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

First Weeks of April 1965 – Camden Demonstrations Continue

scope051_2April 2, 1965 – Camden

March is Blocked at Camden 2D Day: Mayor and Deputies Bar Walk to Courthouse

Students from Camden Academy, adults from Gees Bend and others continue to defy the mayor and city officials and demonstrate without a permit, every day for at least a week. They continue to be assaulted with either or both tear gas and smoke bombs but the students announce “We’ll be back!” Source: Chicago Defender

Author’s note: Adults who were then students who told me that demonstrators from Coy and other communities were involved as well and that there were weeks of weekday marches both from Antioch Baptist church and from Camden Academy for the rest of the school year into May.

April 4, 1968  Martin Luther King Jr Assassinated in Memphis, TN during his support for a sanitation workers strike. Union busting continues today in 2013 as living wages slip out of the reach of millions of willing workers.

 April 6, 1965 – Camden

 Use Smoke, Tear Gas on Ala Demonstrators

Eleven (11) arrested in a third march in the same week. Smoke bombs and tear gas both were used. Adults began at Antioch Baptist Church and students at the Camden Academy.

Source: Chicago Defender.

Author’s note:  Some former students I interviewed said that the police tried to confuse them by using both smoke and tear gas bombs shot from big barrel guns. The police then mocked the students if they panicked when it was smoke instead of tear gas. As time went on the student organizers gave the youth wet towels to cover their faces before leaving campus to march.

Camden demonstrators from out of town, dubbed “outside agitators” may have included Bruce Hartford, Charles “Chuck Bonner” Bonner, Amos Snell, Luke (Bob) Block, Strider “Arkansas” Benson and other civil rights workers. Bob/Luke Block was shocked with a cattle prod but stayed and worked in Wilcox with both SNCC and SCLC until August.

Bob Crawford Jr on Alabama Education Before the Civil Rights Movement

Luke (Bob) Block and Bob Crawford Jr remenisce in Pine Apple 2008In 2008, Luke (Bob) Block and I returned to Wilcox County to find families we had loved and worked with in 1965. Bob and Georgia Crawford, stalwart leaders in the Pine Apple area of the county, had been warm hosts to Luke and other civil rights workers. We met with their son, Bob Crawford Jr., who taught high school in Monroe County for many years. Over many hours of animated conversation, one of the things Crawford stressed was education, “One of the best things about having a primarily African American school system is that now they can teach the whole story. I specialized in American History after I got my masters degree. One of my teachers told us ‘Don’t fool those kids and tell them what the Alabama history books say; it is strictly a white man’s history.’

Bob Crawford Jr with grandson in Selma 2010

Bob Crawford Jr with grandson Bradley Thomas in Selma 2010

 

“You had to go to a foreign county to get a true history. I got information from a friend, a retired military man who collected history from other countries. France and Spain wrote more competent histories that told the truth about US history. Negroes were involved in cattle drives, in the Gold Rush. I read some of these books and learned that Negroes were everything from outlaws to ministers, but that never was mentioned in the regular high school history books. So I inserted the information into my teaching. During the Revolutionary War they didn’t say that there were Black soldiers fighting on both sides, mostly for the North. In South Carolina you had Negro congressmen, but no Black leaders were ever mentioned, except maybe George W. Carver and Booker T. Washington. Negro engineers like Horace King built nearly every bridge that connected Georgia and Alabama—never told us anything about that, but I taught my students all of that. They [the administration] reprimanded me for teaching the truth, presenting the facts. But I didn’t get fired, I resigned to get a better paying job. I had two sweet little girls to put through college. Believe it or not, back then, driving truck paid better and had better benefits than teaching school.”[i]

Indeed, Crawford’s sacrifice of a prestigious teaching job for trucking was well rewarded by all three of his “little girls” successes in life.  Bob and Jessie Crawford’s oldest daughter, Debbie C. Porter, retired after teaching 28 years in the Baldwin County Alabama School System. Middle daughter, Joy Crawford-Washington, is currently a public relations specialist at the University of South Alabama, and the youngest, Jessietta C.Thomas, is a principal at Hayneville Road Acceleration Academy in Montgomery, Alabama.

