July 12, 1965: Romance Blossoms as Attacks on Wilcox County Civil Rights Workers Continue

Wilcox County and its county seat, Camden, share a voting rights history with Selma in nearby Dallas County. As early as 1963, Bernard and Colia LaFayette organized marches in Wilcox with Black citizens demanding the right to vote. Dr. King visited the county many times on his way to and from Selma and Montgomery. Hundreds of Wilcox students and adults joined the February Childrens’ marches in Selma, and were beaten off the bridge on Bloody Sunday. Selma activists came regularly to support the Wilcox demonstrations. Charles Bonner of Selma and Bob Block from California spent a night or two in the Wilcox County jail in April. Bob got cattle prodded in one march and then signed on to work with Dan Harrell, the director of seven SCLC SCOPE project counties who was based in Wilcox.

Almost as soon as we met, Bob and I fell in love. I guess Charles wanted to keep Bob on his team so recruited me into Selma SNCC, although I continued to work with SCOPE in Wilcox County as well. We had many adventures and misadventures that summer, both together and separately. The racists were absolutely outraged at this new wave of “outside agitators” who arrived to join the “hangers on from the March,” as some snidely referred to whites who hadn’t gone back north. But Charles was thrilled to have us there and always made us feel at home in Selma. He began educating me on SNCC philosophy and tactics which seemed so cool compared to what I learned from our SCLC reverends. But I loved our “Revs” as we called most of our adult leaders. Out in the field, it took both SCLC and SNCC tactics and support just to stay alive. Charles would sometimes drive us away from (and sometimes into) danger in a powder blue SNCC Valiant. Our county project leader, Major Johns, rescued me from potential attack more than once in his ’52 Chevy.

Bob and I were seldom allowed to work together, but when we could get together, we met in Selma with Charles and his girlfriend Janet to party and to share stories. One day in July, I was with a small, integrated team canvassing for voters in a remote area outside Arlington. A couple of white men in trucks roared up and tried to run us over. They had guns, too. We spent that afternoon hiding in ditches, and running through pine forests while my local canvassing partner, Robert Powell, tried to get a call through to our project leaders to come rescue us.

Bob told us that his afternoon canvassing with Dan Harrell had been even more exciting. “Dan and I were walking along when this white guy appears out of nowhere. I mean we didn’t hear him comin’, see a truck, nothing. Just like that, he takes his pistol, raises it right to Harrell’s head and presses it against his temple.”
“You know I would kill you as soon as look at you, doncha?”
“I believe I do,” was all that Dan replied.
Read the full story: https://thislittlelight1965.wordpress.com/2010/06/15/bob-dan-the-man-with-a-gun/
Then I told Bob what happened out in Arlington, about being chased all afternoon by white men in pickups with rifles. “He must’ve been related to my guy. Dan didn’t even tell me about what happened with you!”

Gitin and Block at National Voting Rights Museum March 2010

Gitin and Block at National Voting Rights Museum March 2010

45th Reunion Charles Bonner & Maria in Selma at the Saint James Hotel March 2010

45th Reunion Charles Bonner & Maria in Selma at the Saint James Hotel March 2010

Forty years later, Charles, Bob (now Luke) and I had a reunion, with some other civil rights veterans. We swore we’d go back some day and walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge together. In 2010, 45 years after our first meeting, we marched over that bridge with thousands of other foot soldiers in the Selma Jubilee Bridge Re-enactment Ceremony. I am so grateful that we lived to share these stories and to continue our friendship.

Excerpt and adaptation from “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” by Maria Gitin, copyright, University of Alabama Press 2014. www.thisbrightlightofours.com

SCLC’s SCOPE project in Wilcox County Summer 1965

June – August 1965 SCLC’S Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) project – Wilcox County

Hosea L Williams with his top SCOPE staff outside the Freedom House in Atlanta in the Summer of 1965. As stated by his daughter, Dr. Barbara Williams Emerson in February 2012, "It is a good photo from the period, but it says nothing, or everything, about female participation": L to R- Benjamin Van Clarke, Stoney Cook, Carl Farris, Andrew Marquette , and Richard Boone. – Courtesy Barbara Emerson Williams. Copyright, all rights reserved.

