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


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.