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

Civil Rights Veterans Reflect on Fear, Courage, and Commitment

Edited from a transcript of an April 11, 2015 gathering of civil rights veterans, students and scholars at the Martin Luther King Jr. Education and Research Institute at Stanford University. Read the entire transcript at Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement website: http://www.crmvet.org/disc/1504_fcc.htm and watch the 11 minute video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2cz6vJnWZs&feature=youtu.be

Gradually I learn that even though I can’t see from any perspective but this one, (meaning my own), I can include other perspectives, understand that others have their own perspective, and each one is just and true as real as mine, even if we’re in disagreement. That’s a stretch of the heart muscle.” – Katherine Thanas, Abbott, Santa Cruz Zen Center

Civil Rights Veterans Gather Stanford MLK Institute April 2015

Civil Rights Veterans Gather Stanford MLK Institute April 2015

50 years of Fighting for Freedom Celebrated at Stanford MLK Institute

For myself, working in the Movement in the summer of ’65, going through experiences with my coworkers in SNCC and SCLC and the local people that I worked with in Wilcox County, Alabama stretched my heart muscle so much more than my brain. We had amazing orientations. By that time, voter registration project leaders had learned from CORE and SNCC, and their own experience. The SCLC SCOPE orientation was tremendous. We had workshops; we had great speakers: Hosea Williams, Bayard Rustin, Jimmy Webb, James Bevel and Martin Luther King himself. Septima Clark taught us how to sing. We had intensive orientation, and then suddenly we are plunged into this violently segregated environment, sharing the experience of being hated, reviled, shot at, arrested, in a very, very rural area.

I was assigned to Wilcox County Alabama. I was just 19 years old and trying to grapple with the reality of how dangerous it was. At first, I had so much trust and faith in my coworkers, our leaders and the people in the community. Before that summer, my sense of myself was that I was a weak, scared girl. That summer, I felt like I really became a woman.

It was so dramatic, the violence, the threats – I was afraid all the time. The boys, both the Black and white, always talked about how brave they were and “Oh no, they can’t do nothing to me.” I was just scared all the time. But because the local people were so brave, and they were protecting us, I had to act brave. But they were the courageous ones.

I didn’t know until I went back to write my book, This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight , that men in some of the familes who kept white kids were sitting up all night with shotguns while we slept. I had no idea at the time. They didn’t let us know that they had to keep up that level of protection to take in a white field worker. I honor those people. I owe them my life, literally, because people were trying to kill us.

Besides the locals, I witnessed incredible courage, role models in both SCLC and SNCC folks I worked with. I was fortunate to work with both groups, the respected reverends and the radical students. It was so exciting to be in the thick of these world changing events. The SNCC kids in Selma, especially Charles Bonner, really broke it down for me, in terms of theory. It was the beginning of my looking at social action critically. I suppose I could have done well to apply that learning in college but when I returned I was such a physical and emotional mess that it took me 15 more years to get a B.A. degree. My experience in the Movement, learning to see the sharecropper in Alabama not as somebody less than, but just somebody with a different perspective, different life experience – that was an invaluable lesson for me. You can learn from all people, not just people like yourself.

Discussion facilitated by Ron Bridgeforth. Other civil rights veterans included: Willie B. Wazir Peacock Wazir Peacock “Stand for Freedom” Video, Jimmy Rogers, Stu House, Kathleen Kolman, Mitchell Zimmerman, Bill Light and Roy Torkington.

July 12, 1965: Romance Blossoms as Attacks on Wilcox County Civil Rights Workers Continue

Wilcox County and its county seat, Camden, share a voting rights history with Selma in nearby Dallas County. As early as 1963, Bernard and Colia LaFayette organized marches in Wilcox with Black citizens demanding the right to vote. Dr. King visited the county many times on his way to and from Selma and Montgomery. Hundreds of Wilcox students and adults joined the February Childrens’ marches in Selma, and were beaten off the bridge on Bloody Sunday. Selma activists came regularly to support the Wilcox demonstrations. Charles Bonner of Selma and Bob Block from California spent a night or two in the Wilcox County jail in April. Bob got cattle prodded in one march and then signed on to work with Dan Harrell, the director of seven SCLC SCOPE project counties who was based in Wilcox.

