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 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

4th of July 1965 at the Bessie W. Munden Playground

excerpt from This Little Light of Mine, This Bright Light of Ours: Stories of the Wilcox County Voting Rights Struggle

I slipped into the cloudy lukewarm unfiltered water with leaves and pine needles floating all around. Nearly fifty of us filled up the pool and stirred up the gritty dirt collected on the bottom, but the water was cooler than the 90 degree air and it was ours for the moment.  I thought we were deep in the woods; later I learned that it was only on the edge of town a little ways off of Highway 221. As with all black areas, the roads were unpaved, and there were no flush toilets or drinking fountains, just a pump for filling the pool. The Bessie M. Munden Playground was named for an early Camden Academy teacher who collected money from the other teachers to build this park so that the children would have someplace to play.

Camden Kids 2008

The little kids leapt from the edge into my arms. Then I tried to teach them to float and paddle on their backs. The water seemed too dirty to put your face in although naturally they did. We splashed and sang and yelled, feeling far away from the white people gathered at the fairgrounds to shoot off firecrackers. “Crackers with firecrackers, shootin’ off their mouths” someone quipped. We were supposed to love everybody like Dr. King said, but it was getting harder every day.

As he waved his ever-present pipe in the air, Dan Harrell told us proudly, “You know this is historic, integrating this pool. Some day because of what you all are doing this summer, all the children of Camden will have nice places to play, to swim, to go to school — black and white together. You enjoy your day, we gotta’ go to Selma to meet with Rev. Blackwell.” That couldn’t be good news. Rev. Blackwell was Program Director for SCLC and this was a holiday weekend.

Children at EM Parrish Day Care Center: L to R

Mylka Hayden, Isaiah Love, Richard Chatmon, Torrence Phillips, Jamarion Wright

Photo by Samuel Torres Jr ©2008.

Bessie W. Munden Park

We stayed until dusk, eating watermelon, singing, talking. Charles Nettles started spitting watermelon seeds, mocking the stereotype of an old black man while we all laughed. Near sunset we sang songs like I Love Everybody and Change is a Comin. For a few hours here in the woods it felt that maybe we could hurry up that change in Camden. Change was being hard fought but like the song says, there ain’t no way it isn’t going to come.

Independence Day at Bessie W. Munden Playground

Excerpt from This Bright Light of Ours, a memoir and stories of the Wilcox County Alabama Voting Rights Movement 1965:

Monday 5th of July at the Playground

We all gathered at the blacks only playground for a barbecue picnic. It was a beautiful day made more so because they told us that we integrated the pool, being the first time that blacks and whites swam together. I slipped into the cloudy lukewarm unfiltered water with leaves and pine needles floating all around. Nearly fifty of us filled up the pool and stirred up the gritty dirt collected on the bottom, but the water was cooler than the 90 degree air and it was ours for the moment.  I thought we were deep in the woods; later I learned that it was only on the edge of town a little ways off of Highway 221. As with all black areas, the roads were unpaved, and there were no flush toilets or drinking fountains, just a pump for filling the pool. The Bessie M. Munden Playground was named for an early teacher who collected money from the other teachers so that the children would have someplace to play.

I loved watching the little kids leap from the edge into my arms then trying to teach them to float and paddle on their backs. The water seemed too dirty to put your face in although of course they did. We splashed and sang and yelled, feeling far away from the white people gathered at the fairgrounds to shoot off firecrackers. “Crackers with firecrackers, shootin’ off their mouths” someone quipped. We were supposed to love everybody like Dr. King said, but it was getting harder every day.

Dan Harrell and Juanita came by for a while. Juanita was so pretty! It was obvious that she and Dan were deeply in love as well as committed to The Movement. They headed our voter registration project, ran literacy classes and worked on bringing in federal funding. Dan was in charge of SCOPE in several counties and yet we saw him several times a week. He wore his slacks and white short sleeved shirt, still dressed to meet SCLC’s trademark respectability requirements, even to a picnic.

As he waved his ever present pipe in the air, Dan told us proudly, “You know this is historic, integrating this pool. Some day because of what you all are doing this summer, all the children of Camden will have nice places to play, to swim, to go to school – black and white together. You enjoy your day, we gotta go to Selma to meet with Rev. Blackwell.” That couldn’t be good news. Rev. Blackwell was Program Director for SCLC and this was a weekend. But off they drove in their yellow two-door Chevy that SCLC provided. It gave leaders a certain status with the locals if they had nice cars. It also really infuriated the whites to see blacks in good cars.

We stayed until dusk, eating watermelon, singing, talking. Some of the young men made jokes about their love of watermelon.  Near sunset we sang some songs like I Love Everybody and Change is a Comin. For a few hours here in the woods it felt that maybe we could hurry up that change in Camden. Change was being hard fought but like the song said, there was no way it wasn’t going to come.

SCLC photographer Bob Fitch captured the beauty and pride of the children six months later. We were not allowed to take photos that summer.

www.BobFitchPhoto.com

copyright Bob Fitch, used by permission.