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.

Major Johns – SCLC Field Director and Civil Rights Hero

Major Johns, center with other student protesters at Southern University in Baton Rouge

Major Johns, center with other student protesters at Southern University in Baton Rouge

During the summer of 1965, one of my favorite leaders was Major Johns. He was one of our SCLC field directors who was strict with his young recruits and who always looked out for us. Born and raised in Plaquemines, Louisiana, Rev. Major Johns was instrumental in the civil rights movement in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana for at least a decade, yet he has scarcely been mentioned in books until the publication of “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight.”

In 1960, five years before we met him in Camden, AL he was arrested along with other Southern University students for sitting-in at a Kress lunch counter in Baton Rouge as part of a multi-state Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) de-segregation drive. When they got out of jail Major Johns and two classmates stood on a school bus while he made a rousing speech. They and other CORE members organized a march to the state capitol of more than three thousand Southern University students to protest segregation and the arrests of students participating in sit-ins at segregated drugstore soda fountains and bus terminals. According to authors of “A More Noble Cause” Rachel L. Emanuel and Alexander P.Tureaud Jr., Major Johns was the chief strategist for the walk outs. All of the arrested students were expelled from Southern University and barred from all public colleges and universities in the state. In 2004, long after Major’s death, the student civil rights leaders were awarded honorary degrees and the state legislature passed a resolution in their honor.

Jesse Smith, was a teenager who had shown Luke and me around Lower Peachtree in 1965. He recalls Major spending time at their family home and at his father Rev. Smith’s church. “Major Johns, once in while he would talk about the black history of America —Crispus Attucks and all that. He was so inspiring. He’d quote from the Constitution about the right of the people to form or abolish this kind of government. There was so much power in his words; that man could speak!”

Major served in Wilcox County for more than six months in 1965 and in many other areas before returning to Louisiana where he fulfilled his dream of becoming a divinity school graduate and ordained minister, before he died of an aneurism at age 44. His survivors include children: Major Johns Jr, Cynthia Johns, Kenan Johns and his brother William, sisters Mary and Ella. I would be glad to hear from other survivors. More about Major is in my book “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” www.thisbrightlightourours.com

Conversation with Civil Rights Veteran Bruce Hartford – About our Stories

Gitin and Hartford 2013 photo © Samuel Torres Jr.

Gitin and Hartford 2013
photo © Samuel Torres Jr.

When I set about seriously, full-time to complete this book about my experience as a student civil rights worker in the summer of 1965, I wrote my friend Bruce Hartford, manager of the www.crmvet.org website. He came South earlier, stayed longer and had greater responsibilities than I did  so I turned to him in frustration as I began to recreate that long ago summer from a handful of lengthy letters and a trove of memories.  Here is an edited version of our conversation July 2008.Jkt_Gitin_final cover

Maria: I edited my letters heavily so as to generate funding from my supporters and sympathy from my family. Also, there are almost no names of locals since I was instructed not to name any African American activists unless they were on the SNCC or SCLC payroll. I wasn’t to mention intimate relations or parties or anything that could be used against us. In short, the letters were highly censored, sanitized versions of what I was feeling, much of which was confusion by the difference between what I experienced in my county, Wilcox, Alabama and my month of briefings in Berkeley, California and the weeklong intensive SCOPE orientation in Atlanta, Georgia.

Bruce: Strange, I don’t recall any admonishment not to mention the names of local folk who weren’t on staff. Who told you that, and why? It couldn’t have been to keep their activity secrets from the white folk; in those rural counties everyone knew everything about everyone else’s business.

I know it’s hard sometimes to get a handle on an approach. One possibility that occurs to me is to keep your letters but add in all the stuff you wanted to write way back when but did not because it might cause problems for the Movement, possibly also add in reflections and comments as you see things today. So you would have three different kinds of material that would need to be kept clear as to what is which.

Maria: I need to tell my story because I need to, but the truth is,I don’t know if the world needs to hear my story. A lot has been written by and about white youth in the Movement.

Bruce: Needing to tell your story seems sufficient reason to me. What more reason do you need?

So, I began with the letters and memories, then found my old friends, then went back to Wilcox County, Alabama and found the local people and their families, recovered their names and recorded their stories. It turned out that my old co-workers needed to tell their stories too. This memoir and oral history will be published February 15, 2014.

This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight is now available for advance purchase at www.uappress.edu and www.amazon.com.

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

Nonviolent Protesters Attacked by Elected Officials with Smoke Bombs – Camden AL Wed March 31, 1965

On March 31, 1965, Wilcox County, AL student and adult demonstrators conducted a dual march to protest lack of voting rights and school inequality. Previous marches, led by locals with invited guests Dr. Martin Luther King Jr of SCLC and John Lewis of SNCC, had managed to secure permits. Denied permits without “out of town” celebrity leaders, the locals determined to proceed with their march. Mayor Reg Albritton and local white men recruited to form a sheriff’s posse attacked marchers by throwing smoke bombs in their route. Local authorities used smoke bombs and tear gas interchangeably to confuse and frighten demonstrators. Experienced demonstrators carried wet towels to help clear stinging tear gas from their eyes.

Student leaders Sim Pettway Sr and Ralph Eggleston of Camden Academy organized this particular march along with adult leaders Daniel Harrell and Major Johns, SCLC field directors who later directed our SCOPE project. One group marched from St. Francis church on Highway 221 the city limits and another that came down the hill on the opposite side of town with a plan to demonstrate in front of the courthouse. Students and adults from Camden, Coy, Gees Bend, and Boling Springs came from St Francis, while students marched from Camden Academy, a K-12 Presbyterian Mission School for Black students.

Thanks to Elbert Goode, we know that the central male student is the late Willie Parker of Coy, AL. This photo was taken by the late great Bill Hudson, one of the top civil rights photographers of the era and is copyright by the Associated Press. I have licensed the use of the image for my forthcoming book, This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Wilcox County Freedom Fight, University of Alabama Press, 2014.cover book draft

May Daniel Harrell, Major Johns, Willie Parker and all of the foot soldiers of the Wilcox County Freedom Fight who died too young rest in peace knowing that they fought the good fight and that they are remembered.

If you participated in this demonstration or can identify the two young women facing the camera, please leave a comment by clicking on the comment link below. Let’s find those two young women – thanks for your assistance!

© Maria Gitin. All rights reserved. 

Dr King Kicks off Alabama Vote Drive 1965

January 30, 1965-Alabama

New Vote Drive in Ala Counties

Jan 30 1965An article in the Chicago Defender by John Lynch (dateline January 30, 1965 Atlanta GA) mentions Wilcox County as one of the Alabama counties that SCLC is targeting. The article states that zero blacks are registered in Wilcox, although by the time we arrived to work on voter registration that summer, 50 voters had successfully completed applications. Whether or not they were later “purged” as a then-common obstructionist tactic, I do not know.

I have assembled a Wilcox County Civil Rights Timeline that space will not allow to be included in my forthcoming book, This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Wilcox County Freedom Fight, and will be adding key events until next year when the book will be published by University of Alabama Press. If you recall other key events in Wilcox County 1963-1966, please write them in the comment link below. Thank you for helping to commemorate some of the forgotten events of the civil rights struggle and the special role of the Wilcox County AL Freedom Fighters. – Maria Gitin

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.