Almost as soon as we met, Bob and I fell in love. I guess Charles wanted to keep Bob on his team so recruited me into Selma SNCC, although I continued to work with SCOPE in Wilcox County as well. We had many adventures and misadventures that summer, both together and separately. The racists were absolutely outraged at this new wave of “outside agitators” who arrived to join the “hangers on from the March,” as some snidely referred to whites who hadn’t gone back north. But Charles was thrilled to have us there and always made us feel at home in Selma. He began educating me on SNCC philosophy and tactics which seemed so cool compared to what I learned from our SCLC reverends. But I loved our “Revs” as we called most of our adult leaders. Out in the field, it took both SCLC and SNCC tactics and support just to stay alive. Charles would sometimes drive us away from (and sometimes into) danger in a powder blue SNCC Valiant. Our county project leader, Major Johns, rescued me from potential attack more than once in his ’52 Chevy.

Bob and I were seldom allowed to work together, but when we could get together, we met in Selma with Charles and his girlfriend Janet to party and to share stories. One day in July, I was with a small, integrated team canvassing for voters in a remote area outside Arlington. A couple of white men in trucks roared up and tried to run us over. They had guns, too. We spent that afternoon hiding in ditches, and running through pine forests while my local canvassing partner, Robert Powell, tried to get a call through to our project leaders to come rescue us.

Bob told us that his afternoon canvassing with Dan Harrell had been even more exciting. “Dan and I were walking along when this white guy appears out of nowhere. I mean we didn’t hear him comin’, see a truck, nothing. Just like that, he takes his pistol, raises it right to Harrell’s head and presses it against his temple.”
“You know I would kill you as soon as look at you, doncha?”
“I believe I do,” was all that Dan replied.
Read the full story: https://thislittlelight1965.wordpress.com/2010/06/15/bob-dan-the-man-with-a-gun/
Then I told Bob what happened out in Arlington, about being chased all afternoon by white men in pickups with rifles. “He must’ve been related to my guy. Dan didn’t even tell me about what happened with you!”

Gitin and Block at National Voting Rights Museum March 2010

Gitin and Block at National Voting Rights Museum March 2010

45th Reunion Charles Bonner & Maria in Selma at the Saint James Hotel March 2010

45th Reunion Charles Bonner & Maria in Selma at the Saint James Hotel March 2010

Forty years later, Charles, Bob (now Luke) and I had a reunion, with some other civil rights veterans. We swore we’d go back some day and walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge together. In 2010, 45 years after our first meeting, we marched over that bridge with thousands of other foot soldiers in the Selma Jubilee Bridge Re-enactment Ceremony. I am so grateful that we lived to share these stories and to continue our friendship.

Excerpt and adaptation from “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” by Maria Gitin, copyright, University of Alabama Press 2014. 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/

This Bright Light of Ours Prepares to Launch: Save These Dates!

To stay current with Maria Gitin & friends events and appearances, and to leave comments about the book, please visit www.thisbrightlightofours.com

Upcoming Events and Appearances 

Maria with Charles Bonner, Karina Cervantez and Javier de la Paz

Maria with Charles Bonner, Karina Cervantez and Javier de la Paz

Saturday February 15th – Oakland, CA, Holy Names University Social Justice Forum, Voting Rights panel with civil right attorney Charles A Bonner and Watsonville Mayor Karina Cervantez. Register for this great conference: The Dream Lives On: A Call to Action http://www.hnu.edu/SocialJustice

Thursday February 20th Aptos, CA– 6-7:30 PM West Coast Book Launch, Reading, & Signing at Temple Beth El, 3055 Porter Gulch Rd,  Free and open to the public with hosted reception.

Honoring Martin Luther King Jr at Temple Beth El

Honoring Martin Luther King Jr at Temple Beth El

Thursday March 6th  Camden, AL —  6-7:30 PM  Alabama Book Book Launch Celebration at the Lena Powell Convention Center 211 Claiborne Street in. Camden native son, Rev Dr LV Baldwin will come to give the invocation. Brief program with reading, historic slides and recognition of the 30+ families and individuals who contributed stories to the book. Free and open to the public with hosted reception, book sales and signing.

