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
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