Linking the Generations

Willie H Parker 1965 FullSizeRender 2

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.

Learn more about the Camden Academy student movement in these books:TBLO book jacket_low res

“This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” by Maria Gitin

“In the Shadow of Selma: The Continuing Struggle for Civil Rights in the Rural South by Cynthia Griggs Fleming


July 8, 1965 George Wallace Rally Riles up Whites

Camden Academy Girl's Dormitory was civil rights refuge Summer 1965

Camden Academy Girl’s Dormitory was civil rights refuge Summer 1965

From a note in SCOPE files 50 years ago today: 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 rally in Camden attended by thousands.

My own memories of that night: Our leaders warned us that George Wallace, the governor of Alabama, infamous for his slogan “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever,” was coming to Camden to rally the already hostile whites. He planned to speak from a platform in front of the courthouse where our recruits attempted to register. Major Johns told us to get out of town, and so most of our workers left for outlying communities, but I stayed behind at Camden Academy with one of the white seminarians and my co-worker, Connie Turner.

Late that night, Connie crept up the stairs and knocked on my door. I barely recognized her. She had put a black rinse in her hair and had “ratted” it into a bouffant style to look more southern, then had gone with Washington Post reporter Paul Good to the George Wallace rally. Good had put her up to a risky adventure. Good boosted her up into a pecan tree on the courthouse square where she saw and heard the whole rally. Connie was breathless with amazement at the hatred Governor Wallace whipped up in the crowd.

Wallace had the crowd in a real frenzy. They were screaming, “Kill the N—-r Lovers!” Wallace told the cheering crowd something like: “Alabama and the rest of the God-fearing South are once again at war with the United States. This time we will succeed because God is on our side. He laid down the law of black and white. It is a crime to undo God’s creation of a superior and an inferior race. Nigrahs never can and never will be equal to white men. We will fight this fraudulent legislation, this so-called voting rights act with every weapon at our disposal. Tonight I tell you my friends that if you defend our freedom and our way of life by driving out these outside agitators, you will be doing the greatest service to this county, the great state of Alabama and to future generations.”

Wilcox County Courthouse, Camden 1965

Wilcox County Courthouse, Camden 1965

We huddled in the back and went to bed early but couldn’t sleep. That night, cars filled with our field workers were shot at as they headed to Coy to try to avoid the riled-up racists. No one was seriously injured but all were severely shaken, and two car windows were broken. If I hadn’t insisted on staying at the Academy, I would have been in one of those cars. Perhaps because the Klan thought we had all left town, no one came up to the Academy campus that night, but I still felt uneasy until Bob slipped into my bed around midnight. “Where were you?” I asked. “Don’t ask sweetheart, just be glad I’m here now. Here and alive.” He took me in his arms. – excerpted and adapted from “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” by Maria Gitin, University of Alabama Press. More:

Happy 4th of July: 1965

Joyce Brians (Maria Gitin), civil rights worker 1965.

Joyce Brians (Maria Gitin), civil rights worker 1965.

This is one my letters home that I only excerpted from in my book. What was like for my family to be reading this around the dinner table, thousands of miles away? Today, I imagine the heartache, fear and pride that parents share as youth in Charleston and around the South continue to combat a new wave of murder and church burnings.

July 1, 1965

Dear Family,

Hi! Things have been really hot around here – in more ways than one. The nite (sic) after I got out of jail – the same night I phoned you – two of our local boys were beaten in the church. The church was sacked, doors broken down, gunshots in the walls. One boy who was beaten with a lead pipe is in precariously dangerous shape in the Selma hospital. We could only find a white doctor for him & he isn’t getting the best of care. The other boy was clubbed but is recovering nicely. The local crackers did the job – some of them are Sheriff Jenkins possemen during the day.

It is now July 2-

While I was in jail the white boy in the cell next to me was beaten by his white Southern roommate. I could hear him screaming & moaning. The guards gave Crow – his cellmate – cigarettes for beating him. It made me so sick I couldn’t eat anything so I gave my food – what little there was – to an insane man who was in the cell next to me. The trustees (Negroes who are guards) gave us a bad time.

It is now July 3 – every time I sit down to write to you someone calls a staff meeting or the phone rings. Anyway – jail was hideous but I ‘ll write you the gory details some other time. The nite I was released was the nite the two boys were beaten in our church. I phoned the hospital, newspapers, etc. I’ve developed a close relationship with one of the men (white) on staff. I can’ t say anymore about it because that is the kind of ammunition police could use if either of us gets jailed again. We stayed up all nite by the phone for further news. It was a miserable nite. At 5 AM another boy phoned from the church – he had been beaten, too.

The story was that 8 white men in stocking masks broke down both doors of the church, shot a hole in the wall & beat 3 boys with a lead pipe. I went to the church the next day and it was a mess.

(Again I must go – hope I finish this soon)

It is now July 5th – I had to move out of Camden Academy cuz I didn’t get a letter to (Principal) Hobbs in time. Besides, it’s too dangerous to be in Camden now.

Yesterday you never would have known we were having a Movement. We went to the Playground & swam & roasted hotddogs & danced & sang. It was a great day & no arrests were made for a change.

