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.

Camden Alabama Civil Rights Demonstrations Continue April 1965

April 9, 1965 – Camden 

Martin Luther King Jr spoke at Antioch Baptist Church in conjunction with a march that same day. It was the first time Wilcox County demonstrators were able to secure a permit to march. 600 marchers marched from the church to the courthouse.

Source: Birmingham Civil Rights Museum, Dorothy Walker, Alabama Historical Society in an e-mail to author dated 6.9.09

April 10, 1965 – Camden

Smoke Bombs Halt New Wave of Alabama Marchers

Camden Academy students Ralph Eggleston and Charles Mimms led a large march with some out of area supporters.  Jim “Arkansas” Benston, a white youth working with Selma SNCC, was beaten by Camden city police.

Source: Chicago Defender special by Leon Daniel

Excerpted from his own account – “Strider”/”Arkansas”/Jim Benston, a white Southern youth activist, wrote to me on February 18, 2010: 

So, that morning, 10th? I was commissioned to drive the van to Camden (from Selma),take these fresh kids with me & look out for them. No leadership training, no specified authority. Only (told me the) location of Camden Academy, & “support them.” I don’t remember who told me to take the van & its occupants to Camden. Maybe (James) Orange had come back into town.

So there I was, in charge of 3 or 4 Yankee kids who just showed up [including Bob Block, Richard Stephenson and Bruce Hartford], no experience;  3 or 4 Selma kids [including Charles Bonner, Amos Snell], experienced but younger, & me, at 20;going into battle in a town I had never been to, & knew nobody.  “Just do it!”  OK!

I only remember 2 adults from Camden, {probably there were more} the minister, who may have also been a teacher [Rev Thomas Threadgill and/ or Daniel Harrell], and a woman, probably in her 40s. It seems that we were about 30 or 35 total, mostly kids. We marched into town & were met by Mayor Reg (Albritton) & his boys, and a few Deputies, perhaps under separate authority. I recall some very brief speechifying, & then the minister kneeled us down to pray. There came a defining moment in my life.

A little girl, about age 12 was on my right, holding my hand.  One deputy strode up and stuck his gun in her face. His words were severe, which I do remember, or think I remember, it was so firmly planted in my Being. The deputy stuck his shotgun, [tear gas gun?]  into her face & spewed his words. In response to his threat of imminent murder, she squeezed my hand, then just held it firmly, looked into his eyes, and spoke calmly. “Mister, you do what you gotta do,  but I ain’t movin’ for nobody.” Those heart words almost knocked him off his feet.  He staggered back as though he had been smashed in the face by a beer bottle.A minute or two later came the tear gas. Everybody bolted, this was army combat tear gas, & thicker than on the Bridge in Selma.  There was no wind, Crying, running, vomiting, stumbling.   My only guide was that unknown little girl.  I could NOT let her down. so, I started singing, “Ain’t gonna let no tear gas  turn me ’round,  turn me ’round, turn me ’round,Ain’t gonna let no tear gas turn me ’round.I’m gonna keep on a walkin’   keep on a talkin’ Marchin’ up to Freedom Land !”

Within 10 seconds everyone was back on the line, singin’, clappin’ dancin,’  Marchin’ up to Freedom Land.That is when, & why the cops regrouped  &  came after me.They broke our armlock first, & then went for my head. In his book, “White Kids.” Reavis describes my being singled out and beaten in Demopolis later that summer, which was so similar to Camden that I had totally forgotten about it until I read (& edited) his book.

My being beaten was on Huntley-Brinkley that night,  & was seen by my grandmother’s sister in Birmingham. My Grandmorther, Mrs. Sam Wallace, was the President of the UDC    – that’s  United Daughters of the Confederacy  –  in Birmingham. My Aunt Jean from Chattanooga was visiting when they saw me on national news. They decided my beating and arrest was appropriate, & sent a bible to the Camden white folks’s church to deliver to me. – © James Benston 2010.

