Giving Thanks to the Courageous Citizens of Wilcox County for Sharing your Stories with the World

Betty Robert Banner

Betty Anderson and Robert Powell, Camden Academy Activists

Sheryl Threadgill and the Lawsons at Selma Jubilee 2014

Sheryl Threadgill and the Lawsons at Selma Jubilee 2014

W. Kate Charley lived her life standing tall, telling the truth and having fun. She lives on in blessed memory.

W. Kate Charley lived her life standing tall, telling the truth and having fun. She lives on in blessed memory.

 

Lewis V Baldwin, Anthea Butler and Barbara A Holmes at Baldwin's Vanderbilt University Retirement Celebration 2014

Lewis V Baldwin, Anthea Butler and Barbara A Holmes at Baldwin’s Vanderbilt University Retirement Celebration 2014

 

John Matthews in Pine Hill

John Matthews shows Maria where he found her and other civil rights workers headed deep into the woods at dusk. Pine Hill, AL

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

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

I’m feeling extra grateful today for the contributions of more than 70 friends, families and supporters to the amazing success of “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight.”  We have almost sold out the hard-bound first edition, thanks to your willingness to share your struggles, your pain and your laughter. Across the country, white students and adults alike tell me that they understand the history of racism and white privilege from a new perspective, and that they want to be part of eradicating injustice. African Americans, Latinos and others say, thank you for sharing these stories, our stories. Young students ask: Why didn’t we ever learn this in school?  Although marketed as a memoir, this is really your story, our story. Thank you today and always for your contributions.

Samuel supported Maria every page of the way on her journey back to Summer 1965

Samuel supported Maria every page of the way on her journey back to Summer 1965

Bruce Hartford, CORE, SCLC 1965 - invaluable historian of the Movement

Bruce Hartford, CORE, SCLC 1965 – invaluable historian of the Movement

Bob Fitch Photographer & Activist

Bob Fitch Photographer & Activist

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.

 

Conversation with Civil Rights Veteran Bruce Hartford

Years ago, as I wrestled with how to tell my stories and the stories of my friends from that eventful summer in the South, I turned often to Bruce Hartford. Hartford was an activist in Los Angeles before he went South to work as a county director and staff member for Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1965. That was the same year I worked with SCLC’s SCOPE project and with SNCC in Wilcox County, Alabama. After he left SCLC, Hartford moved to San Francisco where he continues activism through his speaking and writing about the Movement.  His knowledge of the Movement is encyclopedic and his collection of interviews, original stories and archival materials from civil rights veterans on www.crmvet.org is unmatched in any other venue. Bruce is also Jewish, like me.

Maria: I feel like I need to explain “the grand plan.”

Bruce: I was active in the Freedom Movement for a long time, and I’ve been researching and writing on the history of the Movement for even longer, and I’ve never noticed that there was any grand plan. People did the best they could figure out what to do at the time and place. Grand plans were for the armchair revolutionaries and academic theoreticians who never understood that talking and theorizing was not the same as taking action. Even Dr. King did not have a grand plan or strategy beyond the next 6 months or so.

Maria: I guess that’s true because everything in the trenches was changing so often. You could have goals, but objectives had to shift with opportunity. Another thing I struggle with is the question of emotional truth. In my book I want it to be interesting and accurate, but most of all to convey the emotional truth. What is the emotional truth? That most of us aging white civil rights workers feel like we didn’t do enough, yet we did all we humanly could? …[I felt that way when I began to write this book].  These few months I spent in Alabama may not have changed the world but they were part of hundreds of other months and thousands of other students and adults who did change the world in many ways.

Bruce: When I’m asked to discuss the Freedom Movement and Nonviolent Resistance, one of the points I always try to make is that being nonviolent in face of violence is not the hardest part of engaging in Nonviolent Resistance. Once there is a will to take up nonviolent direct-action, training and group solidarity can solve the problem of remaining nonviolent in the face of attack or provocation. The hardest part of Nonviolent Resistance is overcoming despair, apathy, discouragement, and committing oneself to take action and resist  “There’s nothing I can do.”  “I have no power or influence.” “You can’t fight City Hall.”  “One person can’t do anything.”  “Nothing ever changes, the rich get richer and the poor get children.”

But this ain’t a new problem. The Talmud describes how 2,000 years ago Rabbi Tarfon (circa 70-135ce) taught his students:

You are not required to complete the task [of healing the world’s ills], but neither are you free to avoid it.

