Freedom Summer 1965: #4 June 20

My First Mass Meeting

Sunday June 20, 1965 was one of the longest days of my nineteen year old life. We had been woken before dawn by threats from Klan members surrounding Antioch Baptist Church, then I attended my first African American church service before moving my meager civil rights traveling kit to Camden Academy girls dormitory which I hoped would be my home for the rest of the summer. At the Academy, we were threatened and eventually forbidden to stay because we were breaking the strict segregation code of Wilcox County, AL

IMG_0730_0067_067That evening, west coast seminary student John Golden drove some of us out to Little Zion Baptist Church in Coy to a mass meeting led by Rev. Daniel Harrell. Dan was our other SCOPE field director and director of 7 counties for the summer voter registration project. Major Johns was our county director and worked closely with Dan.

Despite my exhaustion I was on the edge of my pew for nearly two hours while first Dan and then Major Johns preached to a full house about getting out the vote, taking the next step to freedom. Major exhorted the crowd, “Don’t be waitin’ for the Promised Land. You can be in the Promised Land tomorrow. You can fulfill that promise: You can be a free man, free to vote! Get yourself registered. We need volunteers to carry folks into town, to help organize others, to take in some of our summer workers. You can sign up tonight with Mrs. Angion in the back. But get yourself registered first, that’s the first thing. You wanna be in that number! These students come all the way from Atlanta and California just to help us so we gotta show them we can help ourselves.” At the end of the meeting, Dan asked us new arrivals to stand, and the people applauded.
Late that night, I started coughing. I felt a fever coming on but before I could rest, I had to complete my first letter to my friends and supporters back home in California. Jeanne Searight, my college roommate and secretary at the Ecumenical House at San Francisco State College, typed and mailed my report letters to friends and supporters.

College Roomates 1965 Diane R, Lorraine Quan, Jeanne Searight, Maria Gitin (Joyce Brians)

College Roomates 1965
Diane R, Lorraine Quan, Jeanne Searight, Maria Gitin (Joyce Brians)

From my first letter, June 1965:

Dear Family and Friends:

This is another world. It’s a world where I, a 19-year-old white northern woman, am not free. I am not free to go into the white section of Camden, Alabama with a Negro.1 I am not free to work in civil rights and still relate to the Southern whites. I can’t go out after dark or go on a single date or swim in a public pool all summer. You people think you are free. When I was in San Francisco I thought I was free. But, we’re not free. I’m not down here fighting so any Negro can vote; I’m fighting for my rights—my human right to choose my friends as I please, to work with whoever I want, to worship with all peoples.

There is a Movement going on. God is acting in history. It’s God, not Martin Luther King, or James Bevel or Hosea Williams that is leading this movement. It’s faith that enables people to endure with one meal a day, four hours sleep, and one change of clothes. And they can still sing and shout praises.

When I finally crawled into bed, worried and scared about a hundred things, sick from the local croup, tired from the long meeting, I had a hope in my heart. It’s a hope I found in the midst of these people who live in the midst of hatred and degradation; I found it in the faces of the young Negro children and I found it in the voices of my fellow SCOPE workers. This hope is that We Shall Overcome.” – excerpted and condensed from Chapter 4, This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, Maria Gitin, University of Alabama Press. www.thisbrightlightofours.com

April Action in Wilcox: 50 Years Ago this Month

April 10, 1965 – Camden

Smoke Bombs Halt New Wave of Alabama Marchers

Quotes Camden Academy students Ralph Eggleston and Charles Mimms. Photo of Jim “Arkansas” Benston, white SNCC youth, being beaten by Camden city police.  Source: Chicago Defender special by Leon Daniel

April 20, 1965 – Camden scope056_2

Dr. King came through on another whirlwind tour of Alabama while a 200-person march was already underway. The same date, the state of Alabama secured a federal injunction against Dr. King to prevent him from using children to march and demonstrate. Source: Chicago Defender.

Note: This was a ludicrous charge since the students and adults in each community were planning their own strategies. Dr King came to show support and give encouragement. He did not organize any events in Alabama after the Selma marches and was not even a lead organizer of those marches. He was the inspirational leader, but the white press and politicians saw as the only leader.

April 21,1965 – US Court of Appeals 5th Circuit Alabama

Federal Court of Appeals finds “substantial un-contradicted evidence” that registration officials in Wilcox County were applying the supporting witness (voucher) requirement in a discriminatory fashion. Records disclosed only one instance of a black person attempting to obtain a white voter as a supporting witness.

