Conversation with Civil Rights Veteran Bruce Hartford

Years ago, as I wrestled with how to tell my stories and the stories of my friends from that eventful summer in the South, I turned often to Bruce Hartford. Hartford was an activist in Los Angeles before he went South to work as a county director and staff member for Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1965. That was the same year I worked with SCLC’s SCOPE project and with SNCC in Wilcox County, Alabama. After he left SCLC, Hartford moved to San Francisco where he continues activism through his speaking and writing about the Movement.  His knowledge of the Movement is encyclopedic and his collection of interviews, original stories and archival materials from civil rights veterans on is unmatched in any other venue. Bruce is also Jewish, like me.

Maria: I feel like I need to explain “the grand plan.”

Bruce: I was active in the Freedom Movement for a long time, and I’ve been researching and writing on the history of the Movement for even longer, and I’ve never noticed that there was any grand plan. People did the best they could figure out what to do at the time and place. Grand plans were for the armchair revolutionaries and academic theoreticians who never understood that talking and theorizing was not the same as taking action. Even Dr. King did not have a grand plan or strategy beyond the next 6 months or so.

Maria: I guess that’s true because everything in the trenches was changing so often. You could have goals, but objectives had to shift with opportunity. Another thing I struggle with is the question of emotional truth. In my book I want it to be interesting and accurate, but most of all to convey the emotional truth. What is the emotional truth? That most of us aging white civil rights workers feel like we didn’t do enough, yet we did all we humanly could? …[I felt that way when I began to write this book].  These few months I spent in Alabama may not have changed the world but they were part of hundreds of other months and thousands of other students and adults who did change the world in many ways.

Bruce: When I’m asked to discuss the Freedom Movement and Nonviolent Resistance, one of the points I always try to make is that being nonviolent in face of violence is not the hardest part of engaging in Nonviolent Resistance. Once there is a will to take up nonviolent direct-action, training and group solidarity can solve the problem of remaining nonviolent in the face of attack or provocation. The hardest part of Nonviolent Resistance is overcoming despair, apathy, discouragement, and committing oneself to take action and resist  “There’s nothing I can do.”  “I have no power or influence.” “You can’t fight City Hall.”  “One person can’t do anything.”  “Nothing ever changes, the rich get richer and the poor get children.”

But this ain’t a new problem. The Talmud describes how 2,000 years ago Rabbi Tarfon (circa 70-135ce) taught his students:

You are not required to complete the task [of healing the world’s ills], but neither are you free to avoid it.

At that time, their world was in a world of hurt:  The Jewish revolt against Rome had failed. Jerusalem had fallen, thousands slaughtered. The Temple was destroyed.  Hundreds of thousands Jews & Christians were enslaved. Tens of thousands were slaughtered in Rome’s coliseum for amusement of the mob. There was enormous despair. Rabbi Tarfon’s response was: “You are not required to complete the task [of healing the world’s ills], but neither are you free to avoid it.” Later Talmud commentaries expanded Tarfon’s dictum:

You don’t measure your individual contribution against the totality of the task.

You measure your contribution against the totality of your life.

Measured against the pain and and injustice that exist in the world, the contribution of any individual — even the greatest individual — is infinitesimally small. You don’t have control over the world, but you do have control over how you lead your life.

Healing the world [Hebrew: “Tikkun Olam”] can form:

No part of your life,

or a small part,

or a great part,

or you can dedicate your life to fighting for justice and making the world a better place. That is the choice a Nonviolent Resister has to make.


Dorothy Cotton teaching Citizenship Literacy, AnnieMaine, AL 1966. Photo copyright Bob Fitch

Dorothy Cotton teaching Citizenship Literacy, AnnieMaine, AL 1966. Photo copyright Bob Fitch

Thanks to Bruce for his encouragement (along with many other amazing and helpful supporters), I was able to complete the project which has generated wonderful pre-publication comments. One of them is from Dr. Dorothy F Cotton, a woman I admire tremendously, and a leader who embodies nonviolent commitment:

Maria Gitin’s book, This Bright Light of Ours, shares important details of experiences of working ¾ of giving oneself to the country-changing work of the civil rights movement in America which ultimately impacted other countries around the world. As I am invited to share the experience of total commitment to the struggle that changed a gravely unjust system, I’m aware more and more how important it is to tell ¾ to share the aspect of the story which is so effectively told in Maria Gitin’s book. When people of a different cultural or racial expression join and claim the Great Civil Rights Movement in America as their movement too ¾ when they have done so, that is as it should be. This story is also inspiring right here at home those who are coming after my generation to know this truth. It was a movement we now know inspired people in other countries to open themselves to the knowledge that positive change is possible. The Freedom Struggle in Alabama was seen and heard about around the world.

Much credit is given to a select few whose names are often called as having contributed as leaders of this powerful movement. But there would have been no freedom movement ¾ certainly not of the breadth and scope to which it evolved had it not been for movement volunteers like Maria Gitin and others she writes about in her book. Because of their giving spirit, their willingness to suffer even, a cruel and unjust system that impacted the lives of all of us was changed. When we could join together our actions moved America closer to “being true to what is said on paper”* so long ago.

Dorothy F. Cotton, SCLC Education Director, Founder Citizenship Education Project and Dorothy Cotton Institute

May 31, 2013

Utica, NY

Please feel free to use these thoughts I have written as you see fit to promote your story.

One comment on “Conversation with Civil Rights Veteran Bruce Hartford

  1. Maria Gitin says:

    From Isa Rodriguez, retired Attorney, Boalt 1979: Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of the 3 civil rights workers (Cheney, Goodman and Schwerner) killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi. We tend to view courage as something reflected only in our military but we are very wrong. I remember how shocked I was when I was stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi in 1961 and saw blacks/whites drinking fountains and all the Jim Crow manifestations of the south. We could not leave base walking with Black GIs because the local cops would pick you up. We were told to separate at the gate to avoid trouble with local authorities. I often ask myself if I would have had the courage to do what the civil rights workers did? And this (Mississippi) is where Ronald Reagan chose to announce his candidacy for president? Anyway, hats off to Maria for all she did. She is a true American in the best sense of that phrase (not the tea party sense). Isa

    Reply: Thank you Isa, It was the advance guard of the Mississippi Freedom Summer workers, the Freedom Riders before them, the Birmingham demonstrators and the Montgomery Bus Boycotters earlier than that, and all the unknown individuals and small groups fighting segregation and racial hatred for decades before us, that gave us the courage to go to our small part. I am proud to have been one of the short-time foot soldiers in the great Civil Rights Movement, but even more proud to continue to fight prejudice and injustice today, as you do. You and my husband, Samuel Torres, broke barriers in becoming some of the earliest Latinos to graduate from Berkeley’s Law School. The bullets aimed at you were in words and mistreatment, but they could have been very damaging if you hadn’t stuck together. So, I salute you two, too! Thank you for your kind words, Maria


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