Hosea L Williams with his top SCOPE staff outside the Freedom House in Atlanta in the Summer of 1965. As stated by his daughter, Dr. Barbara Williams Emerson in February 2012, “It is a good photo from the period, but it says nothing, or everything, about female participation”: L to R- Benjamin Van Clarke, Stoney Cook, Carl Farris, Andrew Marquette , and Richard Boone. – Courtesy Barbara Emerson Williams. Copyright, all rights reserved.

SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Project) SCOPE (Summer Community Organization and Education) project, directed by Rev. Hosea Williams, was part of an already active Alabama Voter Education Project that coordinated (or attempted to coordinate) efforts between multiple civil rights organizations. As many as 600 black and white college (and some high school) students were assigned to six states for ten weeks after a 5.5 day 14 hr a day intensive Orientation in Atlanta, GA June 14-19, 1965.

In Wilcox County, five white northern student volunteers joined SCLC’s Dan and Juanita Harrell, and Major Johns, two

Dan Harrell in front of Antioch Baptist church

Dan Harrell in front of Antioch Baptist church

(perhaps three) white seminary students from California and some SNCC field workers from Selma to support local leaders in voter education, voter registration and leadership development. In early April, Californian Bob Block, who had walked all five days of the March to Montgomery, came over from Selma with Strider Benston, Bruce Hartford and Charles Bonner to join a Camden Academy student demonstration led by Ralph Eggleston, Sim Pettway and other students. Block was recruited by Dan Harrell to stay on as SCLC field staff. Local activist Ethel Brooks was also on SCLC SCOPE staff that summer. Students Robert Powell, Grady and Charles Nettles, Don Green, and Frank Conner; Mary Alice Robinson and Betty Anderson were some of the many Camden Academy activists working with SCOPE on voter education and registration after their own demonstrations all spring. Local adult leaders included: Rev. Thomas L Threadgill, Mr Albert Gordon, Mrs Rosetta Anderson, Mrs. Virginia Boykin Burrell and many others from the rural areas of Wilcox County. About 30 total local and field workers canvassed all summer, resulting in 500 new registered voters before the passage of the Voting Rights Act in August. Soon after passage, more than 3,000 Wilcox residents were registered, creating a new African American majority.

Charles “Chuck” A. Bonner of Selma SNCC began to coordinate voting efforts in Wilcox County with SCLC and later, SCOPE. Bob Block and I (Joyce Brians/Maria Gitin) belonged to SNCC and SCLC. SCLC/SCOPE workers were the majority in Wilcox County that summer. Most local residents didn’t know or care who were with except for being “sent by Dr King” and “with the Movement.” Local white segregationists called us as “outside agitators.”

Ethel Brooks SCLC Wilcox County field staff

Ethel Brooks SCLC Wilcox County field staff

 

For more about SCOPE and Voting Rights in Wilcox County, AL  This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight by Maria Gitin: www.thisbrightlightofours.com

More about VEP: http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_voter_education_project/

First Return to Camden 2008

Dan Harrell photo ©Bob Fitch  http://www.BobFitchPhoto.com

Dan Harrell photo ©Bob Fitch http://www.BobFitchPhoto.com

My old boyfriend Luke (Bob) Block and I returned to Camden, Alabama 43 years after my summer/his six months there as civil rights workers. Although we are both happily married to others, this first return visit could only be ours, two veterans returning to the battlefield. Walking down the overcast quiet streets, we exclaimed how great it was to feel safe, to not have to look over our shoulders, tense at the sight of a pick-up truck with a gun rack in the mirror, and not to expect to be run off the road. Coupled with deep personal relief, it felt great to see the people we had once considered “our people” living with greater ease.  These folks who let us share in their struggle had gained political power, some peace, and for some, even a bit of prosperity. It was evident that there was a long way to go for most people to enjoy real economic security, but they didn’t have to wonder every night if the Klan or Sheriff was coming for them.

