Major Johns – SCLC Field Director and Civil Rights Hero

Major Johns, center with other student protesters at Southern University in Baton Rouge

Major Johns, center with other student protesters at Southern University in Baton Rouge

During the summer of 1965, one of my favorite leaders was Major Johns. He was one of our SCLC field directors who was strict with his young recruits and who always looked out for us. Born and raised in Plaquemines, Louisiana, Rev. Major Johns was instrumental in the civil rights movement in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana for at least a decade, yet he has scarcely been mentioned in books until the publication of “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight.”

In 1960, five years before we met him in Camden, AL he was arrested along with other Southern University students for sitting-in at a Kress lunch counter in Baton Rouge as part of a multi-state Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) de-segregation drive. When they got out of jail Major Johns and two classmates stood on a school bus while he made a rousing speech. They and other CORE members organized a march to the state capitol of more than three thousand Southern University students to protest segregation and the arrests of students participating in sit-ins at segregated drugstore soda fountains and bus terminals. According to authors of “A More Noble Cause” Rachel L. Emanuel and Alexander P.Tureaud Jr., Major Johns was the chief strategist for the walk outs. All of the arrested students were expelled from Southern University and barred from all public colleges and universities in the state. In 2004, long after Major’s death, the student civil rights leaders were awarded honorary degrees and the state legislature passed a resolution in their honor.

Jesse Smith, was a teenager who had shown Luke and me around Lower Peachtree in 1965. He recalls Major spending time at their family home and at his father Rev. Smith’s church. “Major Johns, once in while he would talk about the black history of America —Crispus Attucks and all that. He was so inspiring. He’d quote from the Constitution about the right of the people to form or abolish this kind of government. There was so much power in his words; that man could speak!”

Major served in Wilcox County for more than six months in 1965 and in many other areas before returning to Louisiana where he fulfilled his dream of becoming a divinity school graduate and ordained minister, before he died of an aneurism at age 44. His survivors include children: Major Johns Jr, Cynthia Johns, Kenan Johns and his brother William, sisters Mary and Ella. I would be glad to hear from other survivors. More about Major is in my book “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” www.thisbrightlightourours.com

Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) Project Orientation Part I

Excerpted from my letter of June 20, 1965 about the 5.5 day SCOPE/SCLC Project orientation that I and 400+ students attended prior to being assigned to our counties. I would be assigned to Wilcox County, AL. But did not know that at the time. Coming from northern California, I was filled with missionary zeal and idealism which is reflected in my letter. At age 19, I had high hopes for our country and great respect for the leaders of our project. SCOPE was directed by Hosea L Williams with the intention to use (mostly) white college students to support local communities in their efforts to secure the African American vote. At that time “Negro” was the preferred term of respect by African American leaders.

 L to R- Benjamin Van Clarke, Stoney Cook, Carl Farris, Andrew Marquette, Richard Boone w/ Hosea Williams at SCOPE House in Atlanta 1965

L to R- SCOPE Staff Benjamin Van Clarke, Stoney Cook, Carl Farris, Andrew Marquette, Richard Boone w/ Hosea Williams at SCOPE House in Atlanta 1965

 Dear Family and Friends:

This is another world. It’s a world where I, a 19-year-old white northern woman, am not free. I am not free to go into the white section of Camden, Alabama with a Negro. I am not free to work in civil rights and still relate to the Southern whites. I can’t go out after dark or go on a date or swim in a public pool all summer. You people think you are free. When I was in San Francisco I thought I was free. But, we’re not free. I’m not down here fighting so any Negro can vote; I’m fighting for my rights—my human right to choose my friends as I please, to work with whoever I want, to worship with all peoples.

There is a Movement going on. God is acting in history. It’s God, not Martin Luther King, or James Bevel or Hosea Williams that is leading this movement. It’s faith that enables people to endure with one meal a day, four hours sleep, and one change of clothes. And they can still sing and shout praises.

Early Sunday morning we arrived at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia. We were assigned to our dormitories and given meal tickets. About 400 people attended the orientation. The very first evening we sat for 2-1/2 hours in the gym in 100-degree weather where we met and listened to the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Rev. Hosea Williams, SCOPE project director, was the main speaker. He gave us a pep talk and introduced us to the people we would be working with, including a large number of professors from top colleges and universities. We closed the evening by joining hands and singing “We Shall Overcome” followed by a closing prayer.

