Civil rights worker & student reunion in corn field

When I met Wilcox County Commissioner John L. Matthews, he reminded me of a day from that long ago

But I thought Camden was this way!

summer that I had forgotten, given that every day was filled with long, long treks through wooded rural roads with potential danger on every side. He and his father and brothers were working in their corn field out in Pebble Hill when his father saw me, Bob and a non-local black youth (likely a temporary SNCC worker) walking deeper into the woods instead of toward the highway and our ride back to town.

John recalls, “Evening was upon us and night was not long in coming. You were heading into the community where the roadway and trails lead to a large wooded area. Daddy knew you didn’t have a clue where you were or what direction you were going.”

“He told me, ‘Son, go get the truck and get those civil rights workers off the road before something happens to them”.

Now I remember, this good looking skinny but muscular sixteen-year old pulled up in an old truck asks where we are headed. We say Antioch Baptist church and he tells us, “Get in.”

“Yes, I imagine we did what you recommended. The first principle of our field worker training was follow the locals lead,” I reminded myself.

John laughed , “I was glad you all jammed into the cab with me because there was just a flat bed in back and it would have been obvious who you were. So we four piled in the cab of that old ’56 green Chevrolet pickup and off we went. It was my first contact with civil rights workers.” What John and his father did that day was incredibly brave and dangerous. Integrated vehicles were frequently targeted, shot at and run off of the road in Wilcox County. In March 2010, John and I revisited the scene of our first meeting as part of the Wilcox County Freedom Fighters  Commemoration.

© Maria Gitin, this story is an excerpt from her unpublished book, This Bright Light of Ours. Publication announcement forthcoming

Please contact author for permission to reproduce. For speaking engagements and readings contact:

Sunday March 7th Selma Jubilee Historic Bridge Crossing

This time we cross over the bridge singing & unafraid

Sunday March 7, 2010

We woke up early with ‘our minds set on freedom’ as the song goes. The big march. Our job: get the Wilcox County Freedom Fighters Banner and ourselves to a conspicuous spot in front of Brown Chapel so our new and old friends from Wilcox could march together with the BAMA Kids and NCNW Wilcox County Section . For me, the height of our reunion at the pre-march rally was not Jesse Jackson, although Samuel got a great shot of him with his grandson on his shoulders, or John Lewis who I respect immensely, but walking with civil rights veterans and their descendents from Wilcox County. Freedom Fighters Sheryl Threadgill, Alma Moton King, Carolyn Smith Taylor, daughter of Rev Frank Smith of Lower Peachtree who lost his teaching position for supporting The Movement but lived to sue and succeed the Wilcox County Board of Education trustee who fired him, three generations of Crawfords from Pine Apple and so many other brave foot soldiers from this small county best known to date for the Gees Bend quilters. Luke Block, my 1965 co-worker and boyfriend and his wife Willow from Arkansas were with us, too. I hope that my forthcoming book, This Little Light of Mine, This Bright Light of Ours, a personal memoir and oral histories of the Wilcox County Voting Rights Freedom Fight 1965 will expand understanding of these extraordinary ordinary people who made up the body of The Movement.

Congressman John Lewis, Congressman Artur Davis, Terrence Howard and other celebrities at the head of the march

My Celebrities: Three Generations of Crawfords and Civil Rights Veteran Luke Block with wife Willow

The crowd gathered outside Brown Chapel in preparation for the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Joy Crawford far right and Jessie Crawford far left became my special family. Their grandparents and in-laws housed Luke (Bob) Block and other civil rights field workers in Pine Apple AL at great personal risk. Always generous, always kind, their heirs carry on their tradition of generosity, determination and courage.

Bob Crawford Jr and grandson

Bob could not walk the walk, but he wouldn’t miss the Selma Jubilee for the world. His parents gave their all to The Movement and he carried on by teaching the truth about Black History to his high school students.

Reunion of Wilcox County field workers Robert Powell & Maria Gitin

Groups convened all along MLK Avenue outside Brown Chapel in anticipation. BAMA Kids began singing “Ain’t Nobody Gonna’ Turn Us Round” which spread through the crowd, clapping and singing.  Betty Anderson, vivacious entrepreneur, daughter of Joe Anderson one of the first and few Camden business owners, tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to look up at the smiling familiar face of Robert Powell, the 16 year old who took me out canvassing the red clay roads off Whiskey Run and out toward Coy 45 years ago. “Joyce!” Amazingly, he recognized me. His smile and mine bridged the years as we caught up on his family, mutual friends in the Wilcox Movement, who had died, who suffered so badly they couldn’t be with us today – and here we are: alive, healthy and standing together in a sea of 8-10,000 others who still believe deep in our hearts, that we Shall Overcome.