One evening, we lingered over sodas and fried catfish at Miz Kitty’s Café, we tried to eavesdrop on a group of police and sheriff’s deputies gathered at another table. As they got up to leave, Luke walked over to ask about the sheriff, Prince Arnold, the first and current African American sheriff in the county. They said, “You just missed him.” Trying to track down Sheriff Prince Arnold became our private joke. Every time we asked, “Do you know where we could find Sheriff Arnold this morning?” we got the same response: “You just missed him.” Both of us were curious to meet the county’s first Black sheriff and to ask him about our old jail records and Dan Harrell’s murder, but I didn’t catch up with him until I returned with my husband, in 2010. When we finally met, in the vault of the Wilcox Progressive Era where I tracked down the article about Dan Harrell’s 1979 murder, Wilcox County Sheriff, Prince Arnold, told me that he had only gotten to know Dan near the end of Dan’s life but learned a great deal from him about working with the community. Arnold was elected sheriff in November 1978, the same election in which Dan was defeated for county commission. The paper reported that the investigation concluded that the shooting was self-defense. When I showed Sheriff Arnold the newspaper article, he made a copy but didn’t comment on the incident. He just shook his head and said, “The man was brilliant. I had total respect for him. People here don’t appreciate all that he did for us.”

Learn more about Dan Harrell and his civil rights leadership in This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, University of Alabama Press. Pre-order now for release Feb 2014.

This Bright Light of Ours

My beloved husband Samuel Torres Jr

My beloved husband Samuel Torres Jr

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

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

During this time of reflection on anniversaries – some joyous like the March on Washington, some tragic and still infuriating, like the murder of the Sunday School girls in Birmingham, we pause to reflect on the people and friends who have made contributions to positive change, to moving forward not backward and to keeping the faith. Our eyes are wide open yet we still hold Martin’s Dream and our own to be possible. I want to share images of just handful of the dozens of amazing people who supported me on the journey to complete This Bright Light of Ours:Stories of the Voting Rights Fight, University of Alabama Press February 2014. http://www.thisbrightlightofours.com

My beloved friend and publicist, Joy Crawford-Washington and her mother, Jessie Crawford

My beloved friend and publicist, Joy Crawford-Washington and her mother, Jessie Crawford

Below (Left to right)

Ethel Brooks, Freedom Fighter (In Memorium)

Bettina Aptheker, author, advisor, friend

Lewis V Baldwin, author, advisor, friend & inspiration

Surprise Happy 65th Birthday to Samuel Torres Jr my beloved, my office manager and source of endless support

Charles R. Stephens (In Memorium) for years of co-training, diversity lessons and leadership

Bruce Hartford, Bay Area Civil Rights Veterans for fact-checking, resources and realism

Missing photo but not appreciation: Martha Jane Brazy, historian, for enthusiasm, editorial eye and noodging to make it even better

Ethel Brooks Freedom Fighter UnknownBaldwin_ S very young Charles S 2009

maria gitin bruce hartford_MG_3663_1

New This Bright Light book website coming soon: http://www.thisbrightlightofours.com

2014 Events – Save the Date

This Bright Light of Ours: A Celebration of Wilcox County Voting Rights, book reading, signing and reception, Camden, AL March 6, 2014.

This Bright Light of Ours, book reading, signing and reception, Temple Beth El, Aptos, CA February 20, 2014.

4th Annual Bay Area Social Justice Forum, moderator and panelist, The Center for Social Justice and Civic Engagement,  Holy Names University, Oakland, February 15, 2014.

2013 Presentations

The Voice of Conscience: Civil Rights, Post Civil Rights and the Future Freedom Struggle Conference Plenary Speaker, Vanderbilt University, November 9, 2013.

The March on Washington@50 Symposium, moderator and panelist;  with Stanford University MLK Institute, Sojourn To The Past and Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, CA,  August 17, 2013.  

Freedom Stories of People in Struggle, presenter with Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, May 5, 2013.

Forging Alliances And Building Coalitions, California Social Studies Conferencepanelist, Burlingame, CA, March 9, 2013.

We will maintain this blog under a new name: www.wilcoxcountyfreedomfighters to preserve and add to the living history of the Wilcox County Freedom Fight.

These sites are not yet live – check back in early October.

