Womens History: Every Day

MRS Jessie Johnson Crawford Shares Some Personal History About Education in Alabama

As told to Maria Gitin March 26, 2010

Selma Jubilee 2010: Philip Young, Betty Anderson, Jessie Crawford, Maria Gitin (Robert Powell behind), Joy Crawford Washington

Born and raised in Wilcox County Alabama one of my favorite people on earth is Mrs. Jessie Crawford, mother of Joy Washington, Debbie Porter, and Jessietta Thomas, wife of Bob Crawford Jr and daughter in law of Bob and Georgia Crawford Senior.

JC: You know, Mr. William James Edwards, he changed my whole life. Because of that Snow Hill school he built, I turned in a completely different direction than I might otherwise have. I went to that school from sixth-twelfth grade. Yes, it was a public school by then, but that I got to go there made a difference. Here’s how it was.

When I was little, we lived way up in Ackerville, about 15 miles NE of Selma. There were no school busses for black children so I couldn’t go to a regular elementary school which was too more than 20 miles away.We had a little school that was held at the Sanctified Church, they call it Holiness now, but back then it was Sanctified. It was about six miles I guess. My daddy would ride me over on his mule as far as the Big Branch swamp, then I’d cross and he’d watch me get across alright. In the afternoon, he’d come back and wait for me to crossagain and then carry me home. Every day.

Traffic was too bad on Highway 21 East because it was under construction. I would have had to go 8 miles around to go to the Snow Hill elementary so that’s why I went to Sanctified Elementary up until the 6thgrade. We lived about 20 miles from Snow Hill and like I said, there were no busses for black children, they would just drive right past us walking along.

We lived on some white people’s place, the Wallaces. They were very nice to us. We just gave them some of our corn and chickens and vegetables. They didn’t pressure us. It was alright.

But, if not for Snow Hill, my education could have ended right therein sixth grade. Likely I would have stayed in Ackerville, got married,had children young.

My father’s brother, my Uncle bought some acreage on a hill. It had good drainage. He already had some land so he offered it to my father and we moved, and built a little house. It was just six miles to Snow Hill so I was able to complete my education there. We moved just in time for me to go to high school.

They had purchased their own school bus, “The Blue Goose” we called it, and they used a student driver but (at least) we had our own bus. Mr Wilson was the principal the year I entered, that would have been —– I graduated in 1953 age 18 and went on to college, became a teacher. If I hadn’t had the opportunity to go to that high school, that never would have happened.

MG: How old were you in the summer of 1965? We met little Debbie and Bob Jr but not you or Joy.

JS: I would have been 31 that year. I had been working, teaching in Barbour County earlier. Back then, in 1961 they fired me because I became pregnant. But something good happened in Barbour, too.

They came and asked black (teachers or everyone?) to register to vote, the local white people, not civil rights workers. That knocked me off my feet! Because in Wilcox where I was born and Monroe where I moved with Bob, we couldn’t vote until long long after that.

Where was I that summer? I had been working for the Demopolis School system but they fired me because I got pregnant with Joy. She was born August 21, 196—(year committed or Joy’s privacy) so I was home with her when he went over to Wilcox to see his parents. I went back to teaching and got fired again in 1970 when I had Jessietta.


For more about the Crawford family: “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” www.thisbrightlightofours.com

For more about JW Edwards and Snow Hill “Fallen Prince by Donald P Stone”: https://www.amazon.com/Fallen-Prince-Education-Afro-American-Nationality/dp/0962153

This Bright Light of Ours for first time in Watsonville April 25th as part of Vote! Exhibit and Celebration


Vote! Your Vote is Your Voice / ¡Vote!  Su Voto es Su Voz, is an exhibit of art and historic artifacts with films and educational programs about historic and current voting rights issues, to run April 3-May 26, 2019 at Pajaro Valley Arts gallery, 37 Sudden Street, Watsonville, CA 95076 