Betty Anderson and Robert Powell prepare the Wilcox County banner.

Philip Young, activist and director/promoter of Bessie W. Munden Playground, where we integrated the “negro” pool in ’65 took one side of the Wilcox County Freedom Fighters banner I had made in Salinas by Rosa Hernandez ( and Robert Powell took the other. Lofted high on 6 foot poles, our banner appeared high over the crowd and is featured in most of the national news media of today’s event. I was excited to be with my friends and to be here, alive, escorted by police instead of fleeing them in terror that I only had feelings, not thoughts. I felt the blood, sweat and tears of all our lost heroes and sheroes, the excitement of the elders like myself who survived, the  appreciation of the younger generation and the festival feeling that had the little ones dancing as they marched.

Samuel Torres Jr, my beloved companion, spouse and advocate was on the lookout for opportunities to get media attention for Wilcox County, as leaders there are currently developing several plans to end the county’s status as one of the poorest in the nation. Our banner drew reporter Sebastian Kitchen towards our group and Samuel quickly informed him of the reunion of Robert Powell and Maria, about my book and also that Charles Bonner, SNCC Activist, attorney, author and Selma native was with our group. Monday AM long before we woke the calls and messages that my reunion with Robert was the lead on a front page article in The Montgomery Advertiser poured in.


Jesse Jackson with grandson marching in Selma

I sent out a silent prayer, a message to the few out of the dozens of Wilcox Civil Rights Veterans that I interviewed over the past few years who told me they couldn’t face returning, either to Camden for our Monday Mass Meeting or to Selma for this annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee. Imagine bathing in a sea of humanity where the words: commitment, courage and faith aren’t platitudes or attitudes but living reality that can heal the wounded spirit. Yes there are street vendors, fake donation collectors, politicians and speakers that any national event attracts. People critiqued the young folks for just wanting to party and party they do, but we did, too.  The power of walking together, feeling the freedom to walk safely where we once ran in fear, that powerful current was running through my body, our bodies today. I encourage every veteran of The Movement, including ones like myself who arrived because of and therefore after Bloody Sunday, because of the call to nonviolent arms from Dr. King – Try to take this journey to the Jubilee march just once before you die.

I kept near our banner and that of the NCNW held by Mary Alice Angion Robinson and our dear friend, community leader and Camden City Councilwoman, Alma Moton King. From an interview for my book I knew that Mary Alice had been tear gassed and chased off of the bridge into a deep briar filled ravine on the original Bloody Sunday march. When I put my hand on her back, I could feel her racing heart as she returned, this time in triumph, to show me the spot where she feared her life might end. As we walked back across the bridge together she said she was so grateful that she came, a march she has known about for decades but couldn’t bring herself to face until this year. Supporting brave women and men who lived the struggle every day of their lives 45 years ago, and again today in safety, has been one of the greatest privileges of my life.

Wilcox and Dallas County NCNW Out in Force

Mary Alice Angion Robinson and Alma Moton King hold up their ends on the march and in the community

Mary Alice Angion Robinson shows me where she was attacked on March 7, 1965

For Ms. Robinson and many others this was their first time returning to the scene of tear gas, beating and terror that forced them over the edge of the bridge down steep briar filled cliffs where they tried to scramble to safety before fleeing back to Brown Chapel to pray and treat the injured.

Crossing over the Bridge in Peace March 1, 2010

Rev John Davis filed the first petition with the federal government in 1944, going all the way to the White House to see Harry Truman in his pursuit of his voting rights.

Philip Young, Mary Alice Robinson, Betty Anderson (looking down), Rev John Davis, Alma Moton King and Robert Powell (looking back) at the end of the march with their minds and hearts still set on economic, educational and social equality for their community. It is my great joy and privilege to share these friends and their stories in my book: This Little Light of Mine, This Bright Light of Ours.

Check back for updates soon and thank you for leaving your comments.

