Independence Day at Bessie W. Munden Playground

Excerpt from This Bright Light of Ours, a memoir and stories of the Wilcox County Alabama Voting Rights Movement 1965:

Monday 5th of July at the Playground

We all gathered at the blacks only playground for a barbecue picnic. It was a beautiful day made more so because they told us that we integrated the pool, being the first time that blacks and whites swam together. I slipped into the cloudy lukewarm unfiltered water with leaves and pine needles floating all around. Nearly fifty of us filled up the pool and stirred up the gritty dirt collected on the bottom, but the water was cooler than the 90 degree air and it was ours for the moment.  I thought we were deep in the woods; later I learned that it was only on the edge of town a little ways off of Highway 221. As with all black areas, the roads were unpaved, and there were no flush toilets or drinking fountains, just a pump for filling the pool. The Bessie M. Munden Playground was named for an early teacher who collected money from the other teachers so that the children would have someplace to play.

I loved watching the little kids leap from the edge into my arms then trying to teach them to float and paddle on their backs. The water seemed too dirty to put your face in although of course they did. We splashed and sang and yelled, feeling far away from the white people gathered at the fairgrounds to shoot off firecrackers. “Crackers with firecrackers, shootin’ off their mouths” someone quipped. We were supposed to love everybody like Dr. King said, but it was getting harder every day.

Dan Harrell and Juanita came by for a while. Juanita was so pretty! It was obvious that she and Dan were deeply in love as well as committed to The Movement. They headed our voter registration project, ran literacy classes and worked on bringing in federal funding. Dan was in charge of SCOPE in several counties and yet we saw him several times a week. He wore his slacks and white short sleeved shirt, still dressed to meet SCLC’s trademark respectability requirements, even to a picnic.

As he waved his ever present pipe in the air, Dan told us proudly, “You know this is historic, integrating this pool. Some day because of what you all are doing this summer, all the children of Camden will have nice places to play, to swim, to go to school – black and white together. You enjoy your day, we gotta go to Selma to meet with Rev. Blackwell.” That couldn’t be good news. Rev. Blackwell was Program Director for SCLC and this was a weekend. But off they drove in their yellow two-door Chevy that SCLC provided. It gave leaders a certain status with the locals if they had nice cars. It also really infuriated the whites to see blacks in good cars.

We stayed until dusk, eating watermelon, singing, talking. Some of the young men made jokes about their love of watermelon.  Near sunset we sang some songs like I Love Everybody and Change is a Comin. For a few hours here in the woods it felt that maybe we could hurry up that change in Camden. Change was being hard fought but like the song said, there was no way it wasn’t going to come.

SCLC photographer Bob Fitch captured the beauty and pride of the children six months later. We were not allowed to take photos that summer.

copyright Bob Fitch, used by permission.

One comment on “Independence Day at Bessie W. Munden Playground

  1. Maria Gitin says:

    For years I have searched for any living relatives of Dan Harrell, leader of our SCLC Summer Conference on Political Education and Community Organizing Project. Today I received a message from Leonard Hal who is Dan’s brother. I am contacting him privately and will share what he wishes me to with other readers.

    Meanwhile, this weekend is a time of celebration as after 2 years and 2 months this manuscript is ready to be sent to agents and publishers. Thank you to all who have helped me with editing, proof-reading, contributing your stories. I will keep you posted on the progress toward publication.

    The connections formed and connections re-established with the people and civil rights activists of Wilcox County are among the most valuable of my life. I have endless admiration and respect for each one of you and your families.

    Peace & love, Maria


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