Thursday April 25th 6-8 PM This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight – A special presentation 

NOTE SPECIAL LOCATION: Watsonville Civic Building Community Room (4th Floor)

As part of Pajaro Valley Arts “Vote! Your Voice is Your Vote” exhibit, former Watsonville resident and nationally known author and speaker, civil rights veteran Maria Gitin will present historic images and stories from the grassroots activists of rural Alabama in the 1965 struggle for voting rights. Gitin worked in and will cover the less known but violent period of the Civil Rights Movement following the March to Montgomery and prior to President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A freshman at San Francisco State College, Gitin felt called to action after witnessing violent state troopers attack peaceful voting rights demonstrators in Selma, Alabama. She joined a summer voter registration and education project along with 400 other college students. After training in Atlanta, from dignitaries including Martin Luther King Jr. himself, she was assigned to rural Wilcox County where the majority African American citizens were attacked, fired and arrested for simply attempting to register to vote. Gitin spent the summer working and walking with courageous local Black activists and sometimes running from the Ku Klux Klan. Her memoir of that summer, “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” was published by University of Alabama Press in 2014. Since that time, Gitin has presented more than fifty times including as keynote speaker for the US Army Presidio of Monterey, King County Washington, the National Park Service in Selma and Emory University. This is her first slide show presentation in Watsonville. 
More about Vote! Your Voice is Your Vote/ ¡Vote! Su Voto es Su Voz Exhibit and presentations 

Originally co-imagined with Bob Fitch, I’m honored to serve as both curator and presenter of this important exhibit.   Vote! seeks to educate, inspire, and develop greater interest in the nonpartisan democratic process. We draw on the involvement of current and former Watsonville residents who wein the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and Chicano Voting Rights action of the 1980’. We will share our experiences through art, educational panels, and film.  Selections of Bob Fitch photos and Maria Gitin’s civil rights movement archives illustrate their experience as young voting rights workers in Alabama. Artifacts from Santa Cruz County Elections Clerk Gail Pellerin and Watsonville City Clerk Beatriz Vasquez Flores will be on display. A visual timeline developed by local artists guides visitors through voting rights history. Contemporary art work by regional artists highlights current events and responds to the question: What does the right to vote mean to me?

All events are free, bilingual and appropriate for students as well as adults.  Contributions to Pajaro Valley Arts free bilingual programs are always welcome. Sponsorship opportunities are available.

For interviews and information about the exhibit and educational programs:
Maria Gitin msgitin@mariagitin.com

www.pvaarts.org  or call the gallery: 831.722.3062

Jkt_Gitin_final cover

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). http://www.thisbrightlightofours.com

Antioch Baptist Church Attacked and Shot Up July 1965

Local youth examine one of the shotgun blasts from attack on Antioch Baptist Church while local civil rights activists slept inside.

Local youth (Roosevelt Washington right) examine one of the shotgun blasts the morning after an attack on civil rights activists who had been sleeping inside the SCLC-SCOPE office. Antioch Baptist Church, Camden AL July 1965. J. Worcester photo.

While much more about this story, in the words of survivors and witnesses, is in my book, “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” www.thisbrightlightofours.com, Roosevelt Wilson one of the two local youth activists standing in the doorway next to the shotgun blast the next morning. Please leave a comment if you can identify the young lady. We were all in shock at the brutal attack on our Baptist Church sanctuary and office that left one of our SClC co-workers in the hospital for months. Photo by John Worcester who worked with SCLC SCOPE in 1965. Please post replies here in comment box. Thank you!