Source: US v Logue, 344 F2d 290 (1965)

April 21, 1965 – Camden26

Camden civil rights leaders declare they will protest daily until allowed to register and to vote. They do so and continue until school lets out in the end of May.

This date was this author’s 19th birthday celebrated with friends in San Francisco where she had already signed up for the SCOPE project. After SCLC orientation in Atlanta with Wilcox residents Ethel Brooks, Charles Nettles, Mary Alice Angion and others, I was assigned to that county for the summer voter education and registration project.

Source: Chicago Daily Defender and personal memory.

For more history of the Wilcox County Voting Rights Movement read: www.thisbrightlightofours.com 

Dan Harrell in front of Antioch Baptist church

Dan Harrell in front of Antioch Baptist church  – Bob Fitch Photo 1966 © Stanford University Archives

When the People had to Fight to Vote

In 1965, in Wilcox County AL and in countless majority African American counties all over the South, Black citizens rose up in a nonviolent battle for their voting rights. With pressure brought on Congress and President Johnson to finally sign the Voting Rights Act on August 6th, all were free to register. Despite extensive documentation of discrimination, federal registrars did not arrive until late August. Only then were citizens allowed to register at the “real” courthouse on the town square instead of here at the “courthouse annex” which was the old jail. The victory was sweet. Today, we have to fight to get out 28% of voters for any election. Let’s reflect on the sacrifices of our elders, and work to get everyone out to vote this November.

 Evidence of need for federal registrars under new Voting Rights Act. August 1965. J Worcester photo.

Evidence of need for federal registrars under new Voting Rights Act. August 1965. J Worcester photo.

Qualified citizens stand for hours to exercise their voting rights, denied for over 100 years. J Worcester photo. August 1965

Qualified citizens stand for hours to exercise their voting rights, denied for over 100 years. J Worcester photo. August 1965

“This Bright Light of Ours” to Shine in 2015 Martin Luther King Jr Celebrations

Sheryl Threadgill-Matthews brings BAMA kids to meet author Maria Gitin

Sheryl Threadgill-Matthews brings BAMA kids to meet author Maria Gitin

Save the date for talks in Seattle, Monterey and Palo Alto. Check back for details in a few weeks.

January 13, 2015: Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle WA 

7 PM This Bright Light of Ours – Author Book signing event   http://www.elliottbaybook.com/

January 14, 2015: Open Windows School, Bellevue WA – MLK student assembly speaker

January 15, 2015: MLK Seattle Celebration 33rd Anniversary, King County, Seattle WA

The Voting Rights Fight, Keynote speaker for community celebration honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday. For more information:http://www.mlkseattle.org/

January 22, 2015: YWCA Monterey County

This Bright Light of Ours: Presentation, reading and book signing.  Details forthcoming.

January 28, 2015: Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University

This Bright Light of Ours: Presentation, reading and book signing Details forthcoming.

Temple Beth El Book Launch Celebration

Temple Beth El Book Launch Celebration

Praise for Maria Gitin Presentations

Thank you! thank you! Thank you! Your contribution to the “Voice of Conscience: Civil Rights, Post-Civil Rights and the Future Freedom Struggle” was the highlight. You are a remarkable friend and colleague. As Director of the Program in African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt and on behalf of the program committee we thank you. – Victor D Anderson, Vanderbilt University

I learned a good bit from your presentation. I referenced you in the final chapter of” A Child Shall Lead Them.” Your book will be a valuable resource, and will be one I will want to use in my King course. – Rufus Burrow Indiana Professor of Christian Thought and Theological Ethics, Christian Theological Seminary

Maria’s passion, compassion, and love for the people of Wilcox County shines through in her lecture. I count it a privilege to meet someone who is so genuine and is part of living history.DeeAnn, student University of South Alabama

“This Bright Light of Ours” to Shine in 2015 Martin Luther King Jr Celebrations

Sheryl Threadgill-Matthews brings BAMA kids to meet author Maria Gitin

Sheryl Threadgill-Matthews brings BAMA kids to meet author Maria Gitin

Save the date for talks in Seattle, Monterey and Palo Alto. Check back for details in a few weeks.

January 13, 2015: Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle WA 

7 PM This Bright Light of Ours – Author Book signing event   http://www.elliottbaybook.com/

January 14, 2015: Open Windows School, Bellevue WA – MLK student assembly speaker

January 15, 2015: MLK Seattle Celebration 33rd Anniversary, King County, Seattle WA

The Voting Rights Fight, Keynote speaker for community celebration honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday. For more information:http://www.mlkseattle.org/

January 22, 2015: YWCA Monterey County

This Bright Light of Ours: Presentation, reading and book signing.  Details forthcoming.