In conversation with people whose families were active in civil rights, I learned that many took interstate truck driving jobs for part or all of their career. Due to new interstate federal anti-discrimination laws and unionization, driving truck became one the best paying jobs that a Southern Black male could hope to obtain while living in that region, in that era. Truck driving was not a career option for women at that time, and still is a rarity.

More of the Crawfords’ family story and their heroic involvement in the Civil Rights Movement is included in my forthcoming book, This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Wilcox County Freedom Fight, University of Alabama Press 2014 – Maria Gitin

PS If you admire the handcrafted coffee mugs in the top photo, they are produced by Luke’s wife Willow with the help of Luke and their family. Available at selected craft fairs and online, learn more about Crow Mountain Pottery at http://crowmountainpottery.com/


[i] Bob Crawford Jr., remarks edited in a telephone interview with Maria Gitin, Beatrice AL, June 2, 2009.

My Heart is Filled With Gratitude

Many generous folks contributed over the past seven years to This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, a memoir and collection of true stories from the last large integrated voter registration drive during the Freedom Summer of 1965.

Fifty-five courageous individuals entrusted me with their stories of living in a violent, racist community while fighting for their voting rights in Wilcox County, Alabama. My beloved SNCC friends, Charles “Chuck” Bonner and Luke “Bob” Block (https://thislittlelight1965.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/img327.jpg) kept me honest as I recreated our teenage civil rights work and play. Wilcox County community leaders opened doors, answered endless questions and become dear friends including: W. Kate Charley, Sheryl Threadgill, Alma King, and John Matthews. Civil Rights photographer Bob Fitch (http://www.bobfitchphoto.com/) shared historic images that enrich the work immensely.

For generous encouragement, and expert counsel over the years, huge appreciation goes to brilliant author-scholar, Lewis V. Baldwin. (www.amazon.com) For consistent and accurate fact checking, terminology, and political theory, my hero is Bruce Hartford, lay historian and web manager for the national Civil Rights Veterans website (www.crmvet.org). Scott E. Kirkland, researcher and curator of the Museum of History in Mobile, AL, played a vital role in the placement of this book, as a champion for an accurate portrayal of the Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) project, designed and spearheaded by civil rights hero, Hosea Williams.

Author-activist Bettina Aptheker, the late James Houston, and Benet Luchion provided early encouragement. Developmental editor Cassandra Shaylor helped shape the book for interest. Historian Martha Jane Brazy of University of South Alabama enthusiastically embraced the work during its final year, generously offering me graduate student level attention. Willy Siegal Leventhal’s unending fight for recognition of the SCOPE (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SCOPE_Project) project was and is an inspiration.

Thanks to my beloved cousin, Jeanne Hanks, and my friend, Debbie Kogan, for empathetic listening during my years of obsessing about this project. Deep appreciation goes to my publicist, Joy Crawford-Washington of BGC Communications, for tireless support and warm friendship. To my yoga teacher, Amey Matthews for teaching me flexibility and strength are not opposites. And to Lauren Mari-Navarro for insights and resources. To Joan for fun & friendship.

Photo by Charley Hatfield, Aptos, CA

My husband, Samuel Torres Jr., offered me freedom to pursue the project, frequent and much-needed critiques, archival research, copyright management, proof-reading, tough talk and tender love, and took great photos. I can never thank him enough, but I am working on it!

Thank you all! Have a great Thanksgiving!  And Keep on Keepin’ On! – We have a long ways to go to achieve real racial and economic justice in the world!

The book has been retitled: This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, and will be published by University of Alabama Press in January 2014. Speaking engagements and book-signings are being scheduled now. Please contact: Joy Crawford-Washington, bgccommunications@gmail.com for more information.

