The majority African American Wilcox County resident toiled at hard labor in sawmills, fields, canneries and other agricultural industries before and after the Civil Rights Movement. Some folks were tenants and some owned their own farms. Everyone of every age worked hard. Many youth today cannot imagine the toil of the generations before them. These photos by Bob Adelman were taken 1965-70 in Wilcox County, Alabama. Note from Gloria L. Grimsley-Nious: “My mother, Mrs. Senniem M. Grimsley, sold seeds, fertilizer and brought the cucumbers from the black farmer’s for the SWAFCA.”
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.]
“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.
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.
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)
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.
July 26. 1965 Camden, Alabama
Dear Friends and Family,
Things are more peaceful now in Wilcox County…at least on the surface. A recent meeting of the local Klan drew a crowd of 2,000 according to Camden’s Mayor Albritton but there haven’t been any more incidents that we are aware of. Since there are only two more days of registration this summer* the white folks are not too worried anymore.
We haven’t come anywhere near our hopes of registering thousands of Negroes. About 500 have been actually registered in Wilcox this summer. The SCOPE people have been hampered by local people and by administrative conflicts. But more than anything it was hampered by you. By all of you who didn’t put pressure on Congress to pass the Voting Rights Bill; by everyone who didn’t write his Congressman; by everyone who didn’t voice his opinion of this bill. If we had the bill to work under this summer we could have registered 100 persons a day, five days a week, all summer long. I’m sadly disappointed in the American people for letting such a vital piece of legislation sit around in Congress at such an important time.
If everyone would use their democratic power to get things right, there would be no need for direct action. But, I’m afraid more blood will have to be shed before this battle is won. If the citizens of American won’t set themselves free legally we will once again have to take to the streets in moral protest.
I spent the week before last working in the community of Boiling Springs. To give you an idea of the living conditions, and not to get sympathy, I will tell you of some of my experience. I organized a group of local youth, 13 yrs and up, to go canvassing with me. We split into teams of two to cover a radius of 10 miles. Our objective was to talk with the people, to encourage them to register, and to notify them of the Sunday night mass meeting.
Houses in Boiling Springs are about 2 miles apart on the average. There are no paved roads, no electricity, no running water or telephones. Few people own cars. Women often work 10 hrs. a day at the rate of $1 a day in the okra canning factory. Poverty is normalcy here. Probably everyone there is eligible for Economic Opportunity loans but they can’t get them since Federal programs are administered by segregationist county officials.
The second day there I broke holes through both my shoes and had to go barefoot the rest of the time. Sometimes we walked 15 miles a day. But, all the other kids [local Black kids] were barefoot too. If they are lucky enough to have a pair of shoes they are saved for Sundays.
Read more about Freedom Summer 1965 – “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” University of Alabama Press
* The 1965 Voting Rights Act was finally signed into law on August 6th. After that, there was daily voter registration
Families who had children who remember working and walking with me included the Burrells (Voncille) , Lawsons (Albert, Alversal) and Robinsons (James). There were many others before and after we were there.
Thanks Bruce Hartford for sending this terrific NY Times 1966 article by Gene Roberts. That month was the first opportunity for newly registered African American voters to elect their own candidates including sheriff. Military veteran Walter J Calhoun took on the challenge in deeply segregated Wilcox County, Alabama. Although he and the other Peoples Choice candidates did not prevail, they paved the way for future success. This in depth gives perspectives Black activists and the white establishment including fascinating quotes from Calhoun, Dan Harrell, former sheriff Lummie Jenkins, landowner Sam Hicks and others on both sides of a deep divide about race and politics.
To read and order article:
For more Wilcox County Voting Rights History: www.thisbrightlightofours.com
Monday June 6 th 2-3:00 PM
The National Park Service, Selma Interpretive Center sponsors Maria Gitin at the Performing Arts Center
1000 Selma Ave., Selma, AL 36701 www.thisbrightlightofours.com
Last week, Ms. Cassandra Vee Rodgers wrote to me on Face Book that she wanted to surprise her fiance, Mr Tyrone Bryant, by coming to meet me and having me sign a copy of “This Bright Light of Ours” for him because his father, Willie H Parker of Coy is featured on the book jacket. We had a wonderful visit yesterday. Growing up, Bryant did not get to know his father well so he was surprised and happy to meet someone who knows about his father’s courageous Camden Academy Class of 1965.
Camden Academy students, including Willie Parker, Sim Pettway, Ralph Eggleston, and many others, participated in almost daily demonstrations from February-May of their senior year. They were tear gassed, beaten, cattle prodded, ridiculed and threatened with suspension, but they kept on with the encouragement and support of Camden Academy Chaplain TL Threadgill, and teachers Mr Parrish and Mr. Foster.
“This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” by Maria Gitin www.thisbrightlightofours.com
“In the Shadow of Selma: The Continuing Struggle for Civil Rights in the Rural South by Cynthia Griggs Fleming
for more about the Wilcox County Voting Rights Movement, read “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” by Maria Gitin www.thisbrightlightofours.com