Wilcox County “First” Electeds – Featuring Jesse Brooks of Coy, AL

It was twelve years after twelve years after the first group of candidates ran for office and thirteen years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the first African Americans were elected in Wilcox County Alabama. BAMA Kids presented a celebration of this historic event and of Wilcox County Black History February 21-22nd. For more information: Wilcox Area Chamber of Commerce.

Jesse Brooksr and his daughter Ethel Brooks, Freedom Fighters. Bob Fitch photo 1966 @ Stanford University Archives.

Jesse Brooks and his daughter Ethel Brooks, Freedom Fighters. Bob Fitch photo 1966 @ Stanford University Archives.

Farmer and military veteran Jesse Brooks was a man of action long before he was elected Tax Collector Of Wilcox County in 1978. Beginning in 1965, with his wife Julia and daughter Ethel, he organized voter education and registration activities, worked on veteran’s and farmer’s affairs, and risked hosting outside civil rights workers. Both Jesse Brooks and Ethel were natural and SCLC trained leaders in the Wilcox County movement. When I met Mr. Brooks, he was optimistic and said that would run only if necessary to get honest people into office. He did not run on the People’s Choice” slate in 1966 but worked hard for those who did. Despite great organizing, African American candidates for county office continued to be defeated until November 1978 when Jesse Brooks was elected Tax Collector, and Prince Arnold became Sheriff.

In January 1979, a formal inaugural ball and program was held in the Camden National Guard Armory on Whiskey Run Road to celebrate this great victory. When Jesse Brooks spoke he didn’t talk about his office or campaign promises. “I stand here before you as your tax collector,” he told his friends and neighbors. “But I also stand here tonight for someone else. I stand here as the grandson of a little Black slave boy who was brought down river from Charleston, South Carolina, to Lower Peachtree, Alabama, and sold for a thousand dollars. Thanks be to God there’s not going to be any more bidding off of human beings!”

It was a wildly emotional moment and Brooks stood in the center of it ramrod straight, letting the cheers and clamorous applause roll around him. It was a golden moment when the years of struggle, pain and despair were faced squarely and dismissed. The sufferings of that “little Black slave boy” had been vindicated.

Brooks did not fail to mention that what is ahead is more struggle, but “we plan to push forward until justice runs down like mighty waters,” using one of Dr. King’s favorite quotes from the prophet Amos. Mr. Brooks vowed to walk into the courthouse “just like John walked into Jerusalem” and begin working hard to build what he predicted will become “one of the best counties in God’s country.”

Compiled by Maria Gitin in Memory of Jesse Brooks, based on her personal friendship with the Brooks family, her book “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” www.thisbrightlightofours.com copyright University of Alabama Press 2014 and an article by Harriet Swift, “A New Day in Wilcox” http://beck.library.emory.edu/southernchanges/article.php?id=sc01-6_002 copyright Emory University 1979.

Remembering Kate Charley 1934-2013

For many years I spoke with Kate Charley, retired school teacher and community leader in Coy, AL at least once a month. She was beloved by many former students who visited often and was a forceful booster for projects to benefit the community such as the Bessie W. Munden Playground, the Camden Christian Academy and most of all, Little Zion #1 Missionary Baptist Church. In January 2013 at age 79,she passed of natural causes and was laid to rest in the church cemetery after a large, loving service. When I miss her voice, sharp insights and friendship, I re-read some of what she shared for “This Bright Light of Ours,” my book about Wilcox County voting rights in which her family was deeply involved.

Miss Kate Charley celebrated her African heritage

Miss Kate Charley celebrated her African heritage

Kate on Race Relations in Camden

“A bit of progress has been made, but schools are still segregated, housing is segregated. There’s been a little bit of progress in job opportunities in banks and government. But the white and Black employees don’t eat lunch together, and don’t get together outside of work. If we go in the bank now, they (whites) will treat us alright. They act polite enough in public, but don’t mix outside of work.

The KKK, segregationists are now lower key now. If they want something done – violence or whatever, they get a Black man to do it, give them money or drink or buy them a car. They get them to go agitate against the others who are trying to accomplish something, like our little school, the Camden Christian Academy. But they, the KKK, didn’t go away, they are just out in their hunting clubs, probably cryin’ in their beer.”

Kate on Loyalty

“ You are probably not a Dodgers fan because you live closer to San Francisco (Giants) but once I am loyal to something or someone, I stay loyal. I always liked the Dodgers. I had to get a new truck so when I was picking it out I said I believe I’ll take the blue one, you know “Dodger Blue”; that’s the truck I drive. I am loyal that way.”