Additional information about this event:https://thislittlelight1965.wordpress.com/2014/06/29/boys-attacked-in-church-june-29-1965/

George Ow Jr to Introduce Maria Gitin at Bookshop Santa Cruz

Community Leader and diversity champion George Ow Jr. will introduce Maria Gitin’s reading and book signing event at Bookshop Santa Cruz
Monday August 11th 7:30 PM
Free and open to All

Read More about the Book: http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/news/ci_26286254/local-writer-maria-gitin-looks-back-at-civil

Daniel Dodge Sr, Maria Gitin, Felipe Hernandez, Mavel Arujo and George Ow Jr NAACP Banquet 2014

Daniel Dodge Sr, Maria Gitin, Felipe Hernandez, Mavel Arujo and George Ow Jr NAACP Banquet 2014

Bookshop SC event flyer

More Praise for “This Bright Light of Ours”


“THIS BRIGHT LIGHT OF OURS is a thoughtful, concise, multi-level, artful and thoroughly researched narrative of Maria Gitin’s summer as an Anglo volunteer voter registration worker in Camden, AL.  With candid, almost innocent precision, she exposes her multi-adventure summer experience which includes: lives of her co-workers and an intimate, historic and present exposé of African Americans in a rural back-water town challenging brutal and cleverly subtle oppression. This book is captivating because it presents so many documented stories about courageous ‘ordinary’ people. “  – Bob Fitch, photojournalist, My Eyes Have Seen [correct title, Glide Publishing, 1972]  May 2, 2014

I just finished reading the book and I loved it. At numerous points it had me in tears. And I very deeply appreciate your focus on the numerous and varied foot soldiers. Those are the stories most easily forgotten and too seldom told. – Gordon Gibson, Unitarian pastor, civil rights activist, Knoxville, TN – April 14, 2014

I’ve just bought your book and started to read it. It is absolutely compelling. I couldn’t put it down! I admire you greatly for your achievement and perseverance in realizing your vision.The book is clearly organized and written. Surely it will serve as a testimony of that vital time for generations to come.– Mary Swope, retired fine arts teacher, SCOPE volunteer. San Francisco, CA April 16, 2014

Maria Gitin tells her own story on her own terms, giving readers an honest rendering of one woman’s experience on the front lines of struggle against a deeply entrenched system of racial oppression.  Her book is a worthy companion piece to Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi and Ned Cobb’s superb Alabama narrative All God’s Dangers. 

Clarence Mohr, Chairman, History Department, University of South Alabama,
Mobile, AL – April 8, 2014

More about the book: www.thisbrightlightofours.com

lorez Final book coverJkt_Gitin_final


Reconsidering President Johnson on Memorial Day

When we arrived in Wilcox County, Alabama in June 1965 to join a team of local leaders, SCLC and SNCC workers in a massive voter registration drive, I had a very low opinion of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Our SCOPE project, planned by Hosea Williams of SCLC, had counted on the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to protect us and the community while we walked together to the courthouse to register the 79% disenfranchised voters of the county. All over the South, similar teams of civil rights workers and local leaders were facing the same challenge. My opinion was that President Johnson and Congress were dragging their feet, athough my new boyfriend Bob told me that he saw Johnson on television pushing for the proposed Act in May.  He and Major Johns, one of our project directors, watched the speech together at Rev & Mrs Frank Smith’s home in Lower Peachtree. Bob told me, “I can’t believe that cracker actually said We shall overcome!” So I had to reconsider. Neither of us were aware that Johnson had been pushing for civil rights legislation for two years before we noticed him. This article from the Sunday NY Times is well worth reading in its entirety. [See link below]

L.B.J.’s Gettysburg Address

Excerpted from an article By DAVID M. SHRIBMAN

New York Times – Analysis News

MAY 24, 2013

Fifty years ago, on Memorial Day in 1963, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a speech in Gettysburg, Pa., that foreshadowed profound changes that would be achieved in only 13 months and that mark us still.

“One hundred years ago, the slave was freed,” Johnson said at the cemetery in a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. “One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin.”

With those two sentences, Johnson accomplished two things. He answered King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” And he signaled where the later Johnson administration might lead, which was to the legislation now known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Six months later, after Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson became president and vowed to press ahead on civil rights, saying that was what the presidency was for — even though he was a Southern Democrat and many of his Congressional allies were devout segregationists.