Selma Jubilee Fri March 4th



Edmund Pettus Bridge at Sunset


Representatives of the Selma Mayors Youth Council

Maria with Charles Bonner (above) and Mayor Evans of Selma (below

Selma Mayor Evans, SNCC activists Charles Bonner, Luke Block

Councilwoman Angela Benjamin at Alabama Black Mayors Reception

My lifetime friend and SNCC buddy Charles Bonner, civil rights attorney and activist was a high school classmate of current Selma Mayor George Evans who invited us to the Alabama Black Mayors Reception and cruise on the Selma River under the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge where we will march on Sunday. Here are a few shots of this historic gathering. Several of the mayors hugged and thanked Luke and I for putting our lives on the line so that this day could come to pass. I feel grateful to them for all they are achieving and are about to achieve when we did so little, so long ago. The feeling in Selma is young, vibrant and alive.

Wilcox County 45th Anniversary Commemorative Mass Meeting & March from Historical Antioch Baptist Church

Marching & Singing about Freedom Then & Now

Maria at Historic Antioch Baptist ChurchFor More history and a video about Antioch Baptist Church

Memorial for Civil Rights Activists at Wilcox County Courthouse

Sim  Pettway Sr whose family was forced to flee town due to his student activism in 1965. He and his family went on to work in the Mobile Movement and continue to be politically active today.

Rev Dr LV Baldwin, Camden native son, author, professor, preacher and MLK Scholar gave a moving keynote with quotes from Dr King’s speech made at this very church 45 years ago today.

We join hands to sing We Shall Overcome

Joy, Bob II and Jessie Crawford (center three in photo), originally of Pine Apple AL, were and are among my dearest friends


in 1944, WW II veteran Rev John Davis, traveled all the way to the White House with his petition to vote after fighting for his country. He met with President Harry Truman who did not intervene in the state of Alabama law prohibiting black citizens from voting. Rev Davis now never misses an election or a chance to speak about his experience.


Mylka Hayden, Isaiah Lore, Richard Chatman, Torrence Phillips, Jamarion Wright

March 2010 Named for Elizabeth M. Parrish who was fired from her teaching position, along with her husband Lawrence Parrish and many other Camden Academy teachers who supported the students in their fight for school equality. Camden public schools today are legally integrated but no white children attend public school after the 4th grade. De facto segregation continues. Due to lack of cooperative economics and a depressed tax base, both white private schools and majority black public schools suffer low test scores. Despite these disadvantages, children at this pre-school are well- cared for by Director Gloria McDole and her dedicated staff. The children are lively, intelligent, interested in learning and as you can see, absolutely adorable.

Donations to purchase supplies, food, toys and educational tools may be sent to:

EM Parrish Day Care

PO Box 370

Camden AL 36726

tax exempt under the auspices of the United Presbyterian Churches of Wilcox County

Mylka Hayden, Jamarion Wright, Madison McCrevy (sp?)

BAMA KIDS Gospel Extravaganza African American Jazz – Sunday Feb 28

Donald Stone, author, BAMA Kids Tutor, Civil Rights Veteran

BAMA Kids Director, student activist Sheryl Threadgill & author Maria Gitin

February 2010 BAMA Kids – Sheryl Threadgill, Director and Jacqueline Hives, Program Director and dozens of youth from age 6-18 put together an outstanding evening on the history of African-American music, presented at the old Camden Arts & Technical School, a building in great need of repair and contemporary equipment, but fully alive and filled with excited parents and children.  We enjoyed the excellent program and were made to feel welcome at the soul food reception in the cafeteria afterwards. Everyone knew who we were instantly, as I was one of two white people and Samuel was the only Latino.

Donations to BAMA Kids may be made to:


PO Box 212

Camden, AL 36726

Federal Tax ID # 58-2120600

Monday March 1st In Memory of Ethel Brooks

Memorializing Ethel Brooks at the Scene of her Fatal Crash

In Memory of Ethel Lenora Brooks (1941-1985)

Monday evening March 1st at Historic Antioch Baptist Church, I will have the privilege of being one of the speakers at a Commemorative Mass Meeting celebrating the 45th Anniversary of a voting rights march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in Camden Alabama. Because we may not have internet access, I want to share Ethel’s story now, on the eve of our departure.