Rev Frank & Mrs Etta Pearl Smith Family

Smith Family 1950
Children L-R Geraldine, Carolyn, Frank Milton, and Jesse

During the Wilcox County AL SCOPE-SCLC voter registration drive of summer 1965, my boyfriend, Bob (Luke) Block often stayed with the Rev & Mrs. Frank Smith family in Lower Peachtree. Jesse Smith, then a sixteen year old student leader recalls: “I remember Bob real well. We were sort of like brothers then. One day I was cutting Larry’s hair and Bob asked me to cut his. He had great faith in me; I had never cut white hair before, but I went ahead. It looked real bad on the sides. He looked at it in the mirror for a long while and then he said,”It’ll grow back.”

Bob (Luke) Block 1965

“I admired Bob for his ‘never give up’ attitude.  Somewhere in Pine Hill he asked this man was he a registered voter. He said, ‘Son, that ain’t none of your business.’ We made a U turn – no use talking to him- but we kept on goin.  In Lower Peachtree we had been trying to get the people to go over to sign up for commodities. Bob got Mr. Campbell and his wife to sign up after they wouldn’t listen to me or other black students. They needed that food for their family. After Mr. Campbell signed up, a bunch of other folks went over and got signed up. That was a big help. One night Daddy wrote out the complaints of the students at the high school: No running water, no library, gym or science lab. The student body signed it. Someone from the Board of Education came and we gave the letter to him.” – Rev Jesse Smith, Montgomery AL interview with Maria Gitin June 8, 2009

Rev Frank Smith was fired from his teaching position at Pine Apple High School immediately upon passage of the Voting Rights Act, August of 1965. The official reason provided by the Superintendent of Schools, as was the case with all of the activist teacher terminations, was low attendance in Smith’s classes. The real reason he was fired was because he had allowed white civil rights workers to stay at his home, SNCC and SCLC to meet at his church and because his children were active in the Movement. It took fifteen years of legal filing, but in 1980 Smith won a back pay settlement and was elected to the same Wilcox County Board of Education that terminated him — victorious at last.

Carolyn Smith Taylor represents the Smith Family
2010 Selma Jubilee

The Smith family, Frank Smith Jr, (may he rest in blessed memory), Geraldine Gwendolyn Smith, Carolyn Smith Taylor, Jesse Smith and Larry Smith keep their parents’ memory alive by living up to their ideals.

Selma SNCC and SCLC’s Summer Community Organization and Political Education Project Summer 1965

Charles Bonner was my first SNCC friend and co-worker. He and Eric Jones were in charge of voter registration for SNCC in Wilcox County where I was working with SCLC’s summer voter registration project. He immediately inducted me into SNCC. For the rest of the summer, he and his girlfriend Jan, my boyfriend Bob Block and I spent time together in Selma, as well as doing some canvassing in Wilcox. Freedom Summer 1965 was one of the last truly cooperative projects with SNCC, SCLC, NAACP and dozens of local improvement associations working together on one goal: voter registration. For information on why this work was so essential and my orientation to SCOPE please visit the Civil Rights Veteran’s website http://www.crmvet.org/info/scope1.htm

Excerpt from 1965 This Little Light of Mine, This Bright Light of Ours: stories of the Wilcox County Freedom Fight © 2011

Nonviolence as a Strategy versus a Philosophy   

The next day we had breakfast with Chuck and Jan somewhere nearby. Over coffee with a still muddled brain, I tried to explain my understanding of nonviolence is that it boils down to being like a spiritual martial art.

“You take the negative energy, the hate rushing towards you and turn it back on the perpetrator in the form of love. That should melt down his defenses or at least make him stop and think. I believe that if you hate or hit back, you become no better than the oppressor. ”

Then Chuck explained that SNCC uses the word nonviolent in their name, but nonviolence is just a strategy, not a philosophy or belief.

