Sunday March 7, 2010
We woke up early with ‘our minds set on freedom’ as the song goes. The big march. Our job: get the Wilcox County Freedom Fighters Banner and ourselves to a conspicuous spot in front of Brown Chapel so our new and old friends from Wilcox could march together with the BAMA Kids http://www.bamakids.org and NCNW Wilcox County Section http://www.ncnw.org . For me, the height of our reunion at the pre-march rally was not Jesse Jackson, although Samuel got a great shot of him with his grandson on his shoulders, or John Lewis who I respect immensely, but walking with civil rights veterans and their descendents from Wilcox County. Freedom Fighters Sheryl Threadgill, Alma Moton King, Carolyn Smith Taylor, daughter of Rev Frank Smith of Lower Peachtree who lost his teaching position for supporting The Movement but lived to sue and succeed the Wilcox County Board of Education trustee who fired him, three generations of Crawfords from Pine Apple and so many other brave foot soldiers from this small county best known to date for the Gees Bend quilters. Luke Block, my 1965 co-worker and boyfriend and his wife Willow from Arkansas were with us, too. I hope that my forthcoming book, This Little Light of Mine, This Bright Light of Ours, a personal memoir and oral histories of the Wilcox County Voting Rights Freedom Fight 1965 will expand understanding of these extraordinary ordinary people who made up the body of The Movement.
The crowd gathered outside Brown Chapel in preparation for the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Joy Crawford far right and Jessie Crawford far left became my special family. Their grandparents and in-laws housed Luke (Bob) Block and other civil rights field workers in Pine Apple AL at great personal risk. Always generous, always kind, their heirs carry on their tradition of generosity, determination and courage.
Bob could not walk the walk, but he wouldn’t miss the Selma Jubilee for the world. His parents gave their all to The Movement and he carried on by teaching the truth about Black History to his high school students.
Groups convened all along MLK Avenue outside Brown Chapel in anticipation. BAMA Kids began singing “Ain’t Nobody Gonna’ Turn Us Round” which spread through the crowd, clapping and singing. Betty Anderson, vivacious entrepreneur, daughter of Joe Anderson one of the first and few Camden business owners, tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to look up at the smiling familiar face of Robert Powell, the 16 year old who took me out canvassing the red clay roads off Whiskey Run and out toward Coy 45 years ago. “Joyce!” Amazingly, he recognized me. His smile and mine bridged the years as we caught up on his family, mutual friends in the Wilcox Movement, who had died, who suffered so badly they couldn’t be with us today – and here we are: alive, healthy and standing together in a sea of 8-10,000 others who still believe deep in our hearts, that we Shall Overcome.
Betty Anderson and Robert Powell prepare the Wilcox County banner.
Philip Young, activist and director/promoter of Bessie W. Munden Playground, where we integrated the “negro” pool in ’65 took one side of the Wilcox County Freedom Fighters banner I had made in Salinas by Rosa Hernandez (email@example.com) and Robert Powell took the other. Lofted high on 6 foot poles, our banner appeared high over the crowd and is featured in most of the national news media of today’s event. I was excited to be with my friends and to be here, alive, escorted by police instead of fleeing them in terror that I only had feelings, not thoughts. I felt the blood, sweat and tears of all our lost heroes and sheroes, the excitement of the elders like myself who survived, the appreciation of the younger generation and the festival feeling that had the little ones dancing as they marched.
Samuel Torres Jr, my beloved companion, spouse and advocate was on the lookout for opportunities to get media attention for Wilcox County, as leaders there are currently developing several plans to end the county’s status as one of the poorest in the nation. Our banner drew reporter Sebastian Kitchen towards our group and Samuel quickly informed him of the reunion of Robert Powell and Maria, about my book and also that Charles Bonner, SNCC Activist, attorney, author and Selma native was with our group. Monday AM long before we woke the calls and messages that my reunion with Robert was the lead on a front page article in The Montgomery Advertiser poured in.
I sent out a silent prayer, a message to the few out of the dozens of Wilcox Civil Rights Veterans that I interviewed over the past few years who told me they couldn’t face returning, either to Camden for our Monday Mass Meeting or to Selma for this annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee. Imagine bathing in a sea of humanity where the words: commitment, courage and faith aren’t platitudes or attitudes but living reality that can heal the wounded spirit. Yes there are street vendors, fake donation collectors, politicians and speakers that any national event attracts. People critiqued the young folks for just wanting to party and party they do, but we did, too. The power of walking together, feeling the freedom to walk safely where we once ran in fear, that powerful current was running through my body, our bodies today. I encourage every veteran of The Movement, including ones like myself who arrived because of and therefore after Bloody Sunday, because of the call to nonviolent arms from Dr. King – Try to take this journey to the Jubilee march just once before you die.
I kept near our banner and that of the NCNW held by Mary Alice Angion Robinson and our dear friend, community leader and Camden City Councilwoman, Alma Moton King. From an interview for my book I knew that Mary Alice had been tear gassed and chased off of the bridge into a deep briar filled ravine on the original Bloody Sunday march. When I put my hand on her back, I could feel her racing heart as she returned, this time in triumph, to show me the spot where she feared her life might end. As we walked back across the bridge together she said she was so grateful that she came, a march she has known about for decades but couldn’t bring herself to face until this year. Supporting brave women and men who lived the struggle every day of their lives 45 years ago, and again today in safety, has been one of the greatest privileges of my life.
Mary Alice Angion Robinson and Alma Moton King hold up their ends on the march and in the community
For Ms. Robinson and many others this was their first time returning to the scene of tear gas, beating and terror that forced them over the edge of the bridge down steep briar filled cliffs where they tried to scramble to safety before fleeing back to Brown Chapel to pray and treat the injured.
Rev John Davis filed the first petition with the federal government in 1944, going all the way to the White House to see Harry Truman in his pursuit of his voting rights.
Philip Young, Mary Alice Robinson, Betty Anderson (looking down), Rev John Davis, Alma Moton King and Robert Powell (looking back) at the end of the march with their minds and hearts still set on economic, educational and social equality for their community. It is my great joy and privilege to share these friends and their stories in my book: This Little Light of Mine, This Bright Light of Ours.
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I was so excited to learn of your forthcoming book. As an historian who studies the civil right movement and Twentieth Century Alabama I recognize the lasting value of memoirs from activists such as yourself. Your honesty about SCOPE, a severely understudied and misunderstood program wedged between some of the most important events in the movement, will be a welcome addition to the scholarship. By adding the interviews and the reminiscences from your recent trip back to Alabama I think you will increase the popular appeal of your work, something that, I think, will make it very marketable to any publishing house. Thank you for taking the time to research and write this book. I anxiously await the day that I can hold it in my hands and learn more about you and the brave volunteers from Wilcox County.
Scotty E. Kirkland