Return to Work: Wilcox County Alabama June 30-3, 1965

This is the second half of a lengthy letter I wrote to my friends, family and supporters while working with SCLC and SNCC in Wilcox County, Alabama during Voting Rights Summer 1965. I was a 19 yr old and my comments reflect my limited background as well as concern to respect the rules laid out for us by our county director Mr. Albert Turner. [See  parens and notes below the letter for additional explanations.]

Dan Harrell SCLC Field Director
Antioch Baptist Church 1966
copyright Bob Fitch Archives Stanford Libraries

“On Tuesday Sheriff Jenkins said we had to vacate the church which we had been using for an office. We refused until he moved us out at gunpoint. At this time he also told Charles Nettles, a local student leader, [and his father Sylvester] that [they] he couldn’t let the white civil rights workers who were living in his house stay any longer.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday things were a little quieter. We planned our strategy for the following week. On Sat. night I made it into Selma to the Chicken Shack for some dancing [drinking] and fun. Sunday was the 4thof July and the local crackers were in high spirits. Most of us spent the day with a family [Jesse and Margaret Brooks] out in Coy – wishing we were really independent.

Monday was a holiday so we all went to the Negro* playground. We swam, roasted hot dogs, and sang songs. It was hard to believe all the horror of life around us when I was in the pool teaching little kids to swim. The Negro pool is 1/4 the size of the white pool and there are 3 times as many Negroes and whites in the area.

Bessie Munden Playground aka “Negro Playground”

I got up at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday and headed out for Boiling Springs. We had to get the folks to register these next five days because we won’t be given any more days until August. I walked over 10 miles of cow pasture with a local Negro and spoke with people about voter registration. That evening we had a student mass meeting and organized the kids to canvass the area the next day. We were quite successful in Boiling Springs and sent 5 carloads of folks to Camden the next day.

On Wednesday, I worked in Pine Apple. It is a small area – most of the Negroes work in the white man’s sawmill. They were scared and lied to us. It was a very discouraging day. [In my letter I did not mention the warm reception I received at the end of the day at local activists Bob and Georgia Crawford’s home while visiting my boyfriend Bob who stayed there.]

Thursday I spent a good, long day in Arlington. We walked about 20 miles and visited about 30 homes. The people in this isolated community were apprehensive but anxious to learn more about registration. I recruited some local people to show me around and help me canvass. We’ve found our luck is usually better if neighbor speaks to a neighbor about the subject. The next day several carloads of people went to the courthouse [to register] from this area.

Thursday night Gov. Wallace spoke in Camden. No Negroes or civil rights workers were present because Wallace had hundreds of his “goon squad” protectors with him. After he left, two people in a car going out to Coy were shot at by city policemen for no reason. Incidentally, I was supposed to have been in that car, but I stayed at the Academy.

Today, Friday July 8th.  I went to the Arlington area again with a Negro boy [Robert Powell] and girl, and a white male SCOPE worker. We were walking along Highway 5 when we noticed a white man in a pickup truck with a shotgun on a rack slowing down. We kept on walking and he turned around and came up behind us. He tried to run over us but we jumped into a ditch. After he tried it a few more times we turned around and headed into a Negro café. We tried to call the Academy but that line was busy. The woman who owned the place was so excited and upset that she made us leave before we could get the call through. We ran and hid in the woods. Our friend had recruited his buddy by this time and was cruising back and forth in front of where we were hiding. The Negro boy changed shirts with the white boy and went to phone again. Almost everywhere he stopped people were too afraid to even let him in the house; obviously someone has been threatening and harassing the people. He finally got the call through and after about an hour a staff car came for us.

Reunion of Wilcox County field workers Robert Powell & Maria Gitin

I wasn’t particularly scared, just provoked. These kind of incidents are exactly what scare people out of registering. Today at the courthouse they [the registrar] were far too slow. Now they say they won’t give us tomorrow to file so we may have to demonstrate. I hope not. The whites are in a brutal mood. If we do demonstrate the SCOPE people will probably not be allowed to participate.

I wish could write more and more often, but I seldom get the chance. We move from house to house, day after day. I don’t stay at the Academy any more, but I can still get my mail here.

Once again I thank you for your prayers and letters.

From Camden with my prayers,

Joyce Brians (Maria Gitin)

www.thisbrightlightofours.com 

 

 

Negro: The preferred term of respect by African Americans at that time.

Lack of black names:We were expressly told not to identify any local blacks, particularly students, by name because they would suffer the consequences where we were gone. Although we were on a first name basis at the times, looking back I am very sorry now that I can only name a my brothers and sisters in courage who identified themselves to me years later. High school student Robert Powell more than once protected me and showed me how to survive in his community. I often wonder were we as kind and as open hearted as we thought we were or did we seem arrogant and ignorant of what they had endured before we arrived? Did they realize how much we did know about their heroic struggle?  Did they know we were considered the ‘Mop up crew’ of the civil rights voting struggle, as Andy Young referred to us at Orientation?  Did they expect us to stay and continue the fight? Dan Harrell asked us to stay but the SNCC students from Selma told us to leave.

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