April Action in Wilcox: 50 Years Ago this Month

April 10, 1965 – Camden

Smoke Bombs Halt New Wave of Alabama Marchers

Quotes Camden Academy students Ralph Eggleston and Charles Mimms. Photo of Jim “Arkansas” Benston, white SNCC youth, being beaten by Camden city police.  Source: Chicago Defender special by Leon Daniel

April 20, 1965 – Camden scope056_2

Dr. King came through on another whirlwind tour of Alabama while a 200-person march was already underway. The same date, the state of Alabama secured a federal injunction against Dr. King to prevent him from using children to march and demonstrate. Source: Chicago Defender.

Note: This was a ludicrous charge since the students and adults in each community were planning their own strategies. Dr King came to show support and give encouragement. He did not organize any events in Alabama after the Selma marches and was not even a lead organizer of those marches. He was the inspirational leader, but the white press and politicians saw as the only leader.

April 21,1965 – US Court of Appeals 5th Circuit Alabama

Federal Court of Appeals finds “substantial un-contradicted evidence” that registration officials in Wilcox County were applying the supporting witness (voucher) requirement in a discriminatory fashion. Records disclosed only one instance of a black person attempting to obtain a white voter as a supporting witness.

Source: US v Logue, 344 F2d 290 (1965)

April 21, 1965 – Camden26

Camden civil rights leaders declare they will protest daily until allowed to register and to vote. They do so and continue until school lets out in the end of May.

This date was this author’s 19th birthday celebrated with friends in San Francisco where she had already signed up for the SCOPE project. After SCLC orientation in Atlanta with Wilcox residents Ethel Brooks, Charles Nettles, Mary Alice Angion and others, I was assigned to that county for the summer voter education and registration project.

Source: Chicago Daily Defender and personal memory.

For more history of the Wilcox County Voting Rights Movement read: www.thisbrightlightofours.com 

Dan Harrell in front of Antioch Baptist church

Dan Harrell in front of Antioch Baptist church  – Bob Fitch Photo 1966 © Stanford University Archives

Why the 1965 Voting Rights Act Still Matters

3. Black Voters Line Up 8 copy

Photo: Finally, the right to vote, Spring 1966, Camden AL.

First in line: Mr. Robert Durant, second Ms. Carrie Davis, 3rd Ms. Emma Ephraim, 4th Ms. Annie Louise Ephraim, 5th Rainer Sessions Dumas, 6th Mr. Tommy Fry.7th_____, 8th Cora Coleman

Thousands of brave freedom fighters were shot at, jailed and barred from employment —others were beaten and even murdered— during the fight for voting rights for Black citizens throughout the South, including in Wilcox County, AL. Wilcox youth and adults learned their rights from their churches, from SLCC, SNCC and the NAACP, and taught them to others, launching a Movement that would span 16 years (1963-1979). Hundreds of Wilcox County activists participated in Bloody Sunday and/or the final March to Montgomery, and continued demonstrations, boycotts and voter registration until the Black majority was finally represented equitably in government and education. Economic equity is a work in progress.Down Home_A (dragged) voting

The murder of voting rights activist Jimmy Lee Jackson of Marion, AL and the demonstration that became known as Bloody Sunday, all brought pressure on Congress and President Johnson to pass and to sign the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) on August 6, 1965. Although most of the states covered by the VRA are in the South, hundreds of smaller jurisdictions and municipalities with a documented history of discrimination were also required to request advance federal permission in order to make changes to their election laws. The Court’s recent ruling overturned this requirement and leaves it to our currently divided Congress to develop new guidelines for oversight. Proof of the importance of pre-clearance for voting procedure changes is evident as six states rushed to pass new voter suppression laws, (New York Times July 5th).  Changes include demands for voter ID in forms not available to thousands of qualified voters, limiting the numbers and hours of polling sites, changes to early voting and absentee ballot procedures, and other barriers that will primarily affect people of color, students, the elderly and the poor, a demographic that tends to vote progressively.

When our brothers and sisters suffered beatings, arrests and even murder in the voting rights fight we never thought we’d live to see the day when there would be voter suppression laws outside the South, especially during the second term of our first African American President. Congress must clarify Section 4 quickly, before more egregious backsliding laws go into effect, and before reactionaries in smaller jurisdictions begin to undo the decades of progress made in electing officials of color.

Maria Gitin is a Life Member of the NAACP, a civil rights veteran, and author This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, University of Alabama Press, 2014.

Portions of this essay were published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel and in the Watsonville Register Pajaronian on Sunday August 4, 2013

Letter from a student civil rights worker in Camden, Alabama

This letter is copyright by Maria Gitin (formerly Joyce Brians) and is a section of a book to be published in 2014.. It may not be used in any print or other format without permission in writing from the author.

June 20, 1965 First Public Letter Continued…
Around 2:30 a.m. we arrived at Antioch Baptist Church in Camden, Alabama. We had to sleep on the floor without blankets or pillows. Never have I slept on a sweeter bed. But we only slept two hours when we were awakened. Major Johns had stood guard over us because there were Klansmen driving up and down in front of the church. Some of the kids left then for their counties. We had been promised a place to stay by a certain Negro who backed out at the last minute. The rest of us were nearly stupefied with hunger, exhaustion, and a little bit of fear. We had to find housing in a town where whites hate us and most Negroes are afraid of us.

Freedom Fighters: The Next Generation

In the morning, I got dressed and went to the church service. There were only a few people there—lots of children and a few ladies, no men. After church I talked to the children who gathered round me and asked them to help me canvas for voters. They told me their parents wouldn’t register because they just don’t care anymore. The children are beautiful—they still have hope. There isn’t hardly anyone in Camden between 18 and 35 years. There is nothing here for youth—no jobs—no schools—no social life—no opportunity for advancement.

Sunday night I was initiated to my first mass meeting. It was held in the little community church at Coy, a nearby village. Major [Johns] and Rev. Harrell preached for two hours about the importance of registering to vote and the people really responded. Continue reading

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.