Contact “Strider” Benston and read more of his stories at http://striderben.wordpress.com/

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April 12, 1965 – Camden

Rev Jonathan Daniels, who would be murdered August 20th in nearby Haneyville, ventured with his family into a large crowd that was demonstrating downtown Camden where they were tear-gassed. This was the fourth or fifth day in a row of marches.

Source: Taylor Branch, pg 210, At Canaan’s Edge.

Nonviolent Protesters Attacked by Elected Officials with Smoke Bombs – Camden AL Wed March 31, 1965

On March 31, 1965, Wilcox County, AL student and adult demonstrators conducted a dual march to protest lack of voting rights and school inequality. Previous marches, led by locals with invited guests Dr. Martin Luther King Jr of SCLC and John Lewis of SNCC, had managed to secure permits. Denied permits without “out of town” celebrity leaders, the locals determined to proceed with their march. Mayor Reg Albritton and local white men recruited to form a sheriff’s posse attacked marchers by throwing smoke bombs in their route. Local authorities used smoke bombs and tear gas interchangeably to confuse and frighten demonstrators. Experienced demonstrators carried wet towels to help clear stinging tear gas from their eyes.

Student leaders Sim Pettway Sr and Ralph Eggleston of Camden Academy organized this particular march along with adult leaders Daniel Harrell and Major Johns, SCLC field directors who later directed our SCOPE project. One group marched from St. Francis church on Highway 221 the city limits and another that came down the hill on the opposite side of town with a plan to demonstrate in front of the courthouse. Students and adults from Camden, Coy, Gees Bend, and Boling Springs came from St Francis, while students marched from Camden Academy, a K-12 Presbyterian Mission School for Black students.

Thanks to Elbert Goode, we know that the central male student is the late Willie Parker of Coy, AL. This photo was taken by the late great Bill Hudson, one of the top civil rights photographers of the era and is copyright by the Associated Press. I have licensed the use of the image for my forthcoming book, This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Wilcox County Freedom Fight, University of Alabama Press, 2014.cover book draft

May Daniel Harrell, Major Johns, Willie Parker and all of the foot soldiers of the Wilcox County Freedom Fight who died too young rest in peace knowing that they fought the good fight and that they are remembered.

If you participated in this demonstration or can identify the two young women facing the camera, please leave a comment by clicking on the comment link below. Let’s find those two young women – thanks for your assistance!

© Maria Gitin. All rights reserved. 

In Memory of Civil Rights Martyr David Colston Sr., Camden, AL January 23, 1966

scope078 jetDeath threats, firebombing, incarceration and assassination of Southern Blacks seeking freedom and equality continued from the time of enslavement until long after most people believe The Civil Rights Movement ended. Alabama is steeped in the blood of martyrs who have never made the history books, but they were heroes to us. The fact that death was a potential price to be paid by Freedom Fighters was always on our minds.

Mr. David Colston, age 32, was a local resident who had participated in Wilcox County voting rights protests. He and his family were pulling into the parking area outside Antioch Baptist Church to attend a civil rights mass meeting. A white farmer, Jim Reeves, deliberately bumped Colston’s car. When Colston got out to protest, Reeves shot Mr. Colston in the head at close range in front of the Colston family and dozens of community members coming out of the church.

SCLC leader, Daniel Harrell and local leader Rev. Frank Smith were leaders of the meeting in the church. After the police took Reeves into “protective custody.” Harrell and Smith reconvened the mass meeting with a eulogy for Mr. Colston and called for a march the next day. Camden native , King scholar and author, Lewis V. Baldwin, who was still in high school at the time, recalled the march of hundreds of Wilcox County Black residents, as being very solemn, almost silent.

The next day, SCLC Photographer Bob Fitch arrived with Martin Luther King Jr., to take the photos that appeared in Jet Magazine. Fitch told me that the family was devastated but grateful for King’s consoling visit.

Nearly 50 years later, Colston’s namesake nephew, David Colston, was elected as the first Black representative from Wilcox County to serve in the Alabama State Legislature. Of all the civil rights murders in the South in the 1960’s, the Colston assassination is recalled most vividly by the then youn Wilcox County Freedom Fighters. Typical of the times, despite witnesses, the murderer was acquitted. May the Colston family, their relatives and neighbors draw some comfort from knowing that David Colston’s sacrifice is mourned by many of us who continue to fight for racial justice.