 

Wilcox County AL Civil Rights Timeline July 1965

July 1, 1965 – Camden

The New York Times reports a different version of the June 29th incident with the local sheriff (PC Lummie Jenkins) stating that the boys’ injuries were slight and that both boys were released from the hospital immediately.  Source: New York Times

Author’s note: Frank Conner told this author that he was near death and was hospitalized for months. This author witnessed one other young man with a bandaged head many days after the incident.

July 2, 1965 –Camden

Alabama Sheriff Locks Church

Sheriff Jenkins tells the press that the church deacons asked our Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) headquarters be locked after the attack.

Source: Associated Press, New York Times.

Author’s note: The Sheriff moved us out of the office at gunpoint. I was among those present as we were assessing the damage caused the night before, during the Klansmen’s violent attack on our youth. The courageous deacons reopened the church within a week although we tended to stay away after that, to lessen the danger to the locals.

July 2, 1965 – Atlanta

Rev Hosea Williams report included seven local black activists and one SCOPE worker being beaten in Camden at Antioch Baptist Church. Source: Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge.

Author’s note: The correct date was June 29th and there were eight young men, all locals affiliated with SCLC and /or working with the SCOPE program of SCLC that summer. All were African-American. Five escaped before three were beaten, two badly enough to be hospitalized. A July 3, 1965 article in the Chicago Defender supports this claim and quotes Bob Block (author’s boyfriend at the time) as saying we knew who the attackers were, all local white men wearing stocking masks. At the request of several of the survivors of this attack,   their attackers are named in my forthcoming book. There also was an earlier attack on a number of white and black male workers sleeping at the church.

Larry Scott Butler  wrote on Apr 12, 2013

The incident at the church I can be very specific about as I recorded it in my diary.  We were attacked while in the church in Camden, ran for our lives, and spent the night hiding on the floor of an Afro-American Masonic hall. It happened on 6/23/65 and a local young man named Saul helped us escape.  David Hoon (also white) was part of out group and he fell off the board crossing the ravine behind the church while we were running.  He was alright, but dirty and wet.  Saul led us to the Masonic Hall which we barricaded from the inside.

July 4, 1965

Bootleg liquor was planted in local activist Don Green’s car and he was arrested again although he had just been bailed out by SCOPE.

Source: Author was told by SCLC leaders Harrell and Johns.

 July 4, 1965 We integrated the Bessie W. Munden Pool just outside of Camden www.

July 8, 1965 – Camden

Five carloads of SCOPE workers shot at by white men after being stopped by police. They were trying to leave town to avoid wrath of whites after Gov. Wallace whipped the crowd into a frenzy at a rally in Camden that was attended by thousands.

Source: Author wrote of this in letter home . I was not in one of the cars but could hear the cheers from downtown as I hid at the boy’s dormitory at Camden Academy up on the hill.

 July 9, 1965 – Camden dateline, incident out in county

Summer Community Organization and Political Education canvassers forced off highway by white man in a pick up brandishing a rifle.

Source: SCOPE incident report plus author was participant/witness in incident. This story and others are told in detail in my forthcoming book: This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, Modern South, University of Alabama Press, 2014.

Advance orders now available at discount: www.amazon.com

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Camden Alabama Civil Rights Demonstrations Continue April 1965

April 9, 1965 – Camden 

Martin Luther King Jr spoke at Antioch Baptist Church in conjunction with a march that same day. It was the first time Wilcox County demonstrators were able to secure a permit to march. 600 marchers marched from the church to the courthouse.

Source: Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, Dorothy Walker, Alabama Historical Society in an e-mail to author dated 6.9.09

April 10, 1965 – Camden

Smoke Bombs Halt New Wave of Alabama Marchers

Camden Academy students Ralph Eggleston and Charles Mimms led a large march with some out of area supporters.  Jim “Arkansas” Benston, a white youth working with Selma SNCC, was beaten by Camden city police.

Source: Chicago Defender special by Leon Daniel

Excerpted from his own account – “Strider”/”Arkansas”/Jim Benston, a white Southern youth activist, wrote to me on February 18, 2010: 

So, that morning, 10th? I was commissioned to drive the van to Camden (from Selma),take these fresh kids with me & look out for them. No leadership training, no specified authority. Only (told me the) location of Camden Academy, & “support them.” I don’t remember who told me to take the van & its occupants to Camden. Maybe (James) Orange had come back into town.