Monday, June 14, really began the intensive week-long session. Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, VP at large and treasurer of SCLC, told us the history of SCLC beginning with the famous day when Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus any longer. For those who would like more background history for this organization, I suggest reading The Negro Revolt by Louis Lomax, which also gives the history of the other civil rights groups.

Hosea Williams then gave us a long and fine talk on “Why We are Here.” He made us see our responsibility and our obligation. As has been said so many times, “none of us are free until all of us are free.”

In the afternoon we heard the history of the whole civil rights movement from SCLC staff member, Bayard Rustin. Following that we broke up into small workshops to discuss the speech. The faculty members lead these sessions and two or three staff members sat in on them. Many of our more practical concerns were dealt with here. [ Check back for more or – read the book]

-Excerpt from “This Bright Light of Ours” @University of Alabama Press 2014. For more about the Orientation and the book: www.thisbrightlightofours.com

SCLC’s SCOPE project in Wilcox County Summer 1965

June – August 1965 SCLC’S Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) project – Wilcox County

Hosea L Williams with his top SCOPE staff outside the Freedom House in Atlanta in the Summer of 1965. As stated by his daughter, Dr. Barbara Williams Emerson in February 2012, "It is a good photo from the period, but it says nothing, or everything, about female participation": L to R- Benjamin Van Clarke, Stoney Cook, Carl Farris, Andrew Marquette , and Richard Boone. – Courtesy Barbara Emerson Williams. Copyright, all rights reserved.

Hosea L Williams with his top SCOPE staff outside the Freedom House in Atlanta in the Summer of 1965. As stated by his daughter, Dr. Barbara Williams Emerson in February 2012, “It is a good photo from the period, but it says nothing, or everything, about female participation”: L to R- Benjamin Van Clarke, Stoney Cook, Carl Farris, Andrew Marquette , and Richard Boone. – Courtesy Barbara Emerson Williams. Copyright, all rights reserved.

SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Project) SCOPE (Summer Community Organization and Education) project, directed by Rev. Hosea Williams, was part of an already active Alabama Voter Education Project that coordinated (or attempted to coordinate) efforts between multiple civil rights organizations. As many as 600 black and white college (and some high school) students were assigned to six states for ten weeks after a 5.5 day 14 hr a day intensive Orientation in Atlanta, GA June 14-19, 1965.

In Wilcox County, five white northern student volunteers joined SCLC’s Dan and Juanita Harrell, and Major Johns, two

Dan Harrell in front of Antioch Baptist church

Dan Harrell in front of Antioch Baptist church

(perhaps three) white seminary students from California and some SNCC field workers from Selma to support local leaders in voter education, voter registration and leadership development. In early April, Californian Bob Block, who had walked all five days of the March to Montgomery, came over from Selma with Strider Benston, Bruce Hartford and Charles Bonner to join a Camden Academy student demonstration led by Ralph Eggleston, Sim Pettway and other students. Block was recruited by Dan Harrell to stay on as SCLC field staff. Local activist Ethel Brooks was also on SCLC SCOPE staff that summer. Students Robert Powell, Grady and Charles Nettles, Don Green, and Frank Conner; Mary Alice Robinson and Betty Anderson were some of the many Camden Academy activists working with SCOPE on voter education and registration after their own demonstrations all spring. Local adult leaders included: Rev. Thomas L Threadgill, Mr Albert Gordon, Mrs Rosetta Anderson, Mrs. Virginia Boykin Burrell and many others from the rural areas of Wilcox County. About 30 total local and field workers canvassed all summer, resulting in 500 new registered voters before the passage of the Voting Rights Act in August. Soon after passage, more than 3,000 Wilcox residents were registered, creating a new African American majority.

Charles “Chuck” A. Bonner of Selma SNCC began to coordinate voting efforts in Wilcox County with SCLC and later, SCOPE. Bob Block and I (Joyce Brians/Maria Gitin) belonged to SNCC and SCLC. SCLC/SCOPE workers were the majority in Wilcox County that summer. Most local residents didn’t know or care who were with except for being “sent by Dr King” and “with the Movement.” Local white segregationists called us as “outside agitators.”

