Return to Gees Bend

Nancy Pettway, Mary Lee Bendolph, Maria Gitin, Annie Kennedy

In 1965 we were inspired when Dan Harrell told us about Reverend Lonnie Brown and farmer Monroe Pettway leading a handful of courageous residents from Gees Bend try to register to vote in Camden in 1963. They succeeded in filling out the registration forms but were denied on the basis of the Alabama requirement that new voters be vouched for by an already registered voter. Since no Blacks had been allowed to register and no whites registered in the county would sign the supporting witness form, their applications were denied. He said that their case on appeal and they were sure to win by next year. That’s why we had to educate and register voters now, to be ready for when the law would finally insure voting rights. And so walk and talk we did.

In 2008, when I returned to the small isolated community that I vividly recalled—the full immersion baptism in Foster Creek, the beautiful voices of the Pleasant View Church ladies—Gees Bend had become the most famous of all of Wilcox County’s tiny communities, primarily because of its quilters.
After art dealers discovered the quilts in the early 1970s, they became collectors’ items. Now the quilts are displayed in locked cases in museums instead of warming walls and covering beds in drafty shanties where we had seen them in 1965. Despite all the national attention, nearly 40% of the seven hundred souls in Gees Bend still live below the poverty line and the unemployment rate is the highest in the state.

Ms Allie Pettway signs a quilt sample in her Gees Bend Home

When Luke and I sat down in the Quilter’s Cooperative lunchroom with three quilters, they pointed out a photo of Mary McCarthy, the VISTA worker who they credited for founding their quilting cooperative even though most histories credit two men, a white minister and a white art dealer. Read Linda Hunt Beckman’s first-hand account of the change in the quilters fortunes after our work there and an alternative to the usual romanticized view of the community.
from This Bright Light of Ours 1965. Watch this site for publication updates.

Stories from a Teenage Civil Rights Worker

Wilcox County Freedom Fighters in Mobile

Wilcox County Freedom Fighters James Anderson, Sim Pettway, Rosetta Anderson, Maria Gitin and Joy Crawford-Washington after Maria’s presentation at University of South Alabama Tuesday evening. Living history was enjoyed by students, faculty and community members. Thank you Dr. Martha Jane Brazy and Joy Crawford-Washington!

Fox News 10 Mobile & Montgomery news anchor Eric Reynolds interviewed Maria and shared part of her story March 8, 2102

“Great interview Maria. You were wonderful!” – Charles Bonner, SNCC

Selma SNCC and SCLC’s Summer Community Organization and Political Education Project Summer 1965

Charles Bonner was my first SNCC friend and co-worker. He and Eric Jones were in charge of voter registration for SNCC in Wilcox County where I was working with SCLC’s summer voter registration project. He immediately inducted me into SNCC. For the rest of the summer, he and his girlfriend Jan, my boyfriend Bob Block and I spent time together in Selma, as well as doing some canvassing in Wilcox. Freedom Summer 1965 was one of the last truly cooperative projects with SNCC, SCLC, NAACP and dozens of local improvement associations working together on one goal: voter registration. For information on why this work was so essential and my orientation to SCOPE please visit the Civil Rights Veteran’s website

Excerpt from 1965 This Little Light of Mine, This Bright Light of Ours: stories of the Wilcox County Freedom Fight © 2011

Nonviolence as a Strategy versus a Philosophy   

The next day we had breakfast with Chuck and Jan somewhere nearby. Over coffee with a still muddled brain, I tried to explain my understanding of nonviolence is that it boils down to being like a spiritual martial art.

“You take the negative energy, the hate rushing towards you and turn it back on the perpetrator in the form of love. That should melt down his defenses or at least make him stop and think. I believe that if you hate or hit back, you become no better than the oppressor. ”

Then Chuck explained that SNCC uses the word nonviolent in their name, but nonviolence is just a strategy, not a philosophy or belief.

“We use it when it’s convenient, when it will get press, prevent a mass murder and recruit more people to be active. When necessary, we use any weapon: rocks, knives, even guns, especially in isolated situations where you are outnumbered or outrun. There’s no political advantage from taking a beating or getting shot if no one is there to cover it. ”

Bob said he absolutely agreed with that, which made my stomach queasy, not only from last night’s liquor. “But, I don’t mind getting beat or even dying for The Movement, but I sure as hell don’t want to die if these guys don’t even want me here,” Bob added.

“Well I want you here, that’s for damn sure. Ya’ll been damn straight with us. But it is gettin’ time to go. Fact is, me and Jan are thinkin’ of heading out there to San Francisco with you all, in a few weeks.” Chuck went on to explain that getting an education is a form of activism, too.

Luke (Bob) Block, Maria Gitin and Charles (Chuck) Bonner 2005

Jan said that she thought, “Black power will come through independence that comes with achieving affluence and influence in the tradition of the often-maligned Booker T. Washington founder of Tuskegee Institute.” We groaned in self-mockery at our intellectual talk and the giddy guilt that we could, all four of us, drive away from Selma, alive.