Historic NY Times Article on Wilcox County 1966 Elections

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Thanks Bruce Hartford for sending this terrific NY Times 1966 article by Gene Roberts. That month was the first opportunity for newly registered African American voters to elect their own candidates including sheriff. Military veteran Walter J Calhoun took on the challenge in deeply segregated Wilcox County, Alabama. Although he and the other Peoples Choice candidates did not prevail, they paved the way for future success. This in depth gives perspectives Black activists and the white establishment including fascinating quotes from Calhoun, Dan Harrell, former sheriff Lummie Jenkins, landowner Sam Hicks and others on both sides of a deep divide about race and politics.

April 17, 1966 Wilcox County strategy session with State Senate candidate Lonnie Brown, Walter J Calhoun, candidate for Sheriff and SCLC leader Daniel Harrell

April 17, 1966 Wilcox County strategy session with State Senate candidate Lonnie Brown, Walter J Calhoun, candidate for Sheriff and SCLC leader Daniel Harrell

To read and order article:

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9F0DE2D7113EE43BBC4F52DFB266838D679EDE&legacy=true

For more Wilcox County Voting Rights History: www.thisbrightlightofours.com 

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, 1965 #2

Antioch Baptist Church, Camden AL June 1965 Photo by John Worcester

Antioch Baptist Church, Camden AL June 1965
Photo by John Worcester

Fearing the armed men might return, I spent a restless night on the floor of Antioch Baptist church,while my exhausted co-workers slept and our leader, Major Johns, kept watch over us. He asked us to clean up before the deacons arrived to prepare for morning services. I splashed cold water on my face and ran a comb through my straight hair, and pressed my hot hands over my wrinkled dress before joining others on the steps to greet incoming parishoners.

“I couldn’t help but look around the sanctuary, hoping I wasn’t staring rudely. The church people were all Black, which was unfamiliar to me. Some of the adults smiled and welcomed us, some looked away, some looked anxious. The ladies fanned themselves with paper fans from Brownlee’s Funeral Parlor with bible verses printed on one side. I’m sure Rev. Freeman gave a wonderful sermon, but I could scarcely keep my eyes open in the hot humid sanctuary where I had spent a sleepless night. Kids were all over us before and after services. “Where ya’ll from? Do you know Dr. King? Why is your hair like that [straight]? Are you comin’ to our house?”
“Yes, Dr. King sent me. That’s right, I hope to visit your family. Are your parents registered?” I tried to remember what we’d been told to say, but when it came to my hair, I just offered, “Would you like to touch it?” Two little girls stroked my long, straight brown hair, and one said, “Oooh it’s soft!” I had read about the study that was used in Brown v. Board of Education in which the black children preferred white dolls to ones that looked like them, so I quickly and sincerely said, “Well, I like yours more. It keeps its shape better in this heat.” Excerpt from Chapter 4 “This Bright Light of Ours”  www.thisbrightlightofours.com

@ Bob Adelman

@ Bob Adelman

I tried to practice what we had learned at the SCLC SCOPE Orientation in Atlanta a week earlier. Our mission was to assist the African American community with voter registration and to demonstrate that our belief in equality. At first, variations of the local dialect made it difficult for me to understand everything the local adults and children said, but smiles and hugs were a universal language – especially with the children – and they helped me catch on.

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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

Antioch Baptist Church Attacked and Shot Up July 1965

Local youth examine one of the shotgun blasts from attack on Antioch Baptist Church while local civil rights activists slept inside.

Local youth examine one of the shotgun blasts the morning after an attack on civil rights activists who had been sleeping inside the SCLC-SCOPE office. Antioch Baptist Church, Camden AL July 1965. J. Worcester photo.

While much more about this story, in the words of survivors and witnesses, is in my book, “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” www.thisbrightlightofours.com, today I am posting this photo to ask your help in identifying the two youth standing in the doorway the next morning. We were all in shock at the brutal attack on our Baptist Church sanctuary and office that left one of our SClC co-workers in the hospital for months. Can anyone reading this help ID the two young people standing in the doorway looking at the shotgun blast? Photo by John Worcester who worked with SCLC SCOPE in 1965. Please post replies here in comment box. They will not be posted unless you give consent. Thank you!

Additional information about this event:https://thislittlelight1965.wordpress.com/2014/06/29/boys-attacked-in-church-june-29-1965/

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