Ethel Brooks SCLC Wilcox County field staff

Ethel Brooks SCLC Wilcox County field staff

 

For more about SCOPE and Voting Rights in Wilcox County, AL  This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight by Maria Gitin: www.thisbrightlightofours.com

More about VEP: http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_voter_education_project/

Why the 1965 Voting Rights Act Still Matters

3. Black Voters Line Up 8 copy

Photo: Finally, the right to vote, Spring 1966, Camden AL.

First in line: Mr. Robert Durant, second Ms. Carrie Davis, 3rd Ms. Emma Ephraim, 4th Ms. Annie Louise Ephraim, 5th Rainer Sessions Dumas, 6th Mr. Tommy Fry.7th_____, 8th Cora Coleman

Thousands of brave freedom fighters were shot at, jailed and barred from employment —others were beaten and even murdered— during the fight for voting rights for Black citizens throughout the South, including in Wilcox County, AL. Wilcox youth and adults learned their rights from their churches, from SLCC, SNCC and the NAACP, and taught them to others, launching a Movement that would span 16 years (1963-1979). Hundreds of Wilcox County activists participated in Bloody Sunday and/or the final March to Montgomery, and continued demonstrations, boycotts and voter registration until the Black majority was finally represented equitably in government and education. Economic equity is a work in progress.Down Home_A (dragged) voting

The murder of voting rights activist Jimmy Lee Jackson of Marion, AL and the demonstration that became known as Bloody Sunday, all brought pressure on Congress and President Johnson to pass and to sign the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) on August 6, 1965. Although most of the states covered by the VRA are in the South, hundreds of smaller jurisdictions and municipalities with a documented history of discrimination were also required to request advance federal permission in order to make changes to their election laws. The Court’s recent ruling overturned this requirement and leaves it to our currently divided Congress to develop new guidelines for oversight. Proof of the importance of pre-clearance for voting procedure changes is evident as six states rushed to pass new voter suppression laws, (New York Times July 5th).  Changes include demands for voter ID in forms not available to thousands of qualified voters, limiting the numbers and hours of polling sites, changes to early voting and absentee ballot procedures, and other barriers that will primarily affect people of color, students, the elderly and the poor, a demographic that tends to vote progressively.

When our brothers and sisters suffered beatings, arrests and even murder in the voting rights fight we never thought we’d live to see the day when there would be voter suppression laws outside the South, especially during the second term of our first African American President. Congress must clarify Section 4 quickly, before more egregious backsliding laws go into effect, and before reactionaries in smaller jurisdictions begin to undo the decades of progress made in electing officials of color.

Maria Gitin is a Life Member of the NAACP, a civil rights veteran, and author This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, University of Alabama Press, 2014.

Portions of this essay were published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel and in the Watsonville Register Pajaronian on Sunday August 4, 2013

Reconsidering President Johnson on Memorial Day

When we arrived in Wilcox County, Alabama in June 1965 to join a team of local leaders, SCLC and SNCC workers in a massive voter registration drive, I had a very low opinion of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Our SCOPE project, planned by Hosea Williams of SCLC, had counted on the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to protect us and the community while we walked together to the courthouse to register the 79% disenfranchised voters of the county. All over the South, similar teams of civil rights workers and local leaders were facing the same challenge. My opinion was that President Johnson and Congress were dragging their feet, athough my new boyfriend Bob told me that he saw Johnson on television pushing for the proposed Act in May.  He and Major Johns, one of our project directors, watched the speech together at Rev & Mrs Frank Smith’s home in Lower Peachtree. Bob told me, “I can’t believe that cracker actually said We shall overcome!” So I had to reconsider. Neither of us were aware that Johnson had been pushing for civil rights legislation for two years before we noticed him. This article from the Sunday NY Times is well worth reading in its entirety. [See link below]

L.B.J.’s Gettysburg Address

Excerpted from an article By DAVID M. SHRIBMAN

New York Times – Analysis News

MAY 24, 2013

Fifty years ago, on Memorial Day in 1963, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a speech in Gettysburg, Pa., that foreshadowed profound changes that would be achieved in only 13 months and that mark us still.

“One hundred years ago, the slave was freed,” Johnson said at the cemetery in a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. “One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin.”

With those two sentences, Johnson accomplished two things. He answered King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” And he signaled where the later Johnson administration might lead, which was to the legislation now known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Six months later, after Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson became president and vowed to press ahead on civil rights, saying that was what the presidency was for — even though he was a Southern Democrat and many of his Congressional allies were devout segregationists.

