Forty nine yrs ago, I didn’t know that my decision to respond to Dr. King’s call for students to work on the Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) project directed by Hosea L Williams would send me to rural Wilcox County. As 19 year old freshman at San Francisco State College, I remember the excitement of getting a ride from Rev Cecil Williams – who had just returned from being beaten in Selma – as he drove us to the last Berkeley briefing before we drove to an intensive weeklong Orientation in Atlanta where we were trained to be civil rights workers. Williams was encouraging and welcoming of young white students who wanted to join the Freedom Fight. He was also an inspiring and informed trainer who let us know exactly how much danger we might face, as well as the imperative for white youth to join hands with black youth in this nonviolent fight for the right to vote. Rev Cecil Williams is a civil rights hero and community leader who continues to inspire. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to learn from him at such a formative stage in my life.
For more about Maria Gitin’s experience read her memoir: www.thisbrightlightofours.com
June – August 1965 SCLC’S Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) project – Wilcox County
SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Project) SCOPE (Summer Community Organization and Education) project, directed by Rev. Hosea Williams, was part of an already active Alabama Voter Education Project that coordinated (or attempted to coordinate) efforts between multiple civil rights organizations. As many as 600 black and white college (and some high school) students were assigned to six states for ten weeks after a 5.5 day 14 hr a day intensive Orientation in Atlanta, GA June 14-19, 1965.