Congressional Medal of Freedom for Voting Rights Marchers

https://youtu.be/tguJKkukwJ0

Rev FD Reese is presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor for 1965 Voting Rights Marchers. Mitch McConnell, Jeff Sessions, Paul Ryan, Terri Sewell, Cory Booker and John Lewis were among the elected officials attending.

Rev FD Reese is presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor for 1965 Voting Rights Marchers. Mitch McConnell, Jeff Sessions, Paul Ryan, Terri Sewell, Cory Booker and John Lewis were among the elected officials attending.

We were thrilled to be invited to the February 24, 2016 ceremony in Washington DC. The Congressional Gold Medal was ceremonially presented to Selma civil rights leader Rev FD Reese and will be on permanent display at the Selma Interpretive Center.

Although I was not a marcher, I joined the Movement and came to work in the voting rights fight, because of the marchers. Thank you Charles Bonner, Bruce Hartford, Sheryl Threadgill-Matthews and others who encouraged me to attend. The courage of grassroots civil rights demonstrators throughout the South from 1958-1970’s continues to inspire all of us. Commissioner John Moton of Wilcox County and Commissioner Dennis Harris Jr of Montgomery also attended.

Participating in the ceremony will remain among my most outstanding memories.

www.thisbrightlightofours.com

Giving Thanks to the Courageous Citizens of Wilcox County for Sharing your Stories with the World

Betty Robert Banner

Betty Anderson and Robert Powell, Camden Academy Activists

Sheryl Threadgill and the Lawsons at Selma Jubilee 2014

Sheryl Threadgill and the Lawsons at Selma Jubilee 2014

W. Kate Charley lived her life standing tall, telling the truth and having fun. She lives on in blessed memory.

W. Kate Charley lived her life standing tall, telling the truth and having fun. She lives on in blessed memory.

 

Lewis V Baldwin, Anthea Butler and Barbara A Holmes at Baldwin's Vanderbilt University Retirement Celebration 2014

Lewis V Baldwin, Anthea Butler and Barbara A Holmes at Baldwin’s Vanderbilt University Retirement Celebration 2014

 

John Matthews in Pine Hill

John Matthews shows Maria where he found her and other civil rights workers headed deep into the woods at dusk. Pine Hill, AL

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

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

I’m feeling extra grateful today for the contributions of more than 70 friends, families and supporters to the amazing success of “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight.”  We have almost sold out the hard-bound first edition, thanks to your willingness to share your struggles, your pain and your laughter. Across the country, white students and adults alike tell me that they understand the history of racism and white privilege from a new perspective, and that they want to be part of eradicating injustice. African Americans, Latinos and others say, thank you for sharing these stories, our stories. Young students ask: Why didn’t we ever learn this in school?  Although marketed as a memoir, this is really your story, our story. Thank you today and always for your contributions.

Samuel supported Maria every page of the way on her journey back to Summer 1965

Samuel supported Maria every page of the way on her journey back to Summer 1965

Bruce Hartford, CORE, SCLC 1965 - invaluable historian of the Movement

Bruce Hartford, CORE, SCLC 1965 – invaluable historian of the Movement

Bob Fitch Photographer & Activist

Bob Fitch Photographer & Activist

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 #1

This morning I joined millions in viewing the memorial for Rev Senator Clementa Pinckney in Charleston South Carolina. We civil rights veterans and activists also mourn the lack of progress we have made, despite our efforts. Attacks on good people in Black churches did not begin this week. A NY Times article dated June 20, 1965 announced

Dr. King at Antioch Baptist Church, Camden AL where we were stalked by the KKK. Photo copyright Bob Adelman

Dr. King at Antioch Baptist Church, Camden AL. Young woman in sunglasses, Bessie Pettway; polka dot dress, Virginia Boykin Burrell; behind her in hat, Carrie Robinson; young man with sunglasses and towel on head, Robert Powell; Rosetta Marsh Anderson behind him; front right looking down, Sim Pettway Sr.  Photo copyright Bob Adelman

