Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday 2015

seattle mlk flyer1412_4511l_mlkdayflyerMany people knew and worked with Dr. King far longer than I and other Summer of 1965 voter registration project workers, but all of us understood that the love the local people felt for him was key to getting our foot in the door to talk about voter registration.  We developed quick questions to find a connection that would lead to the courthouse registrars office. Years later, I still am invited to share these stories in hopes they will inspire and restore trust in the democratic process. Here is a sample of one of my favorite talks.

KING COUNTY MLK CELEBRATION  Paramount Theater, Seattle WA January 15, 2015         Thank you. I am very pleased to be here with you in beautiful Martin Luther King Jr. County  – which full name I understand can be credited to community leaders including Councilmember Larry Gossett. I am in awe that in an area this size, with just 7.9% Black residents in the city of Seattle, that you can boast not one but two of the largest MLK Celebrations in the Northwest, a beautiful African American History Museum and a legacy of peaceful nonviolent demonstrations for justice including the 1960s school desegregation campaign led by Martin Luther King Jr.’s friend, Rev. Dr. Samuel Berry McKinney..       In my brief remarks today, I want to touch on two themes:

  1. Why Martin Luther King Jr. believed that the voting rights fight was worth risking our lives for and
  2. What guidance his teachings give us to fight injustice today. While we may be fond of MLK’s speeches about brotherhood and integration, it is his insistent call for nonviolent action against injustice that, for me, rings loudest across the decades.

I first heard that call when I was a 19 yr old freshman at San Francisco State College. I saw Dr King on television, calling students to action, inviting us to come South and join in the voting rights struggle after the violent attack on voting rights demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Dozens of young people – some of whom would soon become my close friends and coworkers – were beaten, tear-gassed and chased off the bridge that day; many were severely injured. The year was 1965. What I saw on grainy black and white television became known as Bloody Sunday, commemorated each year on the first full weekend in March at the Selma Jubilee. My dear friend and SNCC leader Charles Bonner described the scene in Selma as he and other young demonstrators walked toward the armed city and county officers on the bridge that day:

“We were just teenagers marching toward a blue sea of police armed with guns, tear gas, billy clubs. Those on horseback had long leather whips. But we were at peace with our fear, our courage, our hope that as the song we were singing goes, A Change is Gonna Come.”

Mary Alice Robinson was a 16 yr old high school student from an active but very rural community in Wilcox County, Alabama. She vividly recalls Bloody Sunday, “My sister Edna and I ¾lots of us from Coy¾walked together. When they turned the dogs on us, and tear-gassed us, I rolled downhill into some bushes. I got briars in my hand and left them there for a long time, as a reminder of what they did to us.”

Before I was assigned to spend the summer working with these courageous grassroots freedom fighters in Wilcox County, I attended an intensive Orientation, “a civil rights boot camp” in Atlanta headed by Rev Hosea L Williams.  He, Martin Luther King Jr, Dorothy Cotton, Septima Clark and other leaders taught us 400 white and 200 Black students as much history, philosophy and voting rights as they could cram into a 5.5 day 14 hr a day training. Later that year in a speech at Hunter College, Dr. King recapped some of what he taught us: [Bear in mind that Negro was the term he used and a term of respect at that time] “The powerful unity of Negro with Negro and white with Negro is stronger than the most powerful and entrenched racism.” Repeat “The powerful unity of Negro with Negro and white with Negro is stronger than the most powerful and entrenched racism.”

King scholar Lewis V. Baldwin wrote that King’s further comments emphasizw that, “King concluded that racial injustice will never end as long as whites throughout the world minimize or ignore the problem.”  Quoting excerpts from King again: “The cup of endurance has run over, and there is deep determination on the part of people of color to be freed from the shackles that they faced in the past. Now if the white world does not recognize this and adjust to what has to be, then we will end up with a kind of race war.”

Dr. King penned this warning in 1965, nearly 50 yrs ago. Today, many activists, commentators, even scholars predict that as a result of our failure to eliminate institutional racism, and due to a recent series of murders of unarmed Black men and the reaction of the white establishment to the ongoing demonstrations, that we are in a period that could be both as productive and tumultuous as the southern civil rights movement of the 1960’s. This civil unrest and indignations arises at the same time that a broad segment of the public is cynical about the electoral process, and discouraged about their own potential for economic advancement. We see decreased voter registration and participation numbers.  What does it mean for us as a county, a state, a country, if we have large numbers of people who do not believe they are heard, that they are represented, enfranchised?

Martin Luther King Jr. is widely recognized one of the world’s greatest leaders, but he was a leader who always prodded us to do better, be better. Never rest on a single achievement, a voting site opened, a school integrated, even an unjust law changed – He encouraged us to push on and on, always pushing towards justice.

One of his more familiar quotes is a favorite of mine: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all – indirectly.” King’s familiar words offer both challenge and encouragement but we sometimes turn away from his less comforting quotes such as his insistence that we as a society, a whole society, cannot rest until we have eliminated racism from every aspect of our social and cultural institutions. Racism is as he said “that hound of hell which dogs the tracks of our civilization.”