At that time, their world was in a world of hurt:  The Jewish revolt against Rome had failed. Jerusalem had fallen, thousands slaughtered. The Temple was destroyed.  Hundreds of thousands Jews & Christians were enslaved. Tens of thousands were slaughtered in Rome’s coliseum for amusement of the mob. There was enormous despair. Rabbi Tarfon’s response was: “You are not required to complete the task [of healing the world’s ills], but neither are you free to avoid it.” Later Talmud commentaries expanded Tarfon’s dictum:

You don’t measure your individual contribution against the totality of the task.

You measure your contribution against the totality of your life.

Measured against the pain and and injustice that exist in the world, the contribution of any individual — even the greatest individual — is infinitesimally small. You don’t have control over the world, but you do have control over how you lead your life.

Healing the world [Hebrew: “Tikkun Olam”] can form:

No part of your life,

or a small part,

or a great part,

or you can dedicate your life to fighting for justice and making the world a better place. That is the choice a Nonviolent Resister has to make.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Dorothy Cotton teaching Citizenship Literacy, AnnieMaine, AL 1966. Photo copyright Bob Fitch

Dorothy Cotton teaching Citizenship Literacy, AnnieMaine, AL 1966. Photo copyright Bob Fitch

Thanks to Bruce for his encouragement (along with many other amazing and helpful supporters), I was able to complete the project which has generated wonderful pre-publication comments. One of them is from Dr. Dorothy F Cotton, a woman I admire tremendously, and a leader who embodies nonviolent commitment:

Maria Gitin’s book, This Bright Light of Ours, shares important details of experiences of working ¾ of giving oneself to the country-changing work of the civil rights movement in America which ultimately impacted other countries around the world. As I am invited to share the experience of total commitment to the struggle that changed a gravely unjust system, I’m aware more and more how important it is to tell ¾ to share the aspect of the story which is so effectively told in Maria Gitin’s book. When people of a different cultural or racial expression join and claim the Great Civil Rights Movement in America as their movement too ¾ when they have done so, that is as it should be. This story is also inspiring right here at home those who are coming after my generation to know this truth. It was a movement we now know inspired people in other countries to open themselves to the knowledge that positive change is possible. The Freedom Struggle in Alabama was seen and heard about around the world.

Much credit is given to a select few whose names are often called as having contributed as leaders of this powerful movement. But there would have been no freedom movement ¾ certainly not of the breadth and scope to which it evolved had it not been for movement volunteers like Maria Gitin and others she writes about in her book. Because of their giving spirit, their willingness to suffer even, a cruel and unjust system that impacted the lives of all of us was changed. When we could join together our actions moved America closer to “being true to what is said on paper”* so long ago.

Dorothy F. Cotton, SCLC Education Director, Founder Citizenship Education Project and Dorothy Cotton Institute

May 31, 2013

Utica, NY

Please feel free to use these thoughts I have written as you see fit to promote your story.

Conversation with Civil Rights Veteran Bruce Hartford – About our Stories

Gitin and Hartford 2013 photo © Samuel Torres Jr.

Gitin and Hartford 2013
photo © Samuel Torres Jr.

When I set about seriously, full-time to complete this book about my experience as a student civil rights worker in the summer of 1965, I wrote my friend Bruce Hartford, manager of the www.crmvet.org website. He came South earlier, stayed longer and had greater responsibilities than I did  so I turned to him in frustration as I began to recreate that long ago summer from a handful of lengthy letters and a trove of memories.  Here is an edited version of our conversation July 2008.Jkt_Gitin_final cover

Maria: I edited my letters heavily so as to generate funding from my supporters and sympathy from my family. Also, there are almost no names of locals since I was instructed not to name any African American activists unless they were on the SNCC or SCLC payroll. I wasn’t to mention intimate relations or parties or anything that could be used against us. In short, the letters were highly censored, sanitized versions of what I was feeling, much of which was confusion by the difference between what I experienced in my county, Wilcox, Alabama and my month of briefings in Berkeley, California and the weeklong intensive SCOPE orientation in Atlanta, Georgia.

Bruce: Strange, I don’t recall any admonishment not to mention the names of local folk who weren’t on staff. Who told you that, and why? It couldn’t have been to keep their activity secrets from the white folk; in those rural counties everyone knew everything about everyone else’s business.

I know it’s hard sometimes to get a handle on an approach. One possibility that occurs to me is to keep your letters but add in all the stuff you wanted to write way back when but did not because it might cause problems for the Movement, possibly also add in reflections and comments as you see things today. So you would have three different kinds of material that would need to be kept clear as to what is which.