Johnson’s speech directly addressed King: “The Negro today asks justice. We do not answer him — we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil — when we reply to the Negro by asking, ‘Patience.’ It is empty to plead that the solution to the dilemmas of the present rests on the hands of the clock.”…The speech was given on Memorial Day, May 30, 1963, not on the anniversary of a battle now regarded as a turning point in the Civil War. Johnson’s visit to Gettysburg was a helicopter trip that took but 2 hours and 34 minutes, start to finish, but it was indicative of the bigger journey he would take as president.

Pres Johnson Memorial Day 1963

Pres Johnson Memorial Day 1963

The speech was given on Memorial Day, May 30, 1963, not on the anniversary of a battle now regarded as a turning point in the Civil War. Johnson’s visit to Gettysburg was a helicopter trip that took but 2 hours and 34 minutes, start to finish, but it was indicative of the bigger journey he would take as president.

For full text and audio recording: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/sunday-review/at-gettysburg-johnson-marked-memorial-day-and-the-future.html?hpw

Photo copyright Batteson/Corbis

Wilcox County Voting Rights Timeline – continued

February 26, 1965 – Marion, AL26
Twenty six year old Jimmy Lee Jackson dies from injuries sustained while trying to protect his mother and other family from police attack during a demonstration for the right to register to vote. This atrocity was the catalyst for SNCC and SCLC organizing a march to Montgomery that evolved first into Bloody Sunday, then into Turn Around Tuesday and finally in the long march from Selma to the capital in Montgomery.

For a more detailed timeline visit: http://www.crmvet.org/tim/timhome.htm

March 1, 1965, Monday – Camden, AL
Dr. Martin Luther King joined a march in progress and spoke to a crowd of about 200 attempting to register at the courthouse in Camden. He came over from Selma in a driving rain with a caravan of reporters and federal observers according to Taylor Branch. This is the date when King famously confronted Sherriff Lummie Jenkins asking him to ‘vouch’ for the registrants who were required to:
1. Pass a literacy test,
2. Prove citizenship, and
3. Have an already registered voter ‘vouch’ for their good character and literacy.
The sheriff declined to assist but ten people were allowed to apply to register that day. These were declared the first “Negro” voters in Wilcox County, although there may have been earlier registrants.

Source: Taylor Branch At Canaan’s Edge. Pg 19-20.

Authors note: Mrs. Rosetta Angion of Coy, who was there, told me how proud she felt when Dr King stood on the steps of the old jailhouse (which became the courthouse annex) and gave a rousing speech to encourage them to keep on going. She recalls his telling the crowd, “Doncha get weary chillun.”

March 3, 1965 – Camden

Camden Police Meet March with Clubs March 4:

60 Blacks Alter Camden’s History (headline Chicago Defender

Two articles on the same march: John Lewis of SNCC leads a march of 60 people from Coy, Gees Bend and Camden from St. Francis Church to the courthouse to try to register. He goes inside and walks around, inspires the crowd.

Sources: Chicago Defender (pub date March 4), Mrs. Rosetta Angion interview with author.

March 5, 1965 – Camden

Camden Alabama March by Blacks Fails (headline Chicago Defender)

Led by Johnny Lee Jones of Selma 200 protesters marched from St. Francis Church marched to the courthouse are turned back with batons and tear gas. Marchers are notified that there will be a larger march in Selma on March 7th. Hundreds of Wilcox County residents organize carpools to travel to participate in that march.

Sources: Chicago Defender. Accounts by residents to author, Maria Gitin.

March 7 Sunday- Selma

Bloody Sunday” march in Selma led by SNCC’s Chairman John Lewis and SCLC’s project director Hosea Williams; other organizers included James Bevel and Diane Nash. My SNCC project director, Charles Bonner and numerous other Selma activists were involved. Over 600 nonviolent, women, men and children were stopped and attacked by state troopers and the county sheriff’s posse. They were beaten, tear-gassed by canisters launched from tear gas guns, and beaten by police under Dallas County Sherriff Jim Clark and state troopers ordered by Alabama Director of Public Safety Colonel Al Lingo. People were injured and arrested in large numbers. Dr. King was not present but approved of the original march plan. Many Camden Academy students and adults from Wilcox County were there including: Ethel Brooks, Mary Alice Angion (Robinson) and her sister.The marchers fled back to Brown Chapel where the march began, to take care of the wounded, strategize their next steps. Cleo Brooks of Coy, stated that the community of Coy had more residents on the bridge than any other community in the state of Alabama. Source: eyewitnesses’ accounts to author