Too many civil rights martyrs, most of them Black, most of them unknown to this day, were injured and some died fighting for the right of African Americans to vote. This is our theme today, the importance of that right to vote for all of us. I want to emphasize as Dr. King did, that the right to vote was not the end of the struggle but that it was a large step towards full citizenship. A right that enables all Americans, most especially those who had been denied voting rights based on race, to participate fully in the affairs of their community, this country and our world.

Mrs. Rosetta Angion was mother of 16 children, including Mary Alice Robinson who I quoted earlier, but she still found time to work in the Wilcox County Alabama voting rights movement. Her home in rural Coy was a rest stop, a place we picked up and dropped off our voter lists, a place where people waited for rides to go into the courthouse in Camden to attempt to register to vote.  She shared some of her memories of with me: Mrs. Angion recalled, “I’ll never forget sitting up watching TV, seeing Dr. King in other places marching, and whatever they tried to do they accomplished because he came there. I remember saying, ‘Lord I wish he would come to Wilcox County,’ and he did. I will never forget him coming here.

We were tear-gassed and beaten with sticks just because we wanted to vote. I remember marching in Camden, going to meetings, and then the great day when we stood in the rain to get registered, the day Dr. King was there. He stood on the jailhouse steps and spoke. Earlier, I found out that the only way you become a real citizen is to vote. After that I did everything I could to improve the lives of my community.”

Martin Luther King shared the Mrs. Angion’s conviction that you are not a full citizen if you cannot, do not vote, in his quote that is our theme for today: “So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind – it is made up for me.” Dr. King is warning us that not voting is equivalent of enslavement: lack of ability to vote means that we do not possess ourselvesthat others make up our minds for us.

And as Mrs. Angion so movingly reminds us ” the only way you become a real citizen is to vote.”

For more by Maria Gitin: www.thisbrightlightofours.com 

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.

Register Now for the SCLC/SCOPE 50thAnniversary Reunion in Atlanta

Join us! Come to Atlanta on
October 1-4, 2015,
as we gather to celebrate the 50th anniversary of SCLC’s SCOPE project and SCLC’s long fight for justice

50 years ago, young people answered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to spend the summer of 1965 in the South registering black people to vote, in cooperation with SCLC activists and supporters. 50 years later, those young people are now older. We need to celebrate what we accomplished that summer. The Reunion will give us an opportunity to reconnect with former colleagues and friends and share with each other the impact that SCOPE and SCLC has had in our lives. But we also want to share our stories with the young people of today.

 

For more information, go to www.sclcscope50th.org or contact John Reynolds, Reunion Committee Chair, at JohnR99773@aol.com.

SCOPE button

 Rev Hosea L Williams with 1965 SCOPE staff.L to R- Benjamin Van Clarke, Stoney Cook, Carl Farris, Andrew Marrisett , and Richard Boone © Barbara Williams Emerson


Rev Hosea L Williams with 1965 SCOPE staff.L to R- Benjamin Van Clarke, Stoney Cook, Carl Farris, Andrew Marrisett , and Richard Boone © Barbara Williams Emerson

49 Years Ago – Getting Ready for Wilcox County

Forty nine yrs ago, I didn’t know that my decision to respond to Dr. King’s call for students to work on the Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) project directed by Hosea L Williams would send me to rural Wilcox County.  As 19 year old freshman at San Francisco State College, I remember the excitement of getting a ride from Rev Cecil Williams – who had just returned from being beaten in Selma – as he drove us to the last Berkeley briefing before we drove to an intensive weeklong Orientation in Atlanta where we were trained to be civil rights workers. Williams was encouraging and welcoming of young white students who wanted to join the Freedom Fight. He was also an inspiring and informed trainer who let us know exactly how much danger we might face, as well as the imperative for white youth to join hands with black youth in this nonviolent fight for the right to vote. Rev Cecil Williams is a civil rights hero and community leader who continues to inspire. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to learn from him at such a formative stage in my life. 

Rev Cecil Williams (standing)

Rev Cecil Williams (standing)

For more about Maria Gitin’s experience read her memoir: www.thisbrightlightofours.com

Wilcox County AL Civil Rights Timeline July 1965

July 1, 1965 – Camden

The New York Times reports a different version of the June 29th incident with the local sheriff (PC Lummie Jenkins) stating that the boys’ injuries were slight and that both boys were released from the hospital immediately.  Source: New York Times

Author’s note: Frank Conner told this author that he was near death and was hospitalized for months. This author witnessed one other young man with a bandaged head many days after the incident.

July 2, 1965 –Camden

Alabama Sheriff Locks Church

Sheriff Jenkins tells the press that the church deacons asked our Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) headquarters be locked after the attack.

Source: Associated Press, New York Times.

Author’s note: The Sheriff moved us out of the office at gunpoint. I was among those present as we were assessing the damage caused the night before, during the Klansmen’s violent attack on our youth. The courageous deacons reopened the church within a week although we tended to stay away after that, to lessen the danger to the locals.

