My First Mass Meeting
Sunday June 20, 1965 was one of the longest days of my nineteen year old life. We had been woken before dawn by threats from Klan members surrounding Antioch Baptist Church, then I attended my first African American church service before moving my meager civil rights traveling kit to Camden Academy girls dormitory which I hoped would be my home for the rest of the summer. At the Academy, we were threatened and eventually forbidden to stay because we were breaking the strict segregation code of Wilcox County, AL
That evening, west coast seminary student John Golden drove some of us out to Little Zion Baptist Church in Coy to a mass meeting led by Rev. Daniel Harrell. Dan was our other SCOPE field director and director of 7 counties for the summer voter registration project. Major Johns was our county director and worked closely with Dan.
Despite my exhaustion I was on the edge of my pew for nearly two hours while first Dan and then Major Johns preached to a full house about getting out the vote, taking the next step to freedom. Major exhorted the crowd, “Don’t be waitin’ for the Promised Land. You can be in the Promised Land tomorrow. You can fulfill that promise: You can be a free man, free to vote! Get yourself registered. We need volunteers to carry folks into town, to help organize others, to take in some of our summer workers. You can sign up tonight with Mrs. Angion in the back. But get yourself registered first, that’s the first thing. You wanna be in that number! These students come all the way from Atlanta and California just to help us so we gotta show them we can help ourselves.” At the end of the meeting, Dan asked us new arrivals to stand, and the people applauded.
Late that night, I started coughing. I felt a fever coming on but before I could rest, I had to complete my first letter to my friends and supporters back home in California. Jeanne Searight, my college roommate and secretary at the Ecumenical House at San Francisco State College, typed and mailed my report letters to friends and supporters.
From my first letter, June 1965:
“Dear Family and Friends:
This is another world. It’s a world where I, a 19-year-old white northern woman, am not free. I am not free to go into the white section of Camden, Alabama with a Negro.1 I am not free to work in civil rights and still relate to the Southern whites. I can’t go out after dark or go on a single date or swim in a public pool all summer. You people think you are free. When I was in San Francisco I thought I was free. But, we’re not free. I’m not down here fighting so any Negro can vote; I’m fighting for my rights—my human right to choose my friends as I please, to work with whoever I want, to worship with all peoples.
There is a Movement going on. God is acting in history. It’s God, not Martin Luther King, or James Bevel or Hosea Williams that is leading this movement. It’s faith that enables people to endure with one meal a day, four hours sleep, and one change of clothes. And they can still sing and shout praises.
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.” – excerpted and condensed from Chapter 4, This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, Maria Gitin, University of Alabama Press. www.thisbrightlightofours.com