Kate Charley, Maria Gitin, Iris Judson join in prayer for Wilcox County civil rights martyrs March 1, 2010

Kate Charley, Maria Gitin, Iris Judson join in prayer for Wilcox County civil rights martyrs March 1, 2010

Please share your remembrances of Kate and read more about this remarkable woman in “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” www.thisbrightlightofours.com

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/


In Memory of W. Kate Charley – Community Leader, Coy AL

Kate (right) marches with  Iris Judson in high spirits, March 1, 2010, Camden, AL

Kate Charley (right) marches with Iris Judson in high spirits, during the Martin Luther King Jr Commemorative March and Mass Meeting Camden, AL March 1, 2012

Willie Kate Charley of Coy AL, known to most simply as “Kate” or “Ms Charley, ” born in 1934, peacefully passed from this world on February 11, 2013 in her own home, of natural causes and on her own terms. She was unapologetic about her choice to stay single, and as a retired teacher and tireless community activist, Kate enjoyed the affection of countless students, many “adopted” nieces, nephews and grandchildren and her sister congregants.  She was devoted to her church and to her other causes which focussed on improving the lives of  youth. Often when I’d call she had just finished making a pie to take to a church event, including her famous her famous “stick to your  ribs” (and teeth!) coconut pie.

Kate was generous, wise, kind and funny.  She once told me, “I keep myself busy to keep me out of devilment.” Kate loved to view the Fall Foliage in New England, and to visit the successes of her students. She also liked to race around the back roads of Wilcox County in her “Dodger Blue” pick-up truck, always on a mission to do some good deed. About her truck, she explained, “I always liked the Dodgers. I had to get a new truck – so when I was picking it out I said, I believe I’ll take the blue one; you know I am loyal that way.”

Kate was proud of her parents, Leona Brooks Charley and Joel Wentworth Charley, direct involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, including the risky work of transporting people to register to vote and of housing civil rights workers, while Kate herself chose to uplift the community through a lifetime of teaching and mentoring young people.

I had the honor to meet and the joy to get to know Kate through my search for folks I lived and worked with when I served as an SCLC student civil rights worker in Wilcox County during the tumultuous summer of 1965. We visited in person in 2008 and again in 2010 for the 45th Commemorative March & Mass Meeting in Camden, and enjoyed many long telephone conversations over the years. Her contributions to my forthcoming book, This Bright Light of Ours, University of Alabama Press 2014, are invaluable.

All who know Kate will remember her lively wit, energetic spirit and her devotion to her church, Little Zion in Coy. Contributions in her memory may be made online to the Bessie W. Munden Playground [http://www.bessiewmundenrecreationalpark.com] and Frank Smiley Scholarship Fund at the Black Belt Community Foundation [http://www.blackbeltfound.org/}. W. Kate Charley was a true Woman of Valor, as we say in the Jewish tradition. May she rest in blessed memory and may all who mourn be comforted and inspired to move forward with the teachings of her exemplary life.


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.

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.

In Memory of Dan & Juanita Harrell

All of us student civil rights workers thought that Daniel Harrell and his wife Juanita were the most glamorous couple in Wilcox County during the summer of 1965. Everyone agreed Juanita was as smart as she was beautiful. They both had been to college at Tuskegee Institute but could communicate with country folk and young children as easily as with northern college students.

Dan Harrell SCLC Field Director
Antioch Baptist Church 1966
copyright Bob Fitch http://www.bobfitchphotos.com

According to their son Eddie, Juanita caught Valley Fever during a trip to California to visit relatives before he was born and died when he was scarcely a year old. Long time resident retired teacher Kate Charley told me, “Dan was one of the stalwarts who got things moving and organized. Juanita died young; it was very sad; they had a young son. Dan died in a terrible tragedy. There was a little black nightclub. Dan was in there trying to get people to come to some activity for the Movement and he got shot. They said it was a personal dispute, but I don’t believe that. We heard that there were some whites who got blacks to do their dirty business for them.”

As SCLC staff and as a private citizen, Dan gave his all to try to improve the lives of black folks in Wilcox County from early 1964 until his murder in 1979, shortly after he lost an election for county commissioner that they say was rigged . Most people who recall Dan and Juanita agree that they were major leaders, organizers and teachers, Many feel that their tragic deaths eclipsed other, better memories.

Cleo “Sandy” Brooks, minister and realtor in Coy recalled Dan in 2009. “Dan and I worked in 1971 and 1972 to fight for better schools; they were in sorry shape. We boycotted all the public schools until the state came in to take over. We closed that segregated system down.

“Dan accomplished a lot more than he gets credit for. He was able build a lot of homes through the Federal Housing Authority project. I am still trying to work to expand on that. Did you know that we formed the Coy Land Movement and bought forty acres that is still held in the name of SCLC? I live in one of those houses and there are other tracts all over the Coy area. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson gave an award to us for building housing for blacks in our community. Coy really was the epicenter of the Wilcox County Civil Rights Movement. We had more people on the bridge on Bloody Sunday than any other community and that’s a fact. No one knows that.” – Cleo Brooks (d. 2010)

Dan treated my then boyfriend Bob like a son and at the end of our summer project, they asked both of us to stay. We debated but believed that the time had come for white folks to leave The Movement and so with deep regret, we left two of the bravest and best civil rights leaders we had the privilege of working with. They live on in our hearts and that of their families.

© Maria Gitin 2012 all rights reserved, excerpt from This Bright Light of Ours 1965