January 28, 2015: Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University

This Bright Light of Ours: Presentation, reading and book signing Details forthcoming.

Temple Beth El Book Launch Celebration

Temple Beth El Book Launch Celebration

Praise for Maria Gitin Presentations

Thank you! thank you! Thank you! Your contribution to the “Voice of Conscience: Civil Rights, Post-Civil Rights and the Future Freedom Struggle” was the highlight. You are a remarkable friend and colleague. As Director of the Program in African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt and on behalf of the program committee we thank you. – Victor D Anderson, Vanderbilt University

I learned a good bit from your presentation. I referenced you in the final chapter of” A Child Shall Lead Them.” Your book will be a valuable resource, and will be one I will want to use in my King course. – Rufus Burrow Indiana Professor of Christian Thought and Theological Ethics, Christian Theological Seminary

Maria’s passion, compassion, and love for the people of Wilcox County shines through in her lecture. I count it a privilege to meet someone who is so genuine and is part of living history.DeeAnn, student University of South Alabama

Why we must vote

By Maria Gitin

Special to the Sentinel Published Sunday July 20, 2014

Link: http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/Opinion/ci_26180697/Maria-Gitin:-Why-we-must-vote

Aug. 6 is the 49th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This landmark federal legislation prohibits racial discrimination in voting and led to removal of other barriers to voting that benefit people with disabilities, citizens with language differences and those whose work schedule requires weekend voting.

The act passed only after decades of civil rights activism. Well-known tragedies on the road to enfranchisement include the murder of four little girls in a Birmingham church, the assassination of three voting-rights activists during Mississippi Freedom Summer, and the “Bloody Sunday” attack on peaceful marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

These are the stories that most of us know, but for over a decade tens of thousands of African-American grassroots activists like Mrs. Rosetta Angion organized in obscurity. While working on voter registration project in 1965, I met Mrs. Angion, mother of 16 children in the rural community of Coy, Alabama, who somehow found time to participate in voting rights demonstrations. She told me that John Lewis, now a Georgia congressman and then leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, explained, “You were not a real citizen unless you could vote.” Her commitment was so strong that she allowed two of her young daughters to march on Bloody Sunday.

Mrs Rosetta Angion at home where we picked up canvassing lists and potential voters in Summer 2965

Mrs Rosetta Angion at home where we picked up canvassing lists and potential voters in Summer 2965

Following a presentation at Cabrillo College last year, a student asked me why he should register to vote. “After all, doesn’t voting just support the status quo?” Apparently, many agree with this discouraging view. Although better than the state average, only 34.8 percent of Santa Cruz County registered voters cast ballots in the recent primary election. Nationally, only 23 percent voted in the 2012 presidential election.

Why should we vote? There is a saying that bad officials are elected by good people who don’t vote. Low voter turnout results in a small fraction of voters electing officials who make decisions that affect all of us.

Mary Ann Angion Robinson shows me where she was attacked on March 7, 1965

Mary Ann Angion Robinson shows me where she was attacked on March 7, 1965

Thousands of courageous people like Mrs. Angion and her daughters risked their lives for your right to vote. To honor their legacy and to make your voice heard, please register now and vote in November. Visit Santa Cruz County’s elections website at www.votescount.com.

Maria Gitin will read from her book, “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight,” at Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 11.

Alma Moton King recalls Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Many recall visits by Dr. King in 1965-66 to support the voting rights movement in Wilcox County . Several shared their memories with me for This Bright Light of Ours. Here is an excerpt “I remember him coming to the school (Camden Academy). I was a senior in 1965. One of our instructors prepared us for his visit. She taught us how to greet people in power, I can’t remember which teacher but she was a woman who had traveled to Europe and met dignitaries. She showed us a film of meeting one of the Presidents in Europe so we would know how to behave properly.

He came and spoke to us, we all shook his hand. When I got home I put my hand that he shook in a plastic bag and my mother couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t take it off. I remember he had the softest hands I had ever touched on a man, really soft.

I don’t remember him marching from school. During the same visit he did lead a march from the church I believe, but I wasn’t in it. I only remember shaking his hand, but I didn’t not march. We lived out in Possum Bend – once that bus left you didn’t have a ride home. I would walk down to the bottom of the hill to the bus station and off they’d go to the church or the courthouse. ” excerpt from an interview with Alma Moton King in 2008 for This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight by Maria Gitin, University of Alabama Press 2014. Read more www.thisbrightlightofours.com

Alma King and Maria Gitin  2012

Alma King and Maria Gitin 2012