Freedom Fighters: The Next Generation

Freedom Fighters: The Next Generation

Sunday March 9th Selma, AL– Participate in the Selma Jubilee bridge re-enactment ceremony. Meet under the Wilcox County Freedom Fighters banner outside Brown Chapel.  Families may make T-shirts or posters with family and civil rights hero photo on them. Please spread the word to everyone who lived or worked in the Wilcox Movement. 

Thursday, March 13th Mobile AL – 6:30 PM Museum of History, Book talk, signing and reception. 251-208-7246 or http://www.thisbrightlightofours.com

This Bright Light of Ours

My beloved husband Samuel Torres Jr

My beloved husband Samuel Torres Jr

SNCC Buddies Luke (Bob) Block, Maria Gitin and Charles (Chuck) Bonner 2005

SNCC Buddies Luke (Bob) Block, Maria Gitin and Charles (Chuck) Bonner 2005

During this time of reflection on anniversaries – some joyous like the March on Washington, some tragic and still infuriating, like the murder of the Sunday School girls in Birmingham, we pause to reflect on the people and friends who have made contributions to positive change, to moving forward not backward and to keeping the faith. Our eyes are wide open yet we still hold Martin’s Dream and our own to be possible. I want to share images of just handful of the dozens of amazing people who supported me on the journey to complete This Bright Light of Ours:Stories of the Voting Rights Fight, University of Alabama Press February 2014. http://www.thisbrightlightofours.com

My beloved friend and publicist, Joy Crawford-Washington and her mother, Jessie Crawford

My beloved friend and publicist, Joy Crawford-Washington and her mother, Jessie Crawford

Below (Left to right)

Ethel Brooks, Freedom Fighter (In Memorium)

Bettina Aptheker, author, advisor, friend

Lewis V Baldwin, author, advisor, friend & inspiration

Surprise Happy 65th Birthday to Samuel Torres Jr my beloved, my office manager and source of endless support

Charles R. Stephens (In Memorium) for years of co-training, diversity lessons and leadership

Bruce Hartford, Bay Area Civil Rights Veterans for fact-checking, resources and realism

Missing photo but not appreciation: Martha Jane Brazy, historian, for enthusiasm, editorial eye and noodging to make it even better

Ethel Brooks Freedom Fighter UnknownBaldwin_ S very young Charles S 2009

maria gitin bruce hartford_MG_3663_1

New This Bright Light book website coming soon: http://www.thisbrightlightofours.com

2014 Events – Save the Date

This Bright Light of Ours: A Celebration of Wilcox County Voting Rights, book reading, signing and reception, Camden, AL March 6, 2014.

This Bright Light of Ours, book reading, signing and reception, Temple Beth El, Aptos, CA February 20, 2014.

4th Annual Bay Area Social Justice Forum, moderator and panelist, The Center for Social Justice and Civic Engagement,  Holy Names University, Oakland, February 15, 2014.

2013 Presentations

The Voice of Conscience: Civil Rights, Post Civil Rights and the Future Freedom Struggle Conference Plenary Speaker, Vanderbilt University, November 9, 2013.

The March on Washington@50 Symposium, moderator and panelist;  with Stanford University MLK Institute, Sojourn To The Past and Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, CA,  August 17, 2013.  

Freedom Stories of People in Struggle, presenter with Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, May 5, 2013.

Forging Alliances And Building Coalitions, California Social Studies Conferencepanelist, Burlingame, CA, March 9, 2013.

We will maintain this blog under a new name: www.wilcoxcountyfreedomfighters to preserve and add to the living history of the Wilcox County Freedom Fight.

These sites are not yet live – check back in early October.

 

Camden Alabama Civil Rights Demonstrations Continue April 1965

April 9, 1965 – Camden 

Martin Luther King Jr spoke at Antioch Baptist Church in conjunction with a march that same day. It was the first time Wilcox County demonstrators were able to secure a permit to march. 600 marchers marched from the church to the courthouse.

