Letter from a student civil rights worker in Camden, Alabama

This letter is copyright by Maria Gitin (formerly Joyce Brians) and is a section of a book to be published in 2014.. It may not be used in any print or other format without permission in writing from the author.

June 20, 1965 First Public Letter Continued…
Around 2:30 a.m. we arrived at Antioch Baptist Church in Camden, Alabama. We had to sleep on the floor without blankets or pillows. Never have I slept on a sweeter bed. But we only slept two hours when we were awakened. Major Johns had stood guard over us because there were Klansmen driving up and down in front of the church. Some of the kids left then for their counties. We had been promised a place to stay by a certain Negro who backed out at the last minute. The rest of us were nearly stupefied with hunger, exhaustion, and a little bit of fear. We had to find housing in a town where whites hate us and most Negroes are afraid of us.

Freedom Fighters: The Next Generation

In the morning, I got dressed and went to the church service. There were only a few people there—lots of children and a few ladies, no men. After church I talked to the children who gathered round me and asked them to help me canvas for voters. They told me their parents wouldn’t register because they just don’t care anymore. The children are beautiful—they still have hope. There isn’t hardly anyone in Camden between 18 and 35 years. There is nothing here for youth—no jobs—no schools—no social life—no opportunity for advancement.

Sunday night I was initiated to my first mass meeting. It was held in the little community church at Coy, a nearby village. Major [Johns] and Rev. Harrell preached for two hours about the importance of registering to vote and the people really responded.

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.

I want to thank all of you who are making my summer possible by your contributions, your encouragement, and your prayers. I need all three in order to continue the work. If any of you want to be of further help to the Movement, write your congressman about the Voting Rights Bill, insist that it be passed now. It is a good bill and will greatly implement our efforts.

We have one great need in Camden which some of you might like to meet. There are no doctors or drugstores that will serve Negroes or civil rights workers. We need alcohol, Lysol, antibacterial soaps, and vitamin pills desperately.
Again, I want to thank you for your support. Anyone who wishes to contact me should write in care of: Camden Academy, Camden, Alabama. Please register your letter if it is important, because all our mail is opened and read.
From Camden with good hope,
Joyce Brians
SCOPE Volunteer
Summer Conference on Political Education a project of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Wilcox County SCOPE Project Directors: Rev Daniel Harrell and Rev. Major Johns. In cooperation with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field director Charles Bonner with Eric P Jones and Amos Snell.

Notes looking back:

That first night that the KKK were actually shooting around the church but I didn’t want to scare my family. We crawled under the pews and lay awake until Major Johns, our SCLC county Field Director, arranged housing. He got the approval of Rev. Thomas Threadgill, chaplain of the private Presbyterian all-black Camden Academy, to have us white girls join the two white northern minister volunteers sleeping there. I honestly don’t know where the two white male SCOPE students stayed, but I recall that they didn’t stay all summer.

The African Americans who had agreed to house us were threatened by the Sheriff before we got there. Their lives, jobs and families were at risk if they housed civil rights workers. While a few took that risk, many understandably did not.

Rev. Daniel Harrell of SCLC was in charge of our voter registration project and ran literacy classes with his wife Juanita who was also on the SCLC staff. They moved to Coy and raised their son there.

2 comments on “Letter from a student civil rights worker in Camden, Alabama

  1. Major Johns was my grandfather! I never had the priviledge of meeting him but I am still very proud of the remarkable man I was told he was.


  2. Delorise Cunigan says:

    Thank you so much for sharing and standing in the gap! The reflections, memories, pictures, and personal experiences are so touching. I remember some of the events but I was sheltered…my grandparents were threatened with evictions from the land if we marched, however some of my older cousins marched.


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