Letter Home July 26, 1965 Part II

Boiling Springs Methodist Church (AME)
Boiling Springs Methodist Church (AME)

 

Part II of a letter from 19 yr old civil rights worker Maria Gitin in Wilcox County AL July 1965:
I was invited to a Methodist (Boiling Springs AME Church) revival meeting on Thursday night and went in hopes of speaking to the people about registration as they came out. We don’t ever ask to talk about civil rights in a church service because many folks haven’t seen the correlation between Christianity and social action. At the conclusion of the preacher’s long and emotional sermon he asked me to speak. I was quite surprised and pleased. I tried to relate my talk to his sermon and I received a good response from the congregation.
The rural people are very serious about their religion. Partly, I suppose, it is an emotional outlet for their frustrations. These are an oppressed people. But, even more, I can sense that they are really aware of the grace of God. They know they are lucky when their children live to the age of twelve, when the crops are not ruined by rain, when a white man doesn’t shoot their children for helping me canvass. You see, God is the only one who can help them because no one else will. I don’t want to romanticize the Southern Negro, because there is nothing romantic about being hated, harassed and oppressed but these folks have a certain kind of pride and dignity that I have never seen before. And they are freer in a sense than those who try to keeping them down I think their freedom comes from knowing that they are right.
Now, not all the Negroes are with the Movement…obviously or we would have cleaned up the mess years ago. There are hundreds of Uncle Toms and Aunt Janes who say “Mister Charlie has been so good to me…I can’t turn agin him now.” Some people have been pushed so low that they just don’t care anymore. There are those who for a pack of cigarettes will give Mr. Charlie a list of everyone in the Movement so he can fire them, and whip them, and try to hold them back.
But I don’t think Mr. Charlie – symbol of the white man – is going to keep folks down. I don’t think Uncle Tom – symbol of the humble, scared Negro – is going to help them down. The people who are fighting for their freedom value it above their lives. And I’ll bet you the devotion you’ll find here to freedom exceeds any you’ll find among our troops in Viet Nam. We are a nonviolent army, marching steadily towards one goal – freedom NOW!

Read more in “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight”
www.thisbrightlightofours.com

Wilcox County “First” Electeds – Featuring Jesse Brooks of Coy, AL

It was twelve years after twelve years after the first group of candidates ran for office and thirteen years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the first African Americans were elected in Wilcox County Alabama. BAMA Kids presented a celebration of this historic event and of Wilcox County Black History February 21-22nd. For more information: Wilcox Area Chamber of Commerce.

Jesse Brooksr and his daughter Ethel Brooks, Freedom Fighters. Bob Fitch photo 1966 @ Stanford University Archives.

Jesse Brooksr and his daughter Ethel Brooks, Freedom Fighters. Bob Fitch photo 1966 @ Stanford University Archives.

Farmer and military veteran Jesse Brooks was a man of action long before he was elected Tax Assessor in 1978. Beginning in 1965, with his wife Julia and daughter Ethel, he organized voter education and registration activities, worked on veteran’s and farmer’s affairs, and risked hosting outside civil rights workers. Both Jesse Brooks and Ethel were natural and SCLC trained leaders in the Wilcox County movement. When I met Mr. Brooks, he was optimistic and said that would run only if necessary to get honest people into office. He did not run on the People’s Choice” slate in 1966 but worked hard for those who did. Despite great organizing, African American candidates for county office continued to be defeated until November 1978 when Jesse Brooks was elected Tax Assessor, and Prince Arnold became Sheriff.

In January 1979, a formal inaugural ball and program was held in the Camden National Guard Armory on Whiskey Run Road to celebrate this great victory. When Jesse Brooks spoke he didn’t talk about his office or campaign promises. “I stand here before you as your tax collector,” he told his friends and neighbors. “But I also stand here tonight for someone else. I stand here as the grandson of a little Black slave boy who was brought down river from Charleston, South Carolina, to Lower Peachtree, Alabama, and sold for a thousand dollars. Thanks be to God there’s not going to be any more bidding off of human beings!”

It was a wildly emotional moment and Brooks stood in the center of it ramrod straight, letting the cheers and clamorous applause roll around him. It was a golden moment when the years of struggle, pain and despair were faced squarely and dismissed. The sufferings of that “little Black slave boy” had been vindicated.

Brooks did not fail to mention that what is ahead is more struggle, but “we plan to push forward until justice runs down like mighty waters,” using one of Dr. King’s favorite quotes from the prophet Amos. Mr. Brooks vowed to walk into the courthouse “just like John walked into Jerusalem” and begin working hard to build what he predicted will become “one of the best counties in God’s country.”

Compiled by Maria Gitin in Memory of Jesse Brooks, based on her personal friendship with the Brooks family, her book “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” www.thisbrightlightofours.com copyright University of Alabama Press 2014 and an article by Harriet Swift, “A New Day in Wilcox” http://beck.library.emory.edu/southernchanges/article.php?id=sc01-6_002 copyright Emory University 1979.

