Letter Home July 26, 1965 Part II

Boiling Springs Methodist Church (AME)
Boiling Springs Methodist Church (AME)


Part II of a letter from 19 yr old civil rights worker Maria Gitin in Wilcox County AL July 1965:
I was invited to a Methodist (Boiling Springs AME Church) revival meeting on Thursday night and went in hopes of speaking to the people about registration as they came out. We don’t ever ask to talk about civil rights in a church service because many folks haven’t seen the correlation between Christianity and social action. At the conclusion of the preacher’s long and emotional sermon he asked me to speak. I was quite surprised and pleased. I tried to relate my talk to his sermon and I received a good response from the congregation.
The rural people are very serious about their religion. Partly, I suppose, it is an emotional outlet for their frustrations. These are an oppressed people. But, even more, I can sense that they are really aware of the grace of God. They know they are lucky when their children live to the age of twelve, when the crops are not ruined by rain, when a white man doesn’t shoot their children for helping me canvass. You see, God is the only one who can help them because no one else will. I don’t want to romanticize the Southern Negro, because there is nothing romantic about being hated, harassed and oppressed but these folks have a certain kind of pride and dignity that I have never seen before. And they are freer in a sense than those who try to keeping them down I think their freedom comes from knowing that they are right.
Now, not all the Negroes are with the Movement…obviously or we would have cleaned up the mess years ago. There are hundreds of Uncle Toms and Aunt Janes who say “Mister Charlie has been so good to me…I can’t turn agin him now.” Some people have been pushed so low that they just don’t care anymore. There are those who for a pack of cigarettes will give Mr. Charlie a list of everyone in the Movement so he can fire them, and whip them, and try to hold them back.
But I don’t think Mr. Charlie – symbol of the white man – is going to keep folks down. I don’t think Uncle Tom – symbol of the humble, scared Negro – is going to help them down. The people who are fighting for their freedom value it above their lives. And I’ll bet you the devotion you’ll find here to freedom exceeds any you’ll find among our troops in Viet Nam. We are a nonviolent army, marching steadily towards one goal – freedom NOW!

Read more in “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight”

Civil Rights Activists in Boiling Spring, Alabama

Although nearly abandoned today, in 1965 the tiny primarily Black community of Boiling Spring in remote northwestern Wilcox County was the center of a vibrant voting rights movement with leaders like the Lawsons, Burrells and Robinsons.

Satto Tilia Parker Burrell & James Burrell were parents of Boiling Springs leader Eddie Burrell and in-laws to his wife, Virginia Boykin Burrell. Their now abandoned home was once a vibrant political, religious and social center.

Sometimes I stayed with the Robinsons who had 12 children yet made room for me, a white teenage civil rights worker. I shared a bed with their teen daughter and several small children. When I rolled over, I had to be careful not to kick the little ones stacked at the end of the bedstead. Some evenings, we’d walk through the woods with kerosene lanterns to take meals at the Lawsons. After I returned to California, my letters to Robinsons and Lawsons were returned undeliverable. I searched for them for decades without success.

Forty-seven years later, Deborah Burrell Tucker, whose mother Virginia Boykin Burrell was a leader and voter literacy teacher in Boiling Spring, contacted me.

Voncille Burrell canvassed for voters from age 13. Her mother Virginia Boykin Burrell (right) taught literacy classes for new voters. Mary Robinson is on her left.

Her sister, Voncille Burrell Spencer, recalls canvassing for voters with me when she was just 13 years old.  Her Cousin Betty Lawson Henderson told me that her family maintained a civil rights safe house for years. After many years of searching, I discovered some of the Robinsons who housed me. Sadly, some still fear white retribution for their involvement in the Movement. While the Burrells and Lawsons, and another Robinson clan proudly claim their place in history, some of “my” Robinsons believe that the racial climate hasn’t changed a bit and asked me to omit their names from my book. It makes me sad but also helps explain why more progress hasn’t been made. The Robinsons and all civil rights activists who risked their lives and property to be active in the Movement, deserve to live in peace and comfort and to be honored for their contribution to the progress that has been made, most especially the right to vote.

Unsung Heroine of Boiling Springs is Recognized Posthumously

Recent unprovoked white on black murders tragically give credence to lingering fears. A new Civil Rights Movement calls for massive economic, social policy and educational change. We cannot give up, cannot rest, until everyone in this country can go to sleep without fear of being targeted for the color of their skin or for their commitment to racial justice. All of us must vote in every election until we change policies and politicians to secure these rights for all. The courageous heroes of Boiling Spring,both living and deceased, known and anonymous, continue to call us to action.