July 2, 1965 – Atlanta

Rev Hosea Williams report included seven local black activists and one SCOPE worker being beaten in Camden at Antioch Baptist Church. Source: Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge.

Author’s note: The correct date was June 29th and there were eight young men, all locals affiliated with SCLC and /or working with the SCOPE program of SCLC that summer. All were African-American. Five escaped before three were beaten, two badly enough to be hospitalized. A July 3, 1965 article in the Chicago Defender supports this claim and quotes Bob Block (author’s boyfriend at the time) as saying we knew who the attackers were, all local white men wearing stocking masks. At the request of several of the survivors of this attack,   their attackers are named in my forthcoming book. There also was an earlier attack on a number of white and black male workers sleeping at the church.

Larry Scott Butler  wrote on Apr 12, 2013

The incident at the church I can be very specific about as I recorded it in my diary.  We were attacked while in the church in Camden, ran for our lives, and spent the night hiding on the floor of an Afro-American Masonic hall. It happened on 6/23/65 and a local young man named Saul helped us escape.  David Hoon (also white) was part of out group and he fell off the board crossing the ravine behind the church while we were running.  He was alright, but dirty and wet.  Saul led us to the Masonic Hall which we barricaded from the inside.

July 4, 1965

Bootleg liquor was planted in local activist Don Green’s car and he was arrested again although he had just been bailed out by SCOPE.

Source: Author was told by SCLC leaders Harrell and Johns.

 July 4, 1965 We integrated the Bessie W. Munden Pool just outside of Camden www.

July 8, 1965 – Camden

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 whipped the crowd into a frenzy at a rally in Camden that was attended by thousands.

Source: Author wrote of this in letter home . I was not in one of the cars but could hear the cheers from downtown as I hid at the boy’s dormitory at Camden Academy up on the hill.

 July 9, 1965 – Camden dateline, incident out in county

Summer Community Organization and Political Education canvassers forced off highway by white man in a pick up brandishing a rifle.

Source: SCOPE incident report plus author was participant/witness in incident. This story and others are told in detail in my forthcoming book: This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, Modern South, University of Alabama Press, 2014.

Advance orders now available at discount: www.amazon.com

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Wilcox County, AL Civil Rights Timeline June 1965

June 20, 1965 – Atlanta, GA

Dr King Opens Rights Drive Tuesday

The New York Times quotes King about our Summer Community Organization and Political Education project orientation in Atlanta and plans for the summer to register thousands of voters in 60 counties.

The SCOPE project began June 9th. After traveling cross-country and six days of intensive Orientation in Atlanta, five of us arrived in Camden on June 20th to work with Dan and Juanita Harrell and Major Johns of SCLC and local community leaders Rev Thomas L. Threadgill, Rev Frank Smith, Bob and Georgia Crawford, Jesse Brooks and his daughter Ethel Brooks and many local student leaders.

 June 21, 1965 – Camden, AL

Five SCOPE workers and locals workers are arrested and held for a few hours at the jail. One Black youth, is beaten so badly that when he is released, he is taken to the hospital in Selma.

 June 28, 1965 – Camden, AL

Sherriff Lummie P.C. Jenkins tells local “Negro Cafe” owners, Mr and Mrs. Reynolds that they cannot any longer serve white civil rights workers. When we arrive for lunch, Mr. Reynold asks us to please leave and not bring trouble to his store, so we leave. We did not eat there the rest of the summer.

Eighteen (18) SCOPE-SCLC (including this author) and local civil rights workers are arrested at Antioch Baptist Church and booked into the Camden jail without due process. Local student activist Don Green is beaten in front of us and put in solitary confinement when a knife is discovered in his sock. White SCOPE volunteer Mike Farley is put in a cell with a violent white prisoner and beaten mercilessly throughout the night. We are released a few at a time over the next few days. All are released within five days but none ever know when they will be either released or attacked. A detailed narrative is included in my forthcoming book. 

June 29, 1965 – Camden

 Masked men beat youth guarding SCOPE office at Antioch Baptist Church. Three are beaten badly. Two are hospitalized; one suffers permanent traumatic brain injury. Reports in SCOPE papers state that there were 8 youth attacked by 5 masked men and that two were beaten. Incident Report. p 367 SCOPE of Freedom (Leventhal, Challenge Press). Three of the Klansmen are identified by the youth but none are arrested or serve sentences. Names of the youth and their attackers are included in my forthcoming book.

Camden, AL

Camden, AL

June 30, 1965

The Mayor informed SCOPE workers that anyone found in the church after dark would be arrested for public nuisance and taken into protective custody.

Thank you to Dr. Robert M. Franklin for his generous words about This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight: 

This is an important work about a neglected period of the Civil Rights Movement, the 1965 Voting Rights Movement. Gitin clearly communicates her commitment to civil rights and social justice by presenting us with the fresh voices of unheralded community leaders in Wilcox County, AL. It adds wonderful new insight and texture to the story of how courageous Americans transformed their community and the country.  – Robert Michael Franklin, Ph.D., President-Emeritus of Morehouse College