Update August 2013: Despite a conservative backlash that consistently drives out the majority of promising young Democrats, David Colston has fulfilled the dream first, of being an Alabama state trooper who truly understands justice and now, of continuing to serve in the statehouse in Montgomery. He will run for a second term in 2014. With the outcry and awareness generated by the recent Supreme Court decision on the 1965 Voting Rights Act http: and the tragic Trayvon Martin case, perhaps good-hearted, strong and smart Alabamans of all races will vote for progress during the 3013 November’s mid-term elections. The future is in your hands: move forward or continue a slide backwards.

Bob, Dan & The Man with a Gun

 

Dan Harrell

 

Excerpt from This Little Light of Mine, This Bright Light of Ours ©mariagitin2010

Photo ©Bob Fitch 1966

http://www.BobFitchPhoto.com

My boyfriend Bob Block was surprised and didn’t seem especially pleased to see me when we hooked up in Pine Apple. He looked at my legs and shoes and said, “You’re gonna hafta keep up. We don’t have all summer, you know.” That summer, it seemed like every day lasted for an eternity, the way it does when you are a child.  But Bob was right, pretty soon the Voting Rights Bill would pass and federal examiners would come help these folks register, backed up by federal troops if necessary. Maybe they wouldn’t need us anymore.

Later, while John G. drove me back to the church before taking Bob down to Lower Peachtree, Bob told me what had happened to him yesterday.

“Dan and I were walking along when this white guy appears out of nowhere. I mean we didn’t hear him comin’, see a truck, nothing. Just like that, he takes his pistol, raises it right to Harrell’s head and presses it against his temple.”

“You know I would kill you as soon as look at you, doncha?”

“I believe I do,” was all that Dan replied.

“Man, that Dan, he was so cool. I was just about to beg and cry myself.”

Bob said as the seconds ticked into years he saw himself just as dead as Dan right there on that country lane, knowing this guy would never be caught or punished.

“And”, Bob explained, “This was just an ordinary guy, not one of the sheriff’s posse or anything, just an ordinary cracker. They can just do this stuff. Man! S–t!” He lit a cigarette and blew smoke out the open car window.

My heart was racing, “How did it end?”

“That cracker just lowered the gun, snorted and spit on the ground and walked away just as fast as he’d appeared.”

Then I told Bob what happened out in Arlington, about being chased all afternoon by a white man in a pickup with a rifle. “He must’ve been related to my guy. Dan didn’t even tell me about what happened with you!”

Bob said, “Yeah, I already heard.”

It made me feel good that our elders knew we were a couple and that he had some kind of idea what was going on with me even if the information didn’t flow both ways.  As an eighteen-year old boy he wasn’t the greatest at telling me what I wanted to hear, which was that he’d protect me, no matter what. How could he, when we’d chosen to put ourselves in danger?  Being threatened and scared went with the territory and he always claimed he wasn’t afraid. He was likely shell-shocked before I even arrived, what with the tear-gassing, beating and harassment, but he also liked the excitement. That’s a boy for you. I tried to talk and write letters that sounded like my boyfriend Bob, but inside my guts were churning.

There were so many incidents that I can’t recall them all. It was the same all over the South, in every county, every day for years for Movement folks. 95% of them were black folks who pressed on in a mostly nonviolent battle for freedom and justice for all against a continuous onslaught of violence and hatred. Not only were the local grassroots folks the real leaders of The Movement, they saved our little white behinds time and again. Sometimes we knew what they had done and could thank them; sometimes they just kept it to themselves.

Author’s note: Rev Daniel Harrell and his wife Juanita Harrell worked in Wilcox County Alabama on voting rights, literacy and community economic development from 1964 until their untimely deaths, both still in their forties. For more stories of unheralded heroes of the civil rights movement, watch for upcoming publication of “This Little Light of Mine, This Bright Light of Ours” by Maria Gitin. Thank you for sharing your comments and this page with others who are committed to honoring the memory of our civil rights veterans.