Freedom Summer 1965: #4 June 20

My First Mass Meeting

Sunday June 20, 1965 was one of the longest days of my nineteen year old life. We had been woken before dawn by threats from Klan members surrounding Antioch Baptist Church, then I attended my first African American church service before moving my meager civil rights traveling kit to Camden Academy girls dormitory which I hoped would be my home for the rest of the summer. At the Academy, we were threatened and eventually forbidden to stay because we were breaking the strict segregation code of Wilcox County, AL

IMG_0730_0067_067That evening, west coast seminary student John Golden drove some of us out to Little Zion Baptist Church in Coy to a mass meeting led by Rev. Daniel Harrell. Dan was our other SCOPE field director and director of 7 counties for the summer voter registration project. Major Johns was our county director and worked closely with Dan.

Despite my exhaustion I was on the edge of my pew for nearly two hours while first Dan and then Major Johns preached to a full house about getting out the vote, taking the next step to freedom. Major exhorted the crowd, “Don’t be waitin’ for the Promised Land. You can be in the Promised Land tomorrow. You can fulfill that promise: You can be a free man, free to vote! Get yourself registered. We need volunteers to carry folks into town, to help organize others, to take in some of our summer workers. You can sign up tonight with Mrs. Angion in the back. But get yourself registered first, that’s the first thing. You wanna be in that number! These students come all the way from Atlanta and California just to help us so we gotta show them we can help ourselves.” At the end of the meeting, Dan asked us new arrivals to stand, and the people applauded.
Late that night, I started coughing. I felt a fever coming on but before I could rest, I had to complete my first letter to my friends and supporters back home in California. Jeanne Searight, my college roommate and secretary at the Ecumenical House at San Francisco State College, typed and mailed my report letters to friends and supporters.

College Roomates 1965 Diane R, Lorraine Quan, Jeanne Searight, Maria Gitin (Joyce Brians)

College Roomates 1965
Diane R, Lorraine Quan, Jeanne Searight, Maria Gitin (Joyce Brians)

From my first letter, June 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.1 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 single 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.

When I finally crawled into bed, worried and scared about a hundred things, sick from the local croup, tired from the long meeting, I had a hope in my heart. It’s a hope I found in the midst of these people who live in the midst of hatred and degradation; I found it in the faces of the young Negro children and I found it in the voices of my fellow SCOPE workers. This hope is that We Shall Overcome.” – excerpted and condensed from Chapter 4, This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, Maria Gitin, University of Alabama Press. 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

When the People had to Fight to Vote

In 1965, in Wilcox County AL and in countless majority African American counties all over the South, Black citizens rose up in a nonviolent battle for their voting rights. With pressure brought on Congress and President Johnson to finally sign the Voting Rights Act on August 6th, all were free to register. Despite extensive documentation of discrimination, federal registrars did not arrive until late August. Only then were citizens allowed to register at the “real” courthouse on the town square instead of here at the “courthouse annex” which was the old jail. The victory was sweet. Today, we have to fight to get out 28% of voters for any election. Let’s reflect on the sacrifices of our elders, and work to get everyone out to vote this November.

 Evidence of need for federal registrars under new Voting Rights Act. August 1965. J Worcester photo.

Evidence of need for federal registrars under new Voting Rights Act. August 1965. J Worcester photo.

Qualified citizens stand for hours to exercise their voting rights, denied for over 100 years. J Worcester photo. August 1965

Qualified citizens stand for hours to exercise their voting rights, denied for over 100 years. J Worcester photo. August 1965

Why we must vote

By Maria Gitin

Special to the Sentinel Published Sunday July 20, 2014

Link: http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/Opinion/ci_26180697/Maria-Gitin:-Why-we-must-vote

Aug. 6 is the 49th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This landmark federal legislation prohibits racial discrimination in voting and led to removal of other barriers to voting that benefit people with disabilities, citizens with language differences and those whose work schedule requires weekend voting.

The act passed only after decades of civil rights activism. Well-known tragedies on the road to enfranchisement include the murder of four little girls in a Birmingham church, the assassination of three voting-rights activists during Mississippi Freedom Summer, and the “Bloody Sunday” attack on peaceful marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

These are the stories that most of us know, but for over a decade tens of thousands of African-American grassroots activists like Mrs. Rosetta Angion organized in obscurity. While working on voter registration project in 1965, I met Mrs. Angion, mother of 16 children in the rural community of Coy, Alabama, who somehow found time to participate in voting rights demonstrations. She told me that John Lewis, now a Georgia congressman and then leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, explained, “You were not a real citizen unless you could vote.” Her commitment was so strong that she allowed two of her young daughters to march on Bloody Sunday.

Mrs Rosetta Angion at home where we picked up canvassing lists and potential voters in Summer 2965

Mrs Rosetta Angion at home where we picked up canvassing lists and potential voters in Summer 2965

Following a presentation at Cabrillo College last year, a student asked me why he should register to vote. “After all, doesn’t voting just support the status quo?” Apparently, many agree with this discouraging view. Although better than the state average, only 34.8 percent of Santa Cruz County registered voters cast ballots in the recent primary election. Nationally, only 23 percent voted in the 2012 presidential election.

Why should we vote? There is a saying that bad officials are elected by good people who don’t vote. Low voter turnout results in a small fraction of voters electing officials who make decisions that affect all of us.

Mary Ann Angion Robinson shows me where she was attacked on March 7, 1965

Mary Ann Angion Robinson shows me where she was attacked on March 7, 1965

Thousands of courageous people like Mrs. Angion and her daughters risked their lives for your right to vote. To honor their legacy and to make your voice heard, please register now and vote in November. Visit Santa Cruz County’s elections website at www.votescount.com.

Maria Gitin will read from her book, “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight,” at Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 11.

MLK was counting on “The Supreme Court” and other “Outsiders”

From my notes the SCLC SCOPE Orientation in Atlanta in early June 1965, paraphrasing what King said about the pending 1965 Voting Rights Act:  I was 19 years old at the time.)

In the evening, the event we had all been waiting for occurred. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came into town. He rode in a parade, headed by a band of small boys beating drums. Wherever he goes hoards of people follow him. He is indeed the leader of The Movement. When he rose to speak a hush fell over the audience. He didn’t yell and he didn’t shout but what he said gripped our hearts, and our souls and our minds. This is par to what he said: History is being made here. It is the students who are making history now. People have reached the end of their patience. With non-violence we found a new ally for freedom that black and white together can use. New York has abolished the death penalty and taken strong civil rights measures because of student nonviolent pressure. SCLC believes in the value of student groups and for this reason has organized SCOPE. We are here because we are humanitarians and patriots. The depreciation of the Negro has affected our nation drastically. The older generation is lost because it hasn’t achieved democracy. We are the Hopeful Generation because we can face the racists in Montgomery. The 1965 Voting Rights Bill will give government sanction to “outsiders.” The Supreme Court and Washington, DC are outsiders. People say it is sacrilege to use churches for civil rights meetings, but Thomas Paine and Paul Revere used churches. SCOPE workers are wanted and needed by the community. If people say you are crazy—maybe they are right . . . but it is “creative maladjustment.” Don’t be satisfied with less than Freedom. © Maria Gitin, all rights reserved