Today, March 1st was a week before the march known as Bloody Sunday in Selma forty miles away. We are here to honor our comrades who are here tonight and the far too many that we lost too young.  In 1965 at age 19, I was fortunate to be one of the smallest foot soldiers in the nonviolent freedom fight in Wilcox County Al. Our SCLC SCOPE project was led by Daniel and Juanita Harrell and Major Johns with dozens of self-trained local student and adult activists supported by SNCC and SCLC. Most people know that the Spring and Summer of 1965 turned the tide for voting rights for African-Americans and changed history forever, but few people know how much of that change occurred right here in Camden.

Before I arrived in June, students had led demonstrations to the courthouse where they were met with violence, beatings, tear gas and arrest. Adults organized, demonstrated, marched from this very church. Hundreds of Wilcox County residents were on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on Bloody Sunday – many of you were injured in the attacks on the marchers. Dozens of you were at Dexter Curve when the marchers made their finally victorious entry into Montgomery three weeks later. Although that famous five-day Selma to Montgomery march ended in tragedy as it had begun  – with death, arrests and beatings – fearless freedom fighters continued on in Camden as they did in communities across The South, out of the limelight and without federal protections.

In my three months in Wilcox County, as I walked the rural red dirt roads doing voter education and registration work, ran from the Klan, was arrested and ill, organized and attended mass meetings and supported local leaders, I met dozens of people who I have never forgotten. I admired your courage and am grateful for your acceptance of a few of us white kids who shared in your struggle for a while.

Many people could and should be honored tonight but it is my duty with a heavy heart to honor someone who died too young, who should be here with us, her clear alto voice singing out the freedom songs she loved so much, my friend and hero, Ethel Lenora Brooks of Coy, daughter of Julia and Jesse Brooks and mother of Jesse Brooks Jr.

When I met Ethel she was only twenty-four years old, a very attractive single mom, who lived with her son and wonderful parents in the tiny community of Coy one of the most organized areas in the county.

Ethel organized carloads of students to participate in the Selma marches. She had been trained by SCLC and was fearless and tireless, impatient with those who were not ready to join The Movement. She always there for us, She taught me how to act, what to do and even how to sing Freedom songs with the right kind of spirit.

One day we were being chased by a truckload of the local Klan so she sped up and hid behind Harvey’s Store at the crossroads. After they passed, she pulled out and started chasing them! We were screaming at her to stop, terrified but also laughing at her courage; that’s just how she was. Outrageously brave.

She had these pants – paisley pedal pushers – they call them ‘crops’ now – that she called her jail pants. She said she could tell when we were going to be arrested, had a nose for it. Sure enough, a few days after we arrived, she was wearing her paisley pants while we were working on boycott materials at the church office and the sheriff rounded us all up and took us to the old jail.

One of my best memories is of the weekend of 4th of July out at the Brooks’ in Coy. We had fried chicken, pecan pie, strawberry wine. When the fireflies came out, Ethel and I sang “This Little Light of Mine”. The day after that we all jumped into the pool at what they then called “The Negro” playground. Yes, we integrated the pool at Bessie W. Munden Park. Later the Klan chased five carloads of us all out of town but it was worth it.

When I returned here in 2008, I was devastated to learn from Ms Kate Charley that Ethel Brooks died young in a solo car accident. I visited her grave, said a prayer and wept. It is still nearly impossible to imagine that she isn’t right here with us tonight. I never knew anyone more alive than Ethel Brooks.

I don’t know if her son Jesse is here, but I want to say to all the young people here, whatever Ethel did, it was all for the children, everything was about the future. The Movement people put our lives on the line so the terrible abuse, poverty and humiliation they and their parents endured would not have to be carried by the next generation. It is now your honor and responsibility to carry forward the work of eliminating prejudice and building a healthy, thriving community. It may not be as exciting, but it is just as important, more important right now.

There were many many leaders, both known and unknown. Thank you for giving me the honor of sharing just a few memories of my dear friend Ethel Brooks.

I want to conclude with a quote from another Coy leader, Mrs Rosetta Angion who raised 16 children and still found time to be a Movement activist.

Ethel Brooks? She carried my children over to the Selma march, the one they call Bloody Sunday. She went up to the Academy and got them all to walk out and go over there. They looked up to her.

She was a young Harriett Tubman. Whatever she told us to do, we did it. If she came by and told a few of us ‘I want you all to go walk across the Alabama River, ‘I know you can do it, ’we’d go do it.