I am staying with a wonderful woman in Coy (one of Ethel Brooks’ neighbors or a relative) near Camden. I don’t know when I’ll get to write to you again.

I love you. Thanks for your letters – they mean so much. I got the dresses – the shift is really nice.

We’ll be canvassing voters all over the county for the next two weeks so its on the road for me. We’ll just stay at folks houses when evening falls.

Love, Joyce


It’s 6:30 AM July 6th – and we are ready to go out in the field to canvass for voters. There are more little incidents all the time. One of the strongest local leaders [ Don Green ] a junior in high school, had some moonshine planted in his car. When he drove out of the Sawmill Quarter, the police were waiting for him. They took him to jail, put him in the bull pen – a cell with no windows or ventilation, harassed him, left him overnight & released him. He’s been beaten dozens of times, yet he’s a wonderful person [meaning, he wasn’t bitter or angry]. Well, our ride is here.

Much love, Joyce   – for more about this summer and the Wilcox County Voting Rights struggle in 1965, read “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” by Maria Gitin (formerly Joyce Brians).

Alma Moton King recalls Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Many recall visits by Dr. King in 1965-66 to support the voting rights movement in Wilcox County . Several shared their memories with me for This Bright Light of Ours. Here is an excerpt “I remember him coming to the school (Camden Academy). I was a senior in 1965. One of our instructors prepared us for his visit. She taught us how to greet people in power, I can’t remember which teacher but she was a woman who had traveled to Europe and met dignitaries. She showed us a film of meeting one of the Presidents in Europe so we would know how to behave properly.

He came and spoke to us, we all shook his hand. When I got home I put my hand that he shook in a plastic bag and my mother couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t take it off. I remember he had the softest hands I had ever touched on a man, really soft.

I don’t remember him marching from school. During the same visit he did lead a march from the church I believe, but I wasn’t in it. I only remember shaking his hand, but I didn’t not march. We lived out in Possum Bend – once that bus left you didn’t have a ride home. I would walk down to the bottom of the hill to the bus station and off they’d go to the church or the courthouse. ” excerpt from an interview with Alma Moton King in 2008 for This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight by Maria Gitin, University of Alabama Press 2014. Read more

Alma King and Maria Gitin  2012

Alma King and Maria Gitin 2012

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.

Birmingham Childrens Crusade – Young Warriors.

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.  $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 ( 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
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.

Camden Academy Student Demonstration 1965

On March 31, 1965, Wilcox County students were peacefully demonstrating for their parents’ voting rights when they were attacked with smoke bombs by the sheriff’s posse, just outside the Camden City limits. This demonstration was organized at the request of the students, by Daniel Harrell and Major Johns, the two SCLC field directors who later directed my SCOPE project. There was a group that marched from St. Francis church outside the city limits and another that came down the hill from Camden Academy. The St. Francis group included young people from Gees Bend, Coy and other small county communities.

Jkt_Gitin_final cover

Update May 28, 2013: Thanks to Elbert Goode who identified the student in the center of the photo is Willie Parker of Coy, AL. May he rest in peace, knowing that he fought the good fight. Let’s find those two young women – thanks for your assistance! Please leave a comment if you know their names. This image discovered that the image is owned by the Associated Press, and was taken by the late great Bill Hudson, one of the top civil rights photographers. I have licensed the use of the image for my forthcoming book,This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, University of Alabama Press. Estimated publication date: February 15, 2014.

May everyone, especially children, be safe and secure, as we continue to work and to demonstrate for a nonviolent and equitable world.  Paz.

Some Stories from the Black Experience in Alabama 1965

When I was about 15 – maybe younger – my cousin headed the NAACP in New Orleans. Walking picket lines, having doors slammed in my face and being followed by thugs in really nice looking muscle cars….  It was a seminal time in my life. In Greenville, Alabama, some (white) guys in a pick-up truck offered me and my brother a ride as were walking down the highway: “Y’all wanna ride? Hop in the back.” We declined and ran back to the motel PDQ.  My mother told us never to do that again. -Duane deJoie, Berkeley, CA March 26, 2012 in an e-mail

Duane deJoie and Samuel Torres Jr Celebrate 30+ years of friendship

I would have been 31 that year you were there. I had been teaching in Barbour County earlier but back then they fired all teachers who became pregnant, even if you were married which I was. But something good happened in Barbour County, too. They came and asked teachers to register to vote, the local white people, not civil rights workers. That knocked me off my feet! Because in Wilcox County where I was born and Monroe where I moved with Bob, we couldn’t vote until long, long after that. – Jessie Crawford, Beatrice, AL March 29, 2010 – telephone conversation with Maria Gitin

Maria Gitin and Jessie Crawford – Selma Jubilee 2010

It was my Junior or Senior year when my parents were fired so they sent me over there to Selma to protect me.  Daddy was torn because he really wanted me to integrate Wilcox High but Mommy was fearful. We had gotten threatening phone calls, so it was decided that I should go over there.  Mother and Daddy both sued to get their teaching jobs and back pay. They both won eventually. He got to go back to teaching and got back pay. She had to stay out a number of years but eventually got some of her back pay, too.  But both were fired really because of he was active in The Movement. -Alicia Parrish Foster, Camden, AL, June 8, 2009 telephone conversation

Camden Academy teachers were fired and the buildings destroyed because of student and teacher civil rights action in the 60’s and 70’s

Making News, Causing Trouble

Reading Peter Buck’s [] memory of seeing a cross-burning put in mind the time I visited the site of a cross-burning in Camden, Alabama while working on the Summer Conference on Community Organizing and Political Education (SCOPE) project in the summer of 1965.