So there I was, in charge of 3 or 4 Yankee kids who just showed up [including Bob Block, Richard Stephenson and Bruce Hartford], no experience;  3 or 4 Selma kids [including Charles Bonner, Amos Snell], experienced but younger, & me, at 20;going into battle in a town I had never been to, & knew nobody.  “Just do it!”  OK!

I only remember 2 adults from Camden, {probably there were more} the minister, who may have also been a teacher [Rev Thomas Threadgill and/ or Daniel Harrell], and a woman, probably in her 40s. It seems that we were about 30 or 35 total, mostly kids. We marched into town & were met by Mayor Reg (Albritton) & his boys, and a few Deputies, perhaps under separate authority. I recall some very brief speechifying, & then the minister kneeled us down to pray. There came a defining moment in my life.

A little girl, about age 12 was on my right, holding my hand.  One deputy strode up and stuck his gun in her face. His words were severe, which I do remember, or think I remember, it was so firmly planted in my Being. The deputy stuck his shotgun, [tear gas gun?]  into her face & spewed his words. In response to his threat of imminent murder, she squeezed my hand, then just held it firmly, looked into his eyes, and spoke calmly. “Mister, you do what you gotta do,  but I ain’t movin’ for nobody.” Those heart words almost knocked him off his feet.  He staggered back as though he had been smashed in the face by a beer bottle.A minute or two later came the tear gas. Everybody bolted, this was army combat tear gas, & thicker than on the Bridge in Selma.  There was no wind, Crying, running, vomiting, stumbling.   My only guide was that unknown little girl.  I could NOT let her down. so, I started singing, “Ain’t gonna let no tear gas  turn me ’round,  turn me ’round, turn me ’round,Ain’t gonna let no tear gas turn me ’round.I’m gonna keep on a walkin’   keep on a talkin’ Marchin’ up to Freedom Land !”

Within 10 seconds everyone was back on the line, singin’, clappin’ dancin,’  Marchin’ up to Freedom Land.That is when, & why the cops regrouped  &  came after me.They broke our armlock first, & then went for my head. In his book, “White Kids.” Reavis describes my being singled out and beaten in Demopolis later that summer, which was so similar to Camden that I had totally forgotten about it until I read (& edited) his book.

My being beaten was on Huntley-Brinkley that night,  & was seen by my grandmother’s sister in Birmingham. My Grandmorther, Mrs. Sam Wallace, was the President of the UDC    – that’s  United Daughters of the Confederacy  –  in Birmingham. My Aunt Jean from Chattanooga was visiting when they saw me on national news. They decided my beating and arrest was appropriate, & sent a bible to the Camden white folks’s church to deliver to me. – © James Benston 2010.

Contact “Strider” Benston and read more of his stories at http://striderben.wordpress.com/

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April 12, 1965 – Camden

Rev Jonathan Daniels, who would be murdered August 20th in nearby Haneyville, ventured with his family into a large crowd that was demonstrating downtown Camden where they were tear-gassed. This was the fourth or fifth day in a row of marches.

Source: Taylor Branch, pg 210, At Canaan’s Edge.

Wilcox County Voting Rights Timeline – continued

February 26, 1965 – Marion, AL26
Twenty six year old Jimmy Lee Jackson dies from injuries sustained while trying to protect his mother and other family from police attack during a demonstration for the right to register to vote. This atrocity was the catalyst for SNCC and SCLC organizing a march to Montgomery that evolved first into Bloody Sunday, then into Turn Around Tuesday and finally in the long march from Selma to the capital in Montgomery.

For a more detailed timeline visit: http://www.crmvet.org/tim/timhome.htm

March 1, 1965, Monday – Camden, AL
Dr. Martin Luther King joined a march in progress and spoke to a crowd of about 200 attempting to register at the courthouse in Camden. He came over from Selma in a driving rain with a caravan of reporters and federal observers according to Taylor Branch. This is the date when King famously confronted Sherriff Lummie Jenkins asking him to ‘vouch’ for the registrants who were required to:
1. Pass a literacy test,
2. Prove citizenship, and
3. Have an already registered voter ‘vouch’ for their good character and literacy.
The sheriff declined to assist but ten people were allowed to apply to register that day. These were declared the first “Negro” voters in Wilcox County, although there may have been earlier registrants.

