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

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/

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/

 

Welcome to Wilcox County 1965

SNCC & SCLC Cooperat at SF State to Recruit Student Civil Rights Workers

As a freshman at San Francisco State in 1965, I joined the Summer Conference on Community Organizing and Political Education (SCOPE). The project was the brainchild of Reverend Hosea Williams, one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s top aides and a chief organizer of the recent Selma to Montgomery march, as well as the 1963 March on Washington. In anticipation of the imminent passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, SCOPE’s mission was to recruit and train college students to work with local leaders to identify, educate and register as many disenfranchised Black voters as possible. After an intensive five-day orientation in Atlanta, I was assigned to rural Wilcox County, Alabama, where the judge, sheriff and mayor were outspoken about belief in segregation and racism was public policy. The Ku Klux Klan was highly active, and the white community had been silent during months of police tear-gassings, beatings, and arrests of local Black demonstrators (mostly young students from Camden Academy) before we arrived. They were fighting nonviolently for a good education, voting rights and jobs, none of which were available to Black residents. Their struggle quickly became ours as we jumped into the dangerous now nearly forgotten Freedom Summer of 1965.
Excerpt from This Bright Light of Ours on my first night in Wilcox County:
It was after 4:00 a.m. when we heard truck doors slam as booted feet quickly surrounded Antioch Baptist Church where our exhausted group of newly trained civil rights recruits was trying to get some sleep. “Get down and stay down till I say,” shouted our leader Major Johns. Then there were shots—unmistakable, shotgun shots. I moved closer to Bob, a fellow civil rights field worker I had met only ten hours earlier. “They won’t kill us tonight,” he whispered as I shivered in fear. “Not likely anyway. I’ve only been cattle prodded once and never been arrested yet. Welcome to Wilcox County, that’s all.” I held my breath and prayed.
© All rights reserved by Maria Gitin (formerly Joyce Brians) 2012. This Bright Light of Ours publication announcement forthcoming.

In Wilcox County, SNCC Student civil rights workers before us included Charles Bonner, Stokely Carmichael, Bob Mants, Judy Richardson, Bernard and Colia Lafayette and Ruth Howard, among others. Our summer 1965 project worked cooperatively with Selma SNCC in Wilcox, especially with Charles Bonner and Amos Snell. SNCC workers after us included Martha Prescod Norman Noonan and Willy Squire of the SNCC Alabama Project, an all-Black voter registration community outreach project. For more information see: www.crmvet.org

John Matthews Antioch Baptist Church After Renovation 2009

For Maria’s first meeting with John Matthews in 1965 see: https://thislittlelight1965.wordpress.com/2010/04/05/civil-rights-worker-student-reunion-in-corn-field/

Return to Gees Bend

Nancy Pettway, Mary Lee Bendolph, Maria Gitin, Annie Kennedy

In 1965 we were inspired when Dan Harrell told us about Reverend Lonnie Brown and farmer Monroe Pettway leading a handful of courageous residents from Gees Bend try to register to vote in Camden in 1963. They succeeded in filling out the registration forms but were denied on the basis of the Alabama requirement that new voters be vouched for by an already registered voter. Since no Blacks had been allowed to register and no whites registered in the county would sign the supporting witness form, their applications were denied. He said that their case on appeal and they were sure to win by next year. That’s why we had to educate and register voters now, to be ready for when the law would finally insure voting rights. And so walk and talk we did.

In 2008, when I returned to the small isolated community that I vividly recalled—the full immersion baptism in Foster Creek, the beautiful voices of the Pleasant View Church ladies—Gees Bend had become the most famous of all of Wilcox County’s tiny communities, primarily because of its quilters.
After art dealers discovered the quilts in the early 1970s, they became collectors’ items. Now the quilts are displayed in locked cases in museums instead of warming walls and covering beds in drafty shanties where we had seen them in 1965. Despite all the national attention, nearly 40% of the seven hundred souls in Gees Bend still live below the poverty line and the unemployment rate is the highest in the state.

Ms Allie Pettway signs a quilt sample in her Gees Bend Home

When Luke and I sat down in the Quilter’s Cooperative lunchroom with three quilters, they pointed out a photo of Mary McCarthy, the VISTA worker who they credited for founding their quilting cooperative even though most histories credit two men, a white minister and a white art dealer. Read Linda Hunt Beckman’s first-hand account of the change in the quilters fortunes after our work there and an alternative to the usual romanticized view of the community.
http://www.blackcommentator.com/456/456_quilt_story_beckman_guest_share.html.
from This Bright Light of Ours 1965. Watch this site for publication updates.

Stories from a Teenage Civil Rights Worker

Wilcox County Freedom Fighters in Mobile

Wilcox County Freedom Fighters James Anderson, Sim Pettway, Rosetta Anderson, Maria Gitin and Joy Crawford-Washington after Maria’s presentation at University of South Alabama Tuesday evening. Living history was enjoyed by students, faculty and community members. Thank you Dr. Martha Jane Brazy and Joy Crawford-Washington!

Fox News 10 Mobile & Montgomery news anchor Eric Reynolds interviewed Maria and shared part of her story March 8, 2102

http://www.fox10tv.com/dpp/news/alabama/the-interview-maria-gitin

“Great interview Maria. You were wonderful!” – Charles Bonner, SNCC