One Woman’s Story: Rosetta Marsh Anderson (1933-2019)

Organizing in Wilcox County, AL – As told to Maria Gitin 2008-2010.

Rosetta Marsh Anderson is a dignified energetic lady with light skin, short curly hair and eyeglasses who came over to me at the NCNW Pink & Black Banquet in October 2008. She sat down to tell me about her involvement in The Movement.  We spoke again by telephone five times after that including a long interview in January of 2009. After that we spoke frequently until her death in 2019. Mrs. Rosetta Anderson was one of the local adult leaders behind the scenes the entire summer I worked in voter registration. Here are some of her memories that did not make it into the book”This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight. Read more;

The people of Camden who were public leaders in the civil rights movement paid some high prices. Everyone in the Black community knew Rosetta was involved, but she kept a low profile with whites at that time. “When the unrest began, Rev. Freeman was pastor at St. Francis Baptist Church. He helped organize and lead one of the first small marches along route 221 until the police turned them around. The church deacons there were fearful so they fired him but our congregation at Antioch Baptist Church took him on and supported his fight to let us use the church as a headquarters for the movement. “

“I worked with Rev. Threadgill early on. Bob Parrish, Dan Harrell, Albert Gordon. We began getting people up to the courthouse to register. I was a designated driver and organized others to drive the risky roads. We had threatening calls to our home regularly. My sons had to watch over our house because I had to leave them there alone. Maybe I didn’t realize how dangerous it was then, but I know I didn’t let myself fear for them. I could see the hatred in people’s faces when we went up to the courthouse, but I couldn’t dwell on it.”  

She began her early working life doing housekeeping and childcare in white homes. Whites called her ‘maid’ or ‘girl’. She was among several women in Camden who used their access to both races to see and hear how things were viewed inside white households, to help develop strategies for the freedom movement. 

“Coming up as a youngster I saw a lot of things I didn’t approve of. As an adult, I always identified with the students so naturally the children liked to be around me.  My daughter Lena Jo Anderson got in the midst of it along with Larry Threadgill and Cathy Wiggin, Richard Charles Bell, Benjamin Coleman and other student leaders[1]. They were really go-getters. Naturally I got involved. I was makin’ sure I was inside what was going on so that nothing happened to my daughter. I was very independent and my husband did not object. The children were the real leaders though; they got us involved.”

“For voter registration in Camden, we had adult leaders and student leaders.  Rev Threadgill, Jesse Brooks, Albert Gordon and me (Rosetta Anderson); we were the four adult leaders. If we wanted to get a crew into Coy, we’d tell them what time we’d have a mass meeting or when to meet to march. “

“Most folks didn’t have telephones. How did we get word around? Honestly, I don’t know how we did it – It was a miracle really. The young people carried messages. They had school buses back then so they could organize on the buses.  We parents listened to what they told us and then we knew what we had to do to organize for their safety and transportation.  I did that kind of planning, organizing. I have been called the Mother of Camden Civil Rights Movement,” Mrs. Anderson told me with a modest smile.

“How we organized was pretty amazing, now that I think about it. We came together regularly, met at Antioch Baptist Church and then other churches got involved. We’d ask the children about which area was ready for action. We also had telephone trees, although not only some had telephones back then.”

“We worked pretty cooperatively. If anybody disagreed, we had a meeting.  We got together as adults and settled it among ourselves. Then we’d say this is how it is going to be. We listened to the children and they listened to us. “

“I was busy going from one end of the county for several years.  We had precinct meetings until every little community was organized. We had leaders in each of the four ends of the county. We also did a lot of boycotting. Children had to walk the picket line in front of grocery and clothing stores. We used the younger children because they wouldn’t jail them and they couldn’t lose jobs. ” 

I remember waiting for Mr. Norman Poe from Coy.  He brought people in to walk the picket line. Charlie and Estelle Witherspoon came in from Alberta with some young people from out Gees Bend/Boykin. We used their place out there as an organizing center for dropping off information, picking up folks. 

“They called and said they were going to kill me. They burned down the government commodity building near us. A couple of people did get killed outside of Wilcox, Viola Luizzo after the Selma to Montgomery march for one. Had it not been for SNCC, SCLC and NAACP we would not have accomplished much. I was the first Secretary of the first NAACP and for SCLC. The Wilcox Civic Progressive League, I was secretary of that, one of our most important early organizations. We organized, we filed complaints with the justice department, we learned our rights and taught them to others.”

“When you came, you all gave us courage. We felt it was our job to protect you. Someone would call my house to threaten me and my sons would try to protect me. We could never let ourselves think about how helpless we really were because we knew we had God on our side.”

[1] At this point Mrs. Anderson is speaking of the student leaders of the school equality, school integration movement. These were younger students than the ones I worked with in voter registration in 1965. 

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