“We use it when it’s convenient, when it will get press, prevent a mass murder and recruit more people to be active. When necessary, we use any weapon: rocks, knives, even guns, especially in isolated situations where you are outnumbered or outrun. There’s no political advantage from taking a beating or getting shot if no one is there to cover it. ”

Bob said he absolutely agreed with that, which made my stomach queasy, not only from last night’s liquor. “But, I don’t mind getting beat or even dying for The Movement, but I sure as hell don’t want to die if these guys don’t even want me here,” Bob added.

“Well I want you here, that’s for damn sure. Ya’ll been damn straight with us. But it is gettin’ time to go. Fact is, me and Jan are thinkin’ of heading out there to San Francisco with you all, in a few weeks.” Chuck went on to explain that getting an education is a form of activism, too.

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

Jan said that she thought, “Black power will come through independence that comes with achieving affluence and influence in the tradition of the often-maligned Booker T. Washington founder of Tuskegee Institute.” We groaned in self-mockery at our intellectual talk and the giddy guilt that we could, all four of us, drive away from Selma, alive.

Bob, Dan & The Man with a Gun

 

Dan Harrell

 

Excerpt from This Little Light of Mine, This Bright Light of Ours ©mariagitin2010

Photo ©Bob Fitch 1966

http://www.BobFitchPhoto.com

My boyfriend Bob Block was surprised and didn’t seem especially pleased to see me when we hooked up in Pine Apple. He looked at my legs and shoes and said, “You’re gonna hafta keep up. We don’t have all summer, you know.” That summer, it seemed like every day lasted for an eternity, the way it does when you are a child.  But Bob was right, pretty soon the Voting Rights Bill would pass and federal examiners would come help these folks register, backed up by federal troops if necessary. Maybe they wouldn’t need us anymore.

Later, while John G. drove me back to the church before taking Bob down to Lower Peachtree, Bob told me what had happened to him yesterday.

“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.

“Man, that Dan, he was so cool. I was just about to beg and cry myself.”

Bob said as the seconds ticked into years he saw himself just as dead as Dan right there on that country lane, knowing this guy would never be caught or punished.

“And”, Bob explained, “This was just an ordinary guy, not one of the sheriff’s posse or anything, just an ordinary cracker. They can just do this stuff. Man! S–t!” He lit a cigarette and blew smoke out the open car window.

My heart was racing, “How did it end?”

“That cracker just lowered the gun, snorted and spit on the ground and walked away just as fast as he’d appeared.”

Then I told Bob what happened out in Arlington, about being chased all afternoon by a white man in a pickup with a rifle. “He must’ve been related to my guy. Dan didn’t even tell me about what happened with you!”

Bob said, “Yeah, I already heard.”

It made me feel good that our elders knew we were a couple and that he had some kind of idea what was going on with me even if the information didn’t flow both ways.  As an eighteen-year old boy he wasn’t the greatest at telling me what I wanted to hear, which was that he’d protect me, no matter what. How could he, when we’d chosen to put ourselves in danger?  Being threatened and scared went with the territory and he always claimed he wasn’t afraid. He was likely shell-shocked before I even arrived, what with the tear-gassing, beating and harassment, but he also liked the excitement. That’s a boy for you. I tried to talk and write letters that sounded like my boyfriend Bob, but inside my guts were churning.

There were so many incidents that I can’t recall them all. It was the same all over the South, in every county, every day for years for Movement folks. 95% of them were black folks who pressed on in a mostly nonviolent battle for freedom and justice for all against a continuous onslaught of violence and hatred. Not only were the local grassroots folks the real leaders of The Movement, they saved our little white behinds time and again. Sometimes we knew what they had done and could thank them; sometimes they just kept it to themselves.

Author’s note: Rev Daniel Harrell and his wife Juanita Harrell worked in Wilcox County Alabama on voting rights, literacy and community economic development from 1964 until their untimely deaths, both still in their forties. For more stories of unheralded heroes of the civil rights movement, watch for upcoming publication of “This Little Light of Mine, This Bright Light of Ours” by Maria Gitin. Thank you for sharing your comments and this page with others who are committed to honoring the memory of our civil rights veterans.