Maria: I need to tell my story because I need to, but the truth is,I don’t know if the world needs to hear my story. A lot has been written by and about white youth in the Movement.

Bruce: Needing to tell your story seems sufficient reason to me. What more reason do you need?

So, I began with the letters and memories, then found my old friends, then went back to Wilcox County, Alabama and found the local people and their families, recovered their names and recorded their stories. It turned out that my old co-workers needed to tell their stories too. This memoir and oral history will be published February 15, 2014.

This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight is now available for advance purchase at www.uappress.edu and www.amazon.com.

Freedom Movement Stories of People in Struggle – San Francisco Sunday May 5, 2013

crowd _MG_3719_1jimmy garett_MG_3732_1maria gitin bruce hartford_MG_3663_1stuart house _MG_3683_1_MG_3660_1

Vets singing Freedom Songs   Jimmy Garrett        Maria Gitin, Bruce Hartford    Stu House          Maria with Jimmy Rogers, Kathy Emory

The Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) Presents an afternoon of stories from the Freedom Fight

Sunday May 5, 2013

2:00 pm – 5:00 pm

Birmingham Childrens Crusade - Young Warriors.  www.crmvet.org

Birmingham Childrens Crusade – Young Warriors.
http://www.crmvet.org

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham “Children’s Crusade,” please join us for an afternoon of story telling about the people we knew and worked with and the events we experienced in the Southern Freedom Movement of the 1960s. Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement will share personal short stories with families, friends and all those who are interested in the hidden histories of ordinary people who fought for justice with extraordinary courage. www.moadsf.org/.  $10 museum admission ($5 for seniors)

Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement (BayVets) is an organization of former civil rights workers who were active in the Southern Freedom Movement of the 1960s as staff and volunteers for SNCC, SCLC, CORE, and the NAACP. Today, BayVets works to educate the public about the history and issues of the Civil Rights Movement through speaking engagements, events, and a nationally-recognized website (www.crmvet.org) that documents the history and personal stories of the Freedom Movement. I, and others Bay Area Vets are available to speak to conferences, schools and in other venues. Arrangements are made personally with each speaker. For a list of speakers and their contacts http://www.crmvet.org/vet/speakers.htm
I will share a brief story and historic photos from my friend, former Camden Academy student leader and continuing civil right activist in Mobile, AL, Sim Pettway Sr.  Sim Pettway Sr tells how his family was forced to flee copy

Museum Location

Museum of the African Diaspora
685 Mission Street (at Third)
San Francisco, California 94105
phone: 415.358.7200

First Weeks of April 1965 – Camden Demonstrations Continue

scope051_2April 2, 1965 – Camden

March is Blocked at Camden 2D Day: Mayor and Deputies Bar Walk to Courthouse

Students from Camden Academy, adults from Gees Bend and others continue to defy the mayor and city officials and demonstrate without a permit, every day for at least a week. They continue to be assaulted with either or both tear gas and smoke bombs but the students announce “We’ll be back!” Source: Chicago Defender

Author’s note: Adults who were then students who told me that demonstrators from Coy and other communities were involved as well and that there were weeks of weekday marches both from Antioch Baptist church and from Camden Academy for the rest of the school year into May.

April 4, 1968  Martin Luther King Jr Assassinated in Memphis, TN during his support for a sanitation workers strike. Union busting continues today in 2013 as living wages slip out of the reach of millions of willing workers.

 April 6, 1965 – Camden

 Use Smoke, Tear Gas on Ala Demonstrators

Eleven (11) arrested in a third march in the same week. Smoke bombs and tear gas both were used. Adults began at Antioch Baptist Church and students at the Camden Academy.

Source: Chicago Defender.

Author’s note:  Some former students I interviewed said that the police tried to confuse them by using both smoke and tear gas bombs shot from big barrel guns. The police then mocked the students if they panicked when it was smoke instead of tear gas. As time went on the student organizers gave the youth wet towels to cover their faces before leaving campus to march.

Camden demonstrators from out of town, dubbed “outside agitators” may have included Bruce Hartford, Charles “Chuck Bonner” Bonner, Amos Snell, Luke (Bob) Block, Strider “Arkansas” Benson and other civil rights workers. Bob/Luke Block was shocked with a cattle prod but stayed and worked in Wilcox with both SNCC and SCLC until August.

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/

 

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.