Johnson’s speech directly addressed King: “The Negro today asks justice. We do not answer him — we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil — when we reply to the Negro by asking, ‘Patience.’ It is empty to plead that the solution to the dilemmas of the present rests on the hands of the clock.”…The speech was given on Memorial Day, May 30, 1963, not on the anniversary of a battle now regarded as a turning point in the Civil War. Johnson’s visit to Gettysburg was a helicopter trip that took but 2 hours and 34 minutes, start to finish, but it was indicative of the bigger journey he would take as president.

Pres Johnson Memorial Day 1963

Pres Johnson Memorial Day 1963

The speech was given on Memorial Day, May 30, 1963, not on the anniversary of a battle now regarded as a turning point in the Civil War. Johnson’s visit to Gettysburg was a helicopter trip that took but 2 hours and 34 minutes, start to finish, but it was indicative of the bigger journey he would take as president.

For full text and audio recording: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/sunday-review/at-gettysburg-johnson-marked-memorial-day-and-the-future.html?hpw

Photo copyright Batteson/Corbis

Antioch Baptist Church, Camden AL – 143 Years Strong

From our first sleepless night on the floor of Antioch Baptist Church in June 1965, we voter registration field workers considered the church our home. Even after men with guns shot up the church, even after they attacked local youth co-workers who were guarding the building, even after David Colston was murdered in the parking lot in 1966 – Antioch Baptist felt like the one safe place in Camden for civil rights workers. Whatever religion we had (or didn’t have) before The Movement, once we were in Alabama, we all became Baptists. Freedom songs, hymns, prayers and petitions filled the air. Local leaders and brave pastors like Rev. SJ Freeman welcomed mass meetings, and even hosted Martin Luther King Jr, defending the right to assemble against the powers that tried to abolish this freedom of speech. Most importantly, the community persevered and preserved what is now one of the oldest active congregations in Wilcox County.

Antioch Baptist Church during renovation

Antioch Baptist Church during renovation

Antioch Baptist Church after renovation - John Matthews was one of several community leaders who worked on restoration and historic designation.
Antioch Baptist Church after renovation – John Matthews was one of several community leaders who worked on restoration and historic designation.

Mrs Rosetta Angion of Coy, Alabama – Civil Rights Hero

When I first spoke with Mrs Angion in 2009 she was in her late 70’s. She is a native of Coy, Alabama and the mother of 16 children. Mrs. Angion recalled the joy of being part of the Movement and the thrill of the victories from the long struggle. “One of the best days I will always remember is the day we marched with John Lewis. He walked with us right up to the courthouse and then he walked in—we could see him walking around inside where none of us had gotten inside before. That gave us a lot of courage; let me tell you. We were so proud that day! Now you go up there and there is Black people working in the courthouse, some of them are my relations. That I lived to see the day: yes, yes, yes!

Mrs Rosetta Angion at home where we picked up canvassing lists and potential voters in Summer 1965

There has been a BIG change since black people became citizens, able to vote, have a voice altogether like it should be. I am able to go to the polls. Those that are able to work can get a job. We are able to go in the courthouse and use the restrooms. I feel a lot safer. I know that Black people have rights just like white people, not every thing belongs to them.  We were just about coming out from under the hard slavery. I don’t think either my grandparents or parents were in slavery but my great grandparents were What really needs to happen now , people need to come together, work together and don’t be fighting against the other (within the Black community). Most of the ones that really benefitted and got the good jobs didn’t march and all that. I’m one of the few left that was there, who remembers it all. They should learn about our history. Keep working, it’s not over with. Keep tryin’ to help each other. Thank you,thank you kindly. – June 2, 2009

© Maria Gitin 2008. Excerpt from This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Wilcox County Freedom Fight. All rights reserved.