Source: Taylor Branch At Canaan’s Edge. Pg 19-20.

Authors note: Mrs. Rosetta Angion of Coy, who was there, told me how proud she felt when Dr King stood on the steps of the old jailhouse (which became the courthouse annex) and gave a rousing speech to encourage them to keep on going. She recalls his telling the crowd, “Doncha get weary chillun.”

March 3, 1965 – Camden

Camden Police Meet March with Clubs March 4:

60 Blacks Alter Camden’s History (headline Chicago Defender

Two articles on the same march: John Lewis of SNCC leads a march of 60 people from Coy, Gees Bend and Camden from St. Francis Church to the courthouse to try to register. He goes inside and walks around, inspires the crowd.

Sources: Chicago Defender (pub date March 4), Mrs. Rosetta Angion interview with author.

March 5, 1965 – Camden

Camden Alabama March by Blacks Fails (headline Chicago Defender)

Led by Johnny Lee Jones of Selma 200 protesters marched from St. Francis Church marched to the courthouse are turned back with batons and tear gas. Marchers are notified that there will be a larger march in Selma on March 7th. Hundreds of Wilcox County residents organize carpools to travel to participate in that march.

Sources: Chicago Defender. Accounts by residents to author, Maria Gitin.

March 7 Sunday- Selma

Bloody Sunday” march in Selma led by SNCC’s Chairman John Lewis and SCLC’s project director Hosea Williams; other organizers included James Bevel and Diane Nash. My SNCC project director, Charles Bonner and numerous other Selma activists were involved. Over 600 nonviolent, women, men and children were stopped and attacked by state troopers and the county sheriff’s posse. They were beaten, tear-gassed by canisters launched from tear gas guns, and beaten by police under Dallas County Sherriff Jim Clark and state troopers ordered by Alabama Director of Public Safety Colonel Al Lingo. People were injured and arrested in large numbers. Dr. King was not present but approved of the original march plan. Many Camden Academy students and adults from Wilcox County were there including: Ethel Brooks, Mary Alice Angion (Robinson) and her sister.The marchers fled back to Brown Chapel where the march began, to take care of the wounded, strategize their next steps. Cleo Brooks of Coy, stated that the community of Coy had more residents on the bridge than any other community in the state of Alabama. Source: eyewitnesses’ accounts to author

March 8, 1965 Monday – National TV

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr appears on national television to call for help, requesting people to flood into Selma to create a tidal wave of humanity that would get the world’s attention and keep the marchers safe.scope002_2

Authors note: As an 18 year old college freshman, I viewed the attack on television in San Francisco, along with footage from the Bloody Sunday march in Selma. This march and Dr. King’s subsequent “call to action” are what inspired hundreds of us to head South to participate in a massive voter registration drive, Summer Community Organizing and Political Education (SCOPE) project including my soon to become boyfriend/fiancé Bob (Luke) Block who was in Chicago at the time. When we reached Wilcox County, we joined forces with the already active SNCC group and local adult and youth leaders.

– Maria Gitin (formerly Joyce Brians) Author and presenter: This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Wilcox County Voting Rights Fight, to be published University of Alabama Press in early 2014.

March 1965 – Selma to Montgomery and Wilcox County Demonstrations 

Selma to Montgomery marches – Many Wilcox County activists participated in one or more of the three most famous marches. There were ongoing actions  in Selma, and continuous demonstrations in Camden as well as elsewhere in Alabama throughout the month of March. Many SNCC and SCLC activists went between Selma and Camden to join the Camden marches.