 

the voting rights project I worked with fifty years ago: “A new summer thrust by young civil rights workers into the rural South begins this week. The project is called the Summer Community Organization and Political Education, or SCOPE, and is under the auspices of Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. About 800 volunteers from colleges, churches and unions will work in 60 counties in six states….The work will be similar in many ways to that of the volunteers who were sent to Mississippi last summer by the Council of Federated Organizations.” …[although SCLC was involved, most staff for Freedom Summer 1964 were provided by SNCC]

We quickly out how “similar” our work would be to that of Mississippi, where the three young men were murdered their first day on their project. Here is a memory of my first night in Wilcox County AL, where I was assigned.

Excerpt from “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Movement,” University of Alabama Press 2014:

On wobbly legs, we crept into Antioch Baptist Church at 2:30 a.m., using as little light as possible. Major Johns, a short, solidly built thirty-year-old who was one of our two SCLC field directors, greeted and hushed us. —- We got so quiet I could hear the cicadas again. Everything about Major said no nonsense. He surveyed us with stern eyes and took a deep breath. “Y’all gonna have to sleep here tonight. A certain local who was gonna take some of you was visited by Sheriff Jenkins and had his mind changed. Now get some sleep.” There was no question and answer period.

We made ourselves as comfortable as we could on the wooden pews. Major shut out all the lights. As I was wondering where we would sleep tomorrow night and hoping it would be more comfortable, I heard truck doors slam and booted feet outside the church. Major shouted in a low voice, “Get down and stay down till I say.” Bob Block, a white field worker I had just met 10 hrs earlier and I rolled under the same pew and squeezed together. “What’s going on?” “Oh probably some crackers out there trying to scare us.” “It’s working on me,” I said, trying not to think about the men outside. Then there were shots. I clung to Bob who didn’t seem to mind our sudden closeness. He whispered, “They won’t kill us tonight. Welcome to Wilcox County, that’s all.” I held my breath and prayed. – For more about this summer and about Maria Gitin’s book, “This Bright Light of Ours” www.thisbrightlightofours.com

April Action in Wilcox: 50 Years Ago this Month

April 10, 1965 – Camden

Smoke Bombs Halt New Wave of Alabama Marchers

Quotes Camden Academy students Ralph Eggleston and Charles Mimms. Photo of Jim “Arkansas” Benston, white SNCC youth, being beaten by Camden city police.  Source: Chicago Defender special by Leon Daniel

April 20, 1965 – Camden scope056_2

Dr. King came through on another whirlwind tour of Alabama while a 200-person march was already underway. The same date, the state of Alabama secured a federal injunction against Dr. King to prevent him from using children to march and demonstrate. Source: Chicago Defender.

Note: This was a ludicrous charge since the students and adults in each community were planning their own strategies. Dr King came to show support and give encouragement. He did not organize any events in Alabama after the Selma marches and was not even a lead organizer of those marches. He was the inspirational leader, but the white press and politicians saw as the only leader.

April 21,1965 – US Court of Appeals 5th Circuit Alabama

Federal Court of Appeals finds “substantial un-contradicted evidence” that registration officials in Wilcox County were applying the supporting witness (voucher) requirement in a discriminatory fashion. Records disclosed only one instance of a black person attempting to obtain a white voter as a supporting witness.

Source: US v Logue, 344 F2d 290 (1965)

April 21, 1965 – Camden26

Camden civil rights leaders declare they will protest daily until allowed to register and to vote. They do so and continue until school lets out in the end of May.

This date was this author’s 19th birthday celebrated with friends in San Francisco where she had already signed up for the SCOPE project. After SCLC orientation in Atlanta with Wilcox residents Ethel Brooks, Charles Nettles, Mary Alice Angion and others, I was assigned to that county for the summer voter education and registration project.

Source: Chicago Daily Defender and personal memory.

For more history of the Wilcox County Voting Rights Movement read: www.thisbrightlightofours.com 

Dan Harrell in front of Antioch Baptist church

Dan Harrell in front of Antioch Baptist church  – Bob Fitch Photo 1966 © Stanford University Archives