Source: Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, Dorothy Walker, Alabama Historical Society in an e-mail to author dated 6.9.09

April 10, 1965 – Camden

Smoke Bombs Halt New Wave of Alabama Marchers

Camden Academy students Ralph Eggleston and Charles Mimms led a large march with some out of area supporters.  Jim “Arkansas” Benston, a white youth working with Selma SNCC, was beaten by Camden city police.

Source: Chicago Defender special by Leon Daniel

Excerpted from his own account – “Strider”/”Arkansas”/Jim Benston, a white Southern youth activist, wrote to me on February 18, 2010: 

So, that morning, 10th? I was commissioned to drive the van to Camden (from Selma),take these fresh kids with me & look out for them. No leadership training, no specified authority. Only (told me the) location of Camden Academy, & “support them.” I don’t remember who told me to take the van & its occupants to Camden. Maybe (James) Orange had come back into town.

So there I was, in charge of 3 or 4 Yankee kids who just showed up [including Bob Block, Richard Stephenson and Bruce Hartford], no experience;  3 or 4 Selma kids [including Charles Bonner, Amos Snell], experienced but younger, & me, at 20;going into battle in a town I had never been to, & knew nobody.  “Just do it!”  OK!

I only remember 2 adults from Camden, {probably there were more} the minister, who may have also been a teacher [Rev Thomas Threadgill and/ or Daniel Harrell], and a woman, probably in her 40s. It seems that we were about 30 or 35 total, mostly kids. We marched into town & were met by Mayor Reg (Albritton) & his boys, and a few Deputies, perhaps under separate authority. I recall some very brief speechifying, & then the minister kneeled us down to pray. There came a defining moment in my life.

A little girl, about age 12 was on my right, holding my hand.  One deputy strode up and stuck his gun in her face. His words were severe, which I do remember, or think I remember, it was so firmly planted in my Being. The deputy stuck his shotgun, [tear gas gun?]  into her face & spewed his words. In response to his threat of imminent murder, she squeezed my hand, then just held it firmly, looked into his eyes, and spoke calmly. “Mister, you do what you gotta do,  but I ain’t movin’ for nobody.” Those heart words almost knocked him off his feet.  He staggered back as though he had been smashed in the face by a beer bottle.A minute or two later came the tear gas. Everybody bolted, this was army combat tear gas, & thicker than on the Bridge in Selma.  There was no wind, Crying, running, vomiting, stumbling.   My only guide was that unknown little girl.  I could NOT let her down. so, I started singing, “Ain’t gonna let no tear gas  turn me ’round,  turn me ’round, turn me ’round,Ain’t gonna let no tear gas turn me ’round.I’m gonna keep on a walkin’   keep on a talkin’ Marchin’ up to Freedom Land !”

Within 10 seconds everyone was back on the line, singin’, clappin’ dancin,’  Marchin’ up to Freedom Land.That is when, & why the cops regrouped  &  came after me.They broke our armlock first, & then went for my head. In his book, “White Kids.” Reavis describes my being singled out and beaten in Demopolis later that summer, which was so similar to Camden that I had totally forgotten about it until I read (& edited) his book.

My being beaten was on Huntley-Brinkley that night,  & was seen by my grandmother’s sister in Birmingham. My Grandmorther, Mrs. Sam Wallace, was the President of the UDC    – that’s  United Daughters of the Confederacy  –  in Birmingham. My Aunt Jean from Chattanooga was visiting when they saw me on national news. They decided my beating and arrest was appropriate, & sent a bible to the Camden white folks’s church to deliver to me. – © James Benston 2010.

Contact “Strider” Benston and read more of his stories at http://striderben.wordpress.com/

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April 12, 1965 – Camden

Rev Jonathan Daniels, who would be murdered August 20th in nearby Haneyville, ventured with his family into a large crowd that was demonstrating downtown Camden where they were tear-gassed. This was the fourth or fifth day in a row of marches.

Source: Taylor Branch, pg 210, At Canaan’s Edge.