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.

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.

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

Civil rights worker & student reunion in corn field

When I met Wilcox County Commissioner John L. Matthews, he reminded me of a day from that long ago

But I thought Camden was this way!

summer that I had forgotten, given that every day was filled with long, long treks through wooded rural roads with potential danger on every side. He and his father and brothers were working in their corn field out in Pebble Hill when his father saw me, Bob and a non-local black youth (likely a temporary SNCC worker) walking deeper into the woods instead of toward the highway and our ride back to town.

John recalls, “Evening was upon us and night was not long in coming. You were heading into the community where the roadway and trails lead to a large wooded area. Daddy knew you didn’t have a clue where you were or what direction you were going.”

“He told me, ‘Son, go get the truck and get those civil rights workers off the road before something happens to them”.

Now I remember, this good looking skinny but muscular sixteen-year old pulled up in an old truck asks where we are headed. We say Antioch Baptist church and he tells us, “Get in.”

“Yes, I imagine we did what you recommended. The first principle of our field worker training was follow the locals lead,” I reminded myself.

John laughed , “I was glad you all jammed into the cab with me because there was just a flat bed in back and it would have been obvious who you were. So we four piled in the cab of that old ’56 green Chevrolet pickup and off we went. It was my first contact with civil rights workers.” What John and his father did that day was incredibly brave and dangerous. Integrated vehicles were frequently targeted, shot at and run off of the road in Wilcox County. In March 2010, John and I revisited the scene of our first meeting as part of the Wilcox County Freedom Fighters  Commemoration.

© Maria Gitin, this story is an excerpt from her unpublished book, This Bright Light of Ours. Publication announcement forthcoming

Please contact author for permission to reproduce. For speaking engagements and readings contact: msgitin@mariagitin.com