March 8, 1965 Monday – National TV

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr appears on national television to call for help, requesting people to flood into Selma to create a tidal wave of humanity that would get the world’s attention and keep the marchers safe.scope002_2

Authors note: As an 18 year old college freshman, I viewed the attack on television in San Francisco, along with footage from the Bloody Sunday march in Selma. This march and Dr. King’s subsequent “call to action” are what inspired hundreds of us to head South to participate in a massive voter registration drive, Summer Community Organizing and Political Education (SCOPE) project including my soon to become boyfriend/fiancé Bob (Luke) Block who was in Chicago at the time. When we reached Wilcox County, we joined forces with the already active SNCC group and local adult and youth leaders.

– Maria Gitin (formerly Joyce Brians) Author and presenter: This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Wilcox County Voting Rights Fight, to be published University of Alabama Press in early 2014.

March 1965 – Selma to Montgomery and Wilcox County Demonstrations 

Selma to Montgomery marches – Many Wilcox County activists participated in one or more of the three most famous marches. There were ongoing actions  in Selma, and continuous demonstrations in Camden as well as elsewhere in Alabama throughout the month of March. Many SNCC and SCLC activists went between Selma and Camden to join the Camden marches.

Sources: eyewitnesses accounts to author. For detailed timeline of Selma to Montgomery marches: http://www.crmvet.org/

 

In Memory of W. Kate Charley – Community Leader, Coy AL

Kate (right) marches with  Iris Judson in high spirits, March 1, 2010, Camden, AL

Kate Charley (right) marches with Iris Judson in high spirits, during the Martin Luther King Jr Commemorative March and Mass Meeting Camden, AL March 1, 2012

Willie Kate Charley of Coy AL, known to most simply as “Kate” or “Ms Charley, ” born in 1934, peacefully passed from this world on February 11, 2013 in her own home, of natural causes and on her own terms. She was unapologetic about her choice to stay single, and as a retired teacher and tireless community activist, Kate enjoyed the affection of countless students, many “adopted” nieces, nephews and grandchildren and her sister congregants.  She was devoted to her church and to her other causes which focussed on improving the lives of  youth. Often when I’d call she had just finished making a pie to take to a church event, including her famous her famous “stick to your  ribs” (and teeth!) coconut pie.

Kate was generous, wise, kind and funny.  She once told me, “I keep myself busy to keep me out of devilment.” Kate loved to view the Fall Foliage in New England, and to visit the successes of her students. She also liked to race around the back roads of Wilcox County in her “Dodger Blue” pick-up truck, always on a mission to do some good deed. About her truck, she explained, “I always liked the Dodgers. I had to get a new truck – so when I was picking it out I said, I believe I’ll take the blue one; you know I am loyal that way.”

Kate was proud of her parents, Leona Brooks Charley and Joel Wentworth Charley, direct involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, including the risky work of transporting people to register to vote and of housing civil rights workers, while Kate herself chose to uplift the community through a lifetime of teaching and mentoring young people.

I had the honor to meet and the joy to get to know Kate through my search for folks I lived and worked with when I served as an SCLC student civil rights worker in Wilcox County during the tumultuous summer of 1965. We visited in person in 2008 and again in 2010 for the 45th Commemorative March & Mass Meeting in Camden, and enjoyed many long telephone conversations over the years. Her contributions to my forthcoming book, This Bright Light of Ours, University of Alabama Press 2014, are invaluable.

All who know Kate will remember her lively wit, energetic spirit and her devotion to her church, Little Zion in Coy. Contributions in her memory may be made online to the Bessie W. Munden Playground [http://www.bessiewmundenrecreationalpark.com] and Frank Smiley Scholarship Fund at the Black Belt Community Foundation [http://www.blackbeltfound.org/}. W. Kate Charley was a true Woman of Valor, as we say in the Jewish tradition. May she rest in blessed memory and may all who mourn be comforted and inspired to move forward with the teachings of her exemplary life.

PLEASE LEAVE YOUR TRIBUTES, MEMORIES AND STORIES ABOUT KATE IN THE COMMENT LINK BELOW. THANK YOU.