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.

36_323_3c

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 

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!

36_363_1336_389_26

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

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

 

36_538_1

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

36_537_1436_379_34c

36_539_34

36_313_3536_277_136_314_22

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

Happy 4th of July: 1965

Joyce Brians (Maria Gitin), civil rights worker 1965.

Joyce Brians (Maria Gitin), civil rights worker 1965.

This is one my letters home that I only excerpted from in my book. What was like for my family to be reading this around the dinner table, thousands of miles away? Today, I imagine the heartache, fear and pride that parents share as youth in Charleston and around the South continue to combat a new wave of murder and church burnings.

July 1, 1965

Dear Family,

Hi! Things have been really hot around here – in more ways than one. The nite (sic) after I got out of jail – the same night I phoned you – two of our local boys were beaten in the church. The church was sacked, doors broken down, gunshots in the walls. One boy who was beaten with a lead pipe is in precariously dangerous shape in the Selma hospital. We could only find a white doctor for him & he isn’t getting the best of care. The other boy was clubbed but is recovering nicely. The local crackers did the job – some of them are Sheriff Jenkins possemen during the day.

It is now July 2-

While I was in jail the white boy in the cell next to me was beaten by his white Southern roommate. I could hear him screaming & moaning. The guards gave Crow – his cellmate – cigarettes for beating him. It made me so sick I couldn’t eat anything so I gave my food – what little there was – to an insane man who was in the cell next to me. The trustees (Negroes who are guards) gave us a bad time.

It is now July 3 – every time I sit down to write to you someone calls a staff meeting or the phone rings. Anyway – jail was hideous but I ‘ll write you the gory details some other time. The nite I was released was the nite the two boys were beaten in our church. I phoned the hospital, newspapers, etc. I’ve developed a close relationship with one of the men (white) on staff. I can’ t say anymore about it because that is the kind of ammunition police could use if either of us gets jailed again. We stayed up all nite by the phone for further news. It was a miserable nite. At 5 AM another boy phoned from the church – he had been beaten, too.

The story was that 8 white men in stocking masks broke down both doors of the church, shot a hole in the wall & beat 3 boys with a lead pipe. I went to the church the next day and it was a mess.

(Again I must go – hope I finish this soon)

It is now July 5th – I had to move out of Camden Academy cuz I didn’t get a letter to (Principal) Hobbs in time. Besides, it’s too dangerous to be in Camden now.

Yesterday you never would have known we were having a Movement. We went to the Playground & swam & roasted hotddogs & danced & sang. It was a great day & no arrests were made for a change.

I am staying with a wonderful woman in Coy (one of Ethel Brooks’ neighbors or a relative) near Camden. I don’t know when I’ll get to write to you again.

I love you. Thanks for your letters – they mean so much. I got the dresses – the shift is really nice.

We’ll be canvassing voters all over the county for the next two weeks so its on the road for me. We’ll just stay at folks houses when evening falls.

Love, Joyce

PS

It’s 6:30 AM July 6th – and we are ready to go out in the field to canvass for voters. There are more little incidents all the time. One of the strongest local leaders [ Don Green ] a junior in high school, had some moonshine planted in his car. When he drove out of the Sawmill Quarter, the police were waiting for him. They took him to jail, put him in the bull pen – a cell with no windows or ventilation, harassed him, left him overnight & released him. He’s been beaten dozens of times, yet he’s a wonderful person [meaning, he wasn’t bitter or angry]. Well, our ride is here.

Much love, Joyce   – for more about this summer and the Wilcox County Voting Rights struggle in 1965, read “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” by Maria Gitin (formerly Joyce Brians). http://www.thisbrightlightofours.com

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.

jpegDown Home_B_Page_119