This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight
DEC 18 2014
Maria Gitin, civil rights veteran and author, will be coming to Stanford on January 28th, 2015 to discuss her new book, This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting RIghts Fight.
In 1965, as a college freshman, Gitin answered King’s call for students to come to the South after the attack on voting rights marchers in Selma on Bloody Sunday. She has continued to fight for racial justice and to register voters in diverse communities for more than four decades. Gitin is a current member of Bay Area Civil Rights Veterans , Temple Beth El, and the NAACP. She holds a B.A. from Antioch University (1979) and did undergrad work at San Francisco State College (1964-1967). For twenty-eight years, she was principal of Maria Gitin & Associates development consulting group. She is a frequent presenter on cultural competency and voting rights, and has received numerous racial justice awards and commendations including from the YWCA, NAACP, State of California Assembly, Alabama House of Representatives, and US Congressman Sam Farr.
The talk took place from noon to 1:30 p.m. in the Henry and Monique Brandon Family Community Room of the Black Community Services Center on campus. This event was sponsored by the Black Community Services Center, the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.
Dear Freedom Folks,
I will try to get a copy to read soon.
All this is good.
Survival has been severely difficult these past 50 years..
I am trying to find a way to get back to Selma/Wilcox/Marengo/Greene/Lowndes in March.
I will try to include a memory trace of Camden ’65 with this post.
Strider Arkansas Benston
Dear Wilcox Folks, I am not sure how to send a relevant comment., but, will try here.
After the *March O M* was over we were all kinda* left stranded in Selma* . We knew of Freedom struggles going on, especially in *Perry, Marengo, Wilcox,* and* Lowndes. * But, we were severely *exhausted*, physically, mentally psychically. Almost all of the “great leaders,” leaders, mentors… had left town. I had led the internal security force, at least at nights, for the *M O Montgomery.* After the March, I drove a borrowed car, full of local Black youth back to Selma. For many years I had thought/was told that it was* Viola Liuzzo’s* car I was driving. This is not so, but it was similar, a blue & white Chrystler, I think.
We were stopped by Alabama State Troopers on entering Lowndes County. *”Bridge is out.*” they told me. I knew that was a lie, because the* rain was on Tuesday*, and we had just marched OVER that bridge *yesterday*. It was fine. They asked about my riders, & I made up a story about a Gospel group, which I was driving back to the farm in Marengo. Story didn’t hold water, *but I was trying to buy time, get away*, and not be killed at that moment. *All 8 of us in the car thought they were going to kill us*.
We were directed to turn off, & go north to Hwy. 18, about 4 miles, up by Alabama River, I think. Then we encountered *another road block. * There was *another State Trooper car*, and a couple pickup trucks, maybe a car I thought we were in for a mass lynching.
* My memory tells me that I ran the roadblock.* But this is probably not true. Because, *somehow, we got back to Selma alive.* I remember driving through Benton for my first time, on the way. Pretty darn fast. I dropped off my crew, none of whom I knew, I think, at Brown’s Chapel Church, gave someone the keys, and went into the church, curled up on the floor beneath the pulpit, and fell asleep. *REALLY asleep.* I had not slept for more than 20minutes at a time for 100 hours.
On Day 2 of the March, I worked with the Alabama National Guard *burning out maybe 50 mounds of Fire Ants* on our 2nd night campsite.
The 3rd night, after raining all day on us, my crew *Caught General Graham*,
who had sneaked through his own lines into our perimeter. My guys, I don’t remember who, but they were all local Black guys, no outside Yankee volunteers who were all doing Day duty on the March itself.
You can find a photo of *Jimmy Collier and me singing* in the mud, with others, *Doris* from Marion, *Alberta* from Demopolis, and Chuck Fager behind me on the cover of, “*Freedom Songs: Selma Alabama”* which my daughter found in the Smithsonian Institute. The photo was taken by *Toshi Seeger*, wife of *Pete Seeger. *I did not know that we had ever met. but *Jimmy Collier* toured with Pete on his Hudson River campaign. I don’t even remember who appointed me to lead the night crew, but I think it must have been Frank Sorocco of *SNCC* or Andy Young of *SCLC*.
“*Hey, Arkansas, we got one!*” 2 or 3 of my guys said as they brought General Graham up to my oil drum fire. Checking his I.D. he explained to me that he was testing his troops, who *failedto do their duty*, and then brought us up to his *HQ*, lined them up for the best tongue-lashing I have ever heard in my life: ” *Men ! You do NOT seem to know who you are.. At this moment you are soldiers in the United States’ Army* . *If ANY man breeches these lines again, the soldiers responsible for it will NEVER see the light of day. Do I make myself understood?*” “Yes Sir!”
*At that moment the Alabama National Guard*, with their Confederate Flags, *was finally federalized.* The proof is in the film “*Eyes On The Prize*” by Judy Richardson.The next day they were doing their job, watching the swamps of *Lowndes County *with their backs to us in the March, rather than group-watching *US* and cracking jokes, like you see the first day or two..