Sources: eyewitnesses accounts to author. For detailed timeline of Selma to Montgomery marches: http://www.crmvet.org/

 

Bob Crawford Jr on Alabama Education Before the Civil Rights Movement

Luke (Bob) Block and Bob Crawford Jr remenisce in Pine Apple 2008In 2008, Luke (Bob) Block and I returned to Wilcox County to find families we had loved and worked with in 1965. Bob and Georgia Crawford, stalwart leaders in the Pine Apple area of the county, had been warm hosts to Luke and other civil rights workers. We met with their son, Bob Crawford Jr., who taught high school in Monroe County for many years. Over many hours of animated conversation, one of the things Crawford stressed was education, “One of the best things about having a primarily African American school system is that now they can teach the whole story. I specialized in American History after I got my masters degree. One of my teachers told us ‘Don’t fool those kids and tell them what the Alabama history books say; it is strictly a white man’s history.’

Bob Crawford Jr with grandson in Selma 2010

Bob Crawford Jr with grandson Bradley Thomas in Selma 2010

 

“You had to go to a foreign county to get a true history. I got information from a friend, a retired military man who collected history from other countries. France and Spain wrote more competent histories that told the truth about US history. Negroes were involved in cattle drives, in the Gold Rush. I read some of these books and learned that Negroes were everything from outlaws to ministers, but that never was mentioned in the regular high school history books. So I inserted the information into my teaching. During the Revolutionary War they didn’t say that there were Black soldiers fighting on both sides, mostly for the North. In South Carolina you had Negro congressmen, but no Black leaders were ever mentioned, except maybe George W. Carver and Booker T. Washington. Negro engineers like Horace King built nearly every bridge that connected Georgia and Alabama—never told us anything about that, but I taught my students all of that. They [the administration] reprimanded me for teaching the truth, presenting the facts. But I didn’t get fired, I resigned to get a better paying job. I had two sweet little girls to put through college. Believe it or not, back then, driving truck paid better and had better benefits than teaching school.”[i]

Indeed, Crawford’s sacrifice of a prestigious teaching job for trucking was well rewarded by all three of his “little girls” successes in life.  Bob and Jessie Crawford’s oldest daughter, Debbie C. Porter, retired after teaching 28 years in the Baldwin County Alabama School System. Middle daughter, Joy Crawford-Washington, is currently a public relations specialist at the University of South Alabama, and the youngest, Jessietta C.Thomas, is a principal at Hayneville Road Acceleration Academy in Montgomery, Alabama.

In conversation with people whose families were active in civil rights, I learned that many took interstate truck driving jobs for part or all of their career. Due to new interstate federal anti-discrimination laws and unionization, driving truck became one the best paying jobs that a Southern Black male could hope to obtain while living in that region, in that era. Truck driving was not a career option for women at that time, and still is a rarity.

More of the Crawfords’ family story and their heroic involvement in the Civil Rights Movement is included in my forthcoming book, This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Wilcox County Freedom Fight, University of Alabama Press 2014 – Maria Gitin

PS If you admire the handcrafted coffee mugs in the top photo, they are produced by Luke’s wife Willow with the help of Luke and their family. Available at selected craft fairs and online, learn more about Crow Mountain Pottery at http://crowmountainpottery.com/


[i] Bob Crawford Jr., remarks edited in a telephone interview with Maria Gitin, Beatrice AL, June 2, 2009.

My Heart is Filled With Gratitude

Many generous folks contributed over the past seven years to This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, a memoir and collection of true stories from the last large integrated voter registration drive during the Freedom Summer of 1965.

Fifty-five courageous individuals entrusted me with their stories of living in a violent, racist community while fighting for their voting rights in Wilcox County, Alabama. My beloved SNCC friends, Charles “Chuck” Bonner and Luke “Bob” Block (https://thislittlelight1965.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/img327.jpg) kept me honest as I recreated our teenage civil rights work and play. Wilcox County community leaders opened doors, answered endless questions and become dear friends including: W. Kate Charley, Sheryl Threadgill, Alma King, and John Matthews. Civil Rights photographer Bob Fitch (http://www.bobfitchphoto.com/) shared historic images that enrich the work immensely.