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

Rev Dr. Lewis V Baldwin, Camden Hometown hero Feted at Vanderbilt Retirement Event

Lewis V Baldwin with lifetime friend & colleague Walter J Fluker

Lewis V Baldwin with lifetime friend & colleague Walter J Fluker

Civil Rights Conference participants singing

Civil Rights Conference participants singing

Thank you all! I am filled with gratitude for the many blessings of new and renewed friendship brought about by this book project. One of the most exciting was this: November 7-9th Vanderbilt Divinity School and African American & Diaspora Studies celebrated and honored the man still recalled as “LV” Baldwin, now author of numerous acclaimed books. [search Amazon “Lewis Baldwin in Books.]  Baldwin was honored for 30 years of teaching, research, and scholarship devoted to American Religious History and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement by brilliant and well-known former students and colleagues from around the country, as well as family and friends. For a list of speakers and presenters, visit  http://www.vanderbilt.edu/aframst/Event%20News

It was a tremendous honor and privilege to be invited to speak about Lewis’s childhood community, Camden, Alabama,Wilcox County and about the long and successful Freedom Fight. Among others, I read stories shared with me by Lewis’s friends Robert Powell, Betty Anderson and Gloria Jean McDole.

Lewis Baldwin & Maria Gitin, Vanderbilt University

Lewis Baldwin & Maria Gitin, Vanderbilt University

Please vist our new website and learn more about the forthcoming book

This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight: www.thisbrightlightofours.com  and to learn about classroom and discounted advance orders, available now.

Some Stories from the Black Experience in Alabama 1965

When I was about 15 – maybe younger – my cousin headed the NAACP in New Orleans. Walking picket lines, having doors slammed in my face and being followed by thugs in really nice looking muscle cars….  It was a seminal time in my life. In Greenville, Alabama, some (white) guys in a pick-up truck offered me and my brother a ride as were walking down the highway: “Y’all wanna ride? Hop in the back.” We declined and ran back to the motel PDQ.  My mother told us never to do that again. -Duane deJoie, Berkeley, CA March 26, 2012 in an e-mail

Duane deJoie and Samuel Torres Jr Celebrate 30+ years of friendship

I would have been 31 that year you were there. I had been teaching in Barbour County earlier but back then they fired all teachers who became pregnant, even if you were married which I was. But something good happened in Barbour County, too. They came and asked teachers to register to vote, the local white people, not civil rights workers. That knocked me off my feet! Because in Wilcox County where I was born and Monroe where I moved with Bob, we couldn’t vote until long, long after that. – Jessie Crawford, Beatrice, AL March 29, 2010 – telephone conversation with Maria Gitin

Maria Gitin and Jessie Crawford – Selma Jubilee 2010

It was my Junior or Senior year when my parents were fired so they sent me over there to Selma to protect me.  Daddy was torn because he really wanted me to integrate Wilcox High but Mommy was fearful. We had gotten threatening phone calls, so it was decided that I should go over there.  Mother and Daddy both sued to get their teaching jobs and back pay. They both won eventually. He got to go back to teaching and got back pay. She had to stay out a number of years but eventually got some of her back pay, too.  But both were fired really because of he was active in The Movement. -Alicia Parrish Foster, Camden, AL, June 8, 2009 telephone conversation

Camden Academy teachers were fired and the buildings destroyed because of student and teacher civil rights action in the 60’s and 70’s

Exciting News: Wilcox County Voting Rights Book Rejected!

Not everyone might think this is good news, but I do. After waiting 11 months to hear from New South Books in Montgomery Alabama, I received this message Jun 22, 2011, at 10:17 AM,

Dear Maria Gitin,

NewSouth Books reviewed your manuscript, and I regret that we will not be able to accept This Little Light of Mine. We thought it was well written and historically valuable, but we just can’t fit it into our publishing lineup at this time. Thanks so much for contacting us, and best of luck.

Sincerely,Noelle Matteson, Editorial Assistant, NewSouth Books

“Well written and historically valuable” sound good to me!

Images from 1965

I am grateful to all my Civil Rights Veteran buddies especially the Wilcox County Freedom Fighters, Alabama history buffs and friends of good literature who have helped bring this collection of stories of the Voting Rights Movement this far on its journey to publication. Just as we sang back in the day, we gotta keep on walkin’, keep on talkin’  – I have to keep on keepin’ on until this book lands with the right publisher. More than 50 people I interviewed, all my friends and dear ones are with me on this journey. Thank you for your support, ideas and comments.

PS As of March 2012,  the book was completely revised with the assistance of  developmental editor, Cassandra Shaylor. Now re-titled This Bright Light of Ours to reflect the amazing collective effort that has gone into this project, the new book includes contextual history in addition to stories and photographs. Prior to submitting it elsewhere, the entire mss was requested by University of Alabama Press which has scheduled publication for early 2014.  This amazing accomplishment is due primarily to the following: the courageous activists of Wilcox County Alabama, Joy Crawford-Washington – publicist extraordinaire of Mobile AL, professor Martha Jane Brazy of University of South Alabama and Scott E. Kirkland, researcher and curator of the Mobile Museum of History. At University of Alabama Press, Editor in Chief Dan Waterman and Acquisitions Editor Donna Cox-Baker are wise and courageous risk-takers dedicated to reclaiming the full history of Alabama. Their dedication, enthusiasm, vision and commitment has made this pending publication possible.

Please keep your comments coming and post them here. They really help!

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.