Anyway, that is what it was like on the March, so when I got back to Selma I was plumb tuckered
*OUT. I mean really OUT !* I remember some kids waking me up at noon, and telling me about *Mrs. Liuzzo, * and that it was her car I was driving. For 25 years I thought this to be true, but it could NOT be so, because the real reason for the road blocks was that she was already dead, shot on the highway. Funny thing is: * It was NOT Friday noon. It was Saturday noon.*
*For the only time in my life, I had slept for 36 hours straight.* That night I danced at *the Shack*, met Georgia. So, That is what the March was like, for one of us, anyway.
So, matters were pretty traumatic, and chaotic. *SNCC* were not communicating, just laying turf in Lowndes. * SCLC* mostly had left town. & Cong. John Conyers had sent 3 trucks of food and clothing. Someone called Rev. Ezra Greer claimed to be in charge, & I think was *$elling the donated items*. We were just trying to hang on, figger things out, bond with the locals, and get back into our mission, whatever that might mean — *AFTER the March.* So! The call comes from Camden, and someone tells me, ” *”Arkansas, take these kids*
*& drive this van down to Camden to support the Movement there.” That’s IT. That*
*was my entire charge. Go down there and help out.* I had never been to Camden, didn’t know anyone there. I wasn’t even a very experienced or good driver then. I had the name of Rev. Threadgil and the location of Camden Academy. That was IT. I think Bob Block, Bruce Hartford, a Yankee girl, Maria? maybe, and 2 or 3 Selma High School kids, maybe Edward Kidd? were in the van. My memory is spotty. Maybe it was April 6 or so. Ralph Eggleston had been beaten the previous day or two, & tear gas. He might have been in jail. We never met. At Camden Academy we met. It seems there were very few adults present. Maybe 30 or 40 children of all ages. I had only spontaneous authority to look after the folks I had brought from Selma. Nothing formal at all. I was 20 years old with 2 months of experience, so I was an old veteran. Combat Vet. After an hour of singing and strategizing we marched to town, maybe 1/4 mile ? We come up to the city line, and maybe Mayor Albritton stops us. After a few minutes, Rev. Threadgill calls us to kneel and pray. We do. Next to me on my right is a girl, maybe 12 years old, holding my hand. one Deputy of Sheriff Lummy Jenkins, I think, seems to pull his gun up to the girl, and orders her to get out of there in the most despicable, violent language I have ever heard. She squeezes my hand with hers, looks him in the eye and says directly, “:*Mister, you do what you gotta do. But, I ain’t moving for Nobody!”* Her words hit him so hard that he almost fell backwards and did not return. Soon thereafter the cops strapped on their gas masks and fired at us. It was like on *Bloody Sunday,* maybe worse, the gas I mean. Everybody ran, coughing, screaming. crying. But this little girl had shared with me such courage and Spirit, that I could NOT move, at least in honor of her. So, I started singing at top of my voice, ”
*Ain’t gonna let no tear gas Turn me ‘Round, Turn me ’round, turn me ’round. Ain’t gonna let no tear Gas turn me ’round; I’m gonna keep on a’walkin’, keep on a’talkin’ Marchin’ up to FREEDOM LAND!*”
Before I finished the first verse, all the kids were back to the line, Singing through the tear gas at the top of their choking voices, … *Marchin’ up to Freedom Land.”*
So, we regroup. So do the cops. We decide to link arms, maybe to keep them from pulling me out of the line. Cops group up and march into us like a *V*. several on each side of me. They break our arm lock and commence to beating on me with their clubs while one is trying to handcuff me. I am afraid he is cutting off my hand & so I pull it back. This picture I saw later in the *Pittsburg Courier*, another in the Baltimore Afro-American. One of them stated, “*The police decided this white youth needed Protective Custody, and used this means to give it to him.*” Reporting was pretty good that day. One reporter ran up & stuck a microphone in my face and asked, “*Who are You?*” I yelled out, “*Jim Benston, Malvern, Arkansas!*” Lights out. I was knocked out, I think. Next I knew I was in Camden jail, where I sang all night long, mostly. “*Oh Freedom !..*.” I think, except for the TV, NBC News, *Huntley-Brinkley* that time, they would have beaten me to death. Mebby so — mebby not. Funny thing is, My Aunt Jean, from Chattanooga, same birthday as mine, *happened to be in Birmingham that day *with her Aunt, my grandmother’s sister, Mrs. Sam Wallace, who was, I think, the *President of the UDC*, the *United Daughters of the Confederacy,* in Birmingham. They saw me on the TV. and sent a bible for me down to the Camden jail, probably with a note for me to, “Straighten up & fly right.” Someone bonded me out of jail next morning, so I never saw the bible, or the note, nor ever my Aunt, nor my great Aunt, nor my 2nd cousin again. I didn’t make it back to Camden for 25 or 35 years. That’s about all I remember of that day. It was a very full day. Later on I wound up in *Demopolis*, sent there directly by Martin Luther King. Things got tough there, too. A book, “*If White Kids Die*” by Dick J Reavis is written about Marengo County, *’65*. All this above was the good part of my 21st year. Most of the rest of it hasn’t been written yet.. There might be some inaccuracies in this account. After all* it HAS been 50 years.* This is the best I can do tonight. *Arkansas*