For generous encouragement, and expert counsel over the years, huge appreciation goes to brilliant author-scholar, Lewis V. Baldwin. (www.amazon.com) For consistent and accurate fact checking, terminology, and political theory, my hero is Bruce Hartford, lay historian and web manager for the national Civil Rights Veterans website (www.crmvet.org). Scott E. Kirkland, researcher and curator of the Museum of History in Mobile, AL, played a vital role in the placement of this book, as a champion for an accurate portrayal of the Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) project, designed and spearheaded by civil rights hero, Hosea Williams.

Author-activist Bettina Aptheker, the late James Houston, and Benet Luchion provided early encouragement. Developmental editor Cassandra Shaylor helped shape the book for interest. Historian Martha Jane Brazy of University of South Alabama enthusiastically embraced the work during its final year, generously offering me graduate student level attention. Willy Siegal Leventhal’s unending fight for recognition of the SCOPE (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SCOPE_Project) project was and is an inspiration.

Thanks to my beloved cousin, Jeanne Hanks, and my friend, Debbie Kogan, for empathetic listening during my years of obsessing about this project. Deep appreciation goes to my publicist, Joy Crawford-Washington of BGC Communications, for tireless support and warm friendship. To my yoga teacher, Amey Matthews for teaching me flexibility and strength are not opposites. And to Lauren Mari-Navarro for insights and resources. To Joan for fun & friendship.

Photo by Charley Hatfield, Aptos, CA

My husband, Samuel Torres Jr., offered me freedom to pursue the project, frequent and much-needed critiques, archival research, copyright management, proof-reading, tough talk and tender love, and took great photos. I can never thank him enough, but I am working on it!

Thank you all! Have a great Thanksgiving!  And Keep on Keepin’ On! – We have a long ways to go to achieve real racial and economic justice in the world!

The book has been retitled: This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, and will be published by University of Alabama Press in January 2014. Speaking engagements and book-signings are being scheduled now. Please contact: Joy Crawford-Washington, bgccommunications@gmail.com for more information.

Rev Frank & Mrs Etta Pearl Smith Family

Smith Family 1950
Children L-R Geraldine, Carolyn, Frank Milton, and Jesse

During the Wilcox County AL SCOPE-SCLC voter registration drive of summer 1965, my boyfriend, Bob (Luke) Block often stayed with the Rev & Mrs. Frank Smith family in Lower Peachtree. Jesse Smith, then a sixteen year old student leader recalls: “I remember Bob real well. We were sort of like brothers then. One day I was cutting Larry’s hair and Bob asked me to cut his. He had great faith in me; I had never cut white hair before, but I went ahead. It looked real bad on the sides. He looked at it in the mirror for a long while and then he said,”It’ll grow back.”

Bob (Luke) Block 1965

“I admired Bob for his ‘never give up’ attitude.  Somewhere in Pine Hill he asked this man was he a registered voter. He said, ‘Son, that ain’t none of your business.’ We made a U turn – no use talking to him- but we kept on goin.  In Lower Peachtree we had been trying to get the people to go over to sign up for commodities. Bob got Mr. Campbell and his wife to sign up after they wouldn’t listen to me or other black students. They needed that food for their family. After Mr. Campbell signed up, a bunch of other folks went over and got signed up. That was a big help. One night Daddy wrote out the complaints of the students at the high school: No running water, no library, gym or science lab. The student body signed it. Someone from the Board of Education came and we gave the letter to him.” – Rev Jesse Smith, Montgomery AL interview with Maria Gitin June 8, 2009

Rev Frank Smith was fired from his teaching position at Pine Apple High School immediately upon passage of the Voting Rights Act, August of 1965. The official reason provided by the Superintendent of Schools, as was the case with all of the activist teacher terminations, was low attendance in Smith’s classes. The real reason he was fired was because he had allowed white civil rights workers to stay at his home, SNCC and SCLC to meet at his church and because his children were active in the Movement. It took fifteen years of legal filing, but in 1980 Smith won a back pay settlement and was elected to the same Wilcox County Board of Education that terminated him — victorious at last.

Carolyn Smith Taylor represents the Smith Family
2010 Selma Jubilee

The Smith family, Frank Smith Jr, (may he rest in blessed memory), Geraldine Gwendolyn Smith, Carolyn Smith Taylor, Jesse Smith and Larry Smith keep their parents’ memory alive by living up to their ideals.