Making News, Causing Trouble

They told me that Rev. Ralph Abernathy, VP of SCLC and Treasurer of SCOPE wanted to speak with me. In a firm, resonant voice barely constraining fury he demanded to know how I expected they could let me stay when I kept breaking the rules. He recounted my expensive medical bills that cost precious dollars that were needed for bail and other expenses. Then, like a bolt of lighting from a dry sky, he read, nearly shouted this paragraph from an article published in the Washington Post on July 12th: “Nineteen year old Joyce Brians from San Francisco State College sleeps at night in Negro homes. By day, she goes out canvassing alone on rural red clay roads with local Negro boys who point out homes of potential voters.”

He droned on but I couldn’t hear anything else he said, knowing that this was just the type of sensationalism about “race mixing” that we had been warned about. I begged to stay, pleaded that I didn’t know how the reporter got those words from me and told the truth; I was tricked. But I didn’t give any details about how I was tricked. I told him that I would never cause a problem again and begged to be allowed to stay until the end of the project in August. After a while he relented but he told me that if he heard one more word, even one more word about me for anything at all, I could just pack my bags.

Paul Good, a Washington Post reporter had stopped by the Academy when only Connie and I were there. He asked if we wanted to walk up to Hangman’s Hill to see where the KKK had burned a cross during the student spring demonstrations. I remember thinking it must have scared the kids half to death and how brave they were to keep on protesting.

When we got to where I saw the burnt cross with a big circle of dark soot all around, I collapsed on a log. How could people use a symbol of Christian love and sacrifice as a symbol of hate and fear? Good, pulled out a six-pack and said, “Have a beer; it will calm you down.”  I had never taken a sip of alcohol on Camden Academy grounds before, picturing Rev. Threadgill and hearing his stern warnings.

Good began asking questions, lots of questions. At first, I told him flat out that we were not allowed to speak with reporters, that all questions should be addressed to the SCOPE project leaders. He said not to worry, that I wouldn’t be quoted, that this was just “deep background.” My doubts were clouded by the shock of seeing that burnt cross, the hated symbol of the KKK I had come to fight, the beer and most of all, the need to talk to someone outside the Movement.

Years later when I found both The San Francisco Chronicle and The Washington Post articles, I was even more grateful to Rev. Abernathy for letting me stay when I read the rest of my statement: “‘My happiest days are working out there,’ she says, ‘But there is a lot of frustration with SCOPE. They spend too much time talking about organizing and there isn’t enough action. I mean, the people here want to demonstration (sic) against police brutality but SCOPE leaders hold them back.’”

– from This Bright Light of Ours 1965 all rights reserved by author

© 2012

Reverend Thomas L. Threadgill (1926-1989) and Mrs. Mildred Locke Threadgill (1926-1977)

Mrs Gordon and Mrs Threadgill with their daughters and the Cole children

When I returned to California in 1965 to discover that I had been cited with felony trespassing and unlawful occupation of the Academy, especially after going to great lengths to get some letter of approval from my college to the Board of Education in Camden, I was shocked. But that shock was nothing compared to learning what happened to the Threadgills and the Academy as punishment for their role in the Wilcox County Freedom Fight.

Sheryl Threadgill told me about the white school board attacking Camden Academy. “The Academy? Our home and the chapel were torn down immediately after you left in August 1965. The Board of Education definitely initiated the tear down because the white ministers [and students like you] stayed there. My Dad had come down with a chronic lung disease from which he eventually died. He was getting treatment in the hospital in Tuskegee when they served the eviction notice. So he left the hospital to come home and move us.

My mother doesn’t get mentioned enough, Mrs. Mildred Locke Threadgill. She was quiet and soft spoken. It wasn’t easy for her to be an educator— She taught Home Economics and Bible at the Academy until she passed in 1977. She had to manage the household while my father was out being a community pastor. He was a dominant figure, but she was brilliant in her own right. She traveled to India and started the World Hunger Organization.  Judge Unita Blackwell’s memoir, which I read recently, tells stories that made me think of my mother and her work with the US Department of Agriculture food commodities. At first, even though they needed the food, people didn’t want to accept the commodities. My mother taught people how to improve those dry white beans, season them up into a real nice dish. She worked with Presbyterian Church youth on campus. She did all that while raising us, and maintaining the household with my father gone a lot. And she was under constant pressure for our family’s activism.”  – excerpt from 1965 This Little Light of Mine, This Bright Light of Ours, © Maria Gitin, all rights reserved.  Photo copyright Bob Fitch

Did you know or are you related to the Threadgills of Camden, Alabama? If so, please click on the Comment link below (in small print) and leave your story. Thank you!