Block, Maria Gitin and Charles (Chuck) Bonner 2005

During this time of reflection on anniversaries – some joyous like the March on Washington, some tragic and still infuriating, like the murder of the Sunday School girls in Birmingham, we pause to reflect on the people and friends who have made contributions to positive change, to moving forward not backward and to keeping the faith. Our eyes are wide open yet we still hold Martin’s Dream and our own to be possible. I want to share images of just handful of the dozens of amazing people who supported me on the journey to complete This Bright Light of Ours:Stories of the Voting Rights Fight, University of Alabama Press February 2014. http://www.thisbrightlightofours.com

My beloved friend and publicist, Joy Crawford-Washington and her mother, Jessie Crawford

My beloved friend and publicist, Joy Crawford-Washington and her mother, Jessie Crawford

Below (Left to right)

Ethel Brooks, Freedom Fighter (In Memorium)

Bettina Aptheker, author, advisor, friend

Lewis V Baldwin, author, advisor, friend & inspiration

Surprise Happy 65th Birthday to Samuel Torres Jr my beloved, my office manager and source of endless support

Charles R. Stephens (In Memorium) for years of co-training, diversity lessons and leadership

Bruce Hartford, Bay Area Civil Rights Veterans for fact-checking, resources and realism

Missing photo but not appreciation: Martha Jane Brazy, historian, for enthusiasm, editorial eye and noodging to make it even better

Ethel Brooks Freedom Fighter UnknownBaldwin_ S very young Charles S 2009

maria gitin bruce hartford_MG_3663_1

New This Bright Light book website coming soon: http://www.thisbrightlightofours.com

2014 Events – Save the Date

This Bright Light of Ours: A Celebration of Wilcox County Voting Rights, book reading, signing and reception, Camden, AL March 6, 2014.

This Bright Light of Ours, book reading, signing and reception, Temple Beth El, Aptos, CA February 20, 2014.

4th Annual Bay Area Social Justice Forum, moderator and panelist, The Center for Social Justice and Civic Engagement,  Holy Names University, Oakland, February 15, 2014.

2013 Presentations

The Voice of Conscience: Civil Rights, Post Civil Rights and the Future Freedom Struggle Conference Plenary Speaker, Vanderbilt University, November 9, 2013.

The March on Washington@50 Symposium, moderator and panelist;  with Stanford University MLK Institute, Sojourn To The Past and Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, CA,  August 17, 2013.  

Freedom Stories of People in Struggle, presenter with Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, May 5, 2013.

Forging Alliances And Building Coalitions, California Social Studies Conferencepanelist, Burlingame, CA, March 9, 2013.

We will maintain this blog under a new name: www.wilcoxcountyfreedomfighters to preserve and add to the living history of the Wilcox County Freedom Fight.

These sites are not yet live – check back in early October.

 

August West Coast Civil Rights Events

Maria was interviewed by musician activist Chili Most on Aug 1st on WVFG 107.5 FM in Uniontown, Alabama and in 8 surrounding counties. This interview was part of Mr. Most’s tribute to the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. See and hear his inspiring music at: http://www.chilimostmusic.com or search You Tube “Chili Most Fight for Your Rights.”

AUGUST 17, 2013  BERKELEY, CA

Social Justice and The Right to Vote: Looking Back, Looking Forward
panel 1 bonner gitin cervantez_MG_4465

As part of a daylong celebration with young and old activists, Maria Gitin facilitated a Voting Rights panel with Charles A. Bonner, civil rights attorney, author and SNCC field director who shared memories of the Selma and Wilcox County Alabama voting rights fight with civil rights veteran and author, Maria, a SCLC SCOPE and SNCC worker in 1965. Karina Cervantez, Vice Mayor of Watsonville, shared stories of her youthful experience registering and educating voters, and of the gains that Latinos have made through the 1965 Voting Rights Bill that Bonner and Gitin fought for and of the challenges that lie ahead. The three discussed what activists can do in the face the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down a key provision of the 1965 VRA.

Other Bay Area Veteran Panelists were Phil Hutchings and James Garrett. Clayborne Carson, Director of the MLK Institute at Stanford University was the keynote speaker.

The 10 Demands of the March on Washington – How Far do we Still have to Go?

  1. Comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation from the present Congress — without compromise or filibuster — to guarantee all Americans:
    Access to all public accommodations
    Decent housing
    Adequate and integrated education
    The right to vote
  2. Withholding of Federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists.
  3. Desegregation of all school districts in 1963.
  4. Enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment — reducing Congressional representation of states where citizens are disfranchised.
  5. A new Executive Order banning discrimination in all housing supported by federal funds.
  6. Authority for the Attorney General to institute injunctive suits when any Constitutional right is violated.
  7. A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — “Negro” and white — on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.
  8. A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living. (Government surveys show that anything less than $2.00 an hour fails to do this.)
    [The minimum wage at the time of the march was $1.15/hour.]
  9. A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded.
  10. A federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination by federal, state, and municipal governments, and by employers, contractors, employment agencies, and trade unions.  – Courtesy of www.crmvet.org  National Civil Rights Website

Wilcox County AL Civil Rights Timeline July 1965

July 1, 1965 – Camden

The New York Times reports a different version of the June 29th incident with the local sheriff (PC Lummie Jenkins) stating that the boys’ injuries were slight and that both boys were released from the hospital immediately.  Source: New York Times

Author’s note: Frank Conner told this author that he was near death and was hospitalized for months. This author witnessed one other young man with a bandaged head many days after the incident.

July 2, 1965 –Camden

Alabama Sheriff Locks Church

Sheriff Jenkins tells the press that the church deacons asked our Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) headquarters be locked after the attack.

Source: Associated Press, New York Times.

Author’s note: The Sheriff moved us out of the office at gunpoint. I was among those present as we were assessing the damage caused the night before, during the Klansmen’s violent attack on our youth. The courageous deacons reopened the church within a week although we tended to stay away after that, to lessen the danger to the locals.

July 2, 1965 – Atlanta

Rev Hosea Williams report included seven local black activists and one SCOPE worker being beaten in Camden at Antioch Baptist Church. Source: Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge.

Author’s note: The correct date was June 29th and there were eight young men, all locals affiliated with SCLC and /or working with the SCOPE program of SCLC that summer. All were African-American. Five escaped before three were beaten, two badly enough to be hospitalized. A July 3, 1965 article in the Chicago Defender supports this claim and quotes Bob Block (author’s boyfriend at the time) as saying we knew who the attackers were, all local white men wearing stocking masks. At the request of several of the survivors of this attack,   their attackers are named in my forthcoming book. There also was an earlier attack on a number of white and black male workers sleeping at the church.

Larry Scott Butler  wrote on Apr 12, 2013

The incident at the church I can be very specific about as I recorded it in my diary.  We were attacked while in the church in Camden, ran for our lives, and spent the night hiding on the floor of an Afro-American Masonic hall. It happened on 6/23/65 and a local young man named Saul helped us escape.  David Hoon (also white) was part of out group and he fell off the board crossing the ravine behind the church while we were running.  He was alright, but dirty and wet.  Saul led us to the Masonic Hall which we barricaded from the inside.

July 4, 1965

Bootleg liquor was planted in local activist Don Green’s car and he was arrested again although he had just been bailed out by SCOPE.

Source: Author was told by SCLC leaders Harrell and Johns.

 July 4, 1965 We integrated the Bessie W. Munden Pool just outside of Camden www.

July 8, 1965 – Camden

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 whipped the crowd into a frenzy at a rally in Camden that was attended by thousands.

Source: Author wrote of this in letter home . I was not in one of the cars but could hear the cheers from downtown as I hid at the boy’s dormitory at Camden Academy up on the hill.

 July 9, 1965 – Camden dateline, incident out in county

Summer Community Organization and Political Education canvassers forced off highway by white man in a pick up brandishing a rifle.

Source: SCOPE incident report plus author was participant/witness in incident. This story and others are told in detail in my forthcoming book: This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, Modern South, University of Alabama Press, 2014.

Advance orders now available at discount: www.amazon.com

scope178

Wilcox County, AL Civil Rights Timeline June 1965

June 20, 1965 – Atlanta, GA

Dr King Opens Rights Drive Tuesday

The New York Times quotes King about our Summer Community Organization and Political Education project orientation in Atlanta and plans for the summer to register thousands of voters in 60 counties.

The SCOPE project began June 9th. After traveling cross-country and six days of intensive Orientation in Atlanta, five of us arrived in Camden on June 20th to work with Dan and Juanita Harrell and Major Johns of SCLC and local community leaders Rev Thomas L. Threadgill, Rev Frank Smith, Bob and Georgia Crawford, Jesse Brooks and his daughter Ethel Brooks and many local student leaders.

 June 21, 1965 – Camden, AL

Five SCOPE workers and locals workers are arrested and held for a few hours at the jail. One Black youth, is beaten so badly that when he is released, he is taken to the hospital in Selma.

 June 28, 1965 – Camden, AL

Sherriff Lummie P.C. Jenkins tells local “Negro Cafe” owners, Mr and Mrs. Reynolds that they cannot any longer serve white civil rights workers. When we arrive for lunch, Mr. Reynold asks us to please leave and not bring trouble to his store, so we leave. We did not eat there the rest of the summer.

Eighteen (18) SCOPE-SCLC (including this author) and local civil rights workers are arrested at Antioch Baptist Church and booked into the Camden jail without due process. Local student activist Don Green is beaten in front of us and put in solitary confinement when a knife is discovered in his sock. White SCOPE volunteer Mike Farley is put in a cell with a violent white prisoner and beaten mercilessly throughout the night. We are released a few at a time over the next few days. All are released within five days but none ever know when they will be either released or attacked. A detailed narrative is included in my forthcoming book. 

June 29, 1965 – Camden

 Masked men beat youth guarding SCOPE office at Antioch Baptist Church. Three are beaten badly. Two are hospitalized; one suffers permanent traumatic brain injury. Reports in SCOPE papers state that there were 8 youth attacked by 5 masked men and that two were beaten. Incident Report. p 367 SCOPE of Freedom (Leventhal, Challenge Press). Three of the Klansmen are identified by the youth but none are arrested or serve sentences. Names of the youth and their attackers are included in my forthcoming book.

Camden, AL

Camden, AL

June 30, 1965

The Mayor informed SCOPE workers that anyone found in the church after dark would be arrested for public nuisance and taken into protective custody.

Thank you to Dr. Robert M. Franklin for his generous words about This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight: 

This is an important work about a neglected period of the Civil Rights Movement, the 1965 Voting Rights Movement. Gitin clearly communicates her commitment to civil rights and social justice by presenting us with the fresh voices of unheralded community leaders in Wilcox County, AL. It adds wonderful new insight and texture to the story of how courageous Americans transformed their community and the country.  – Robert Michael Franklin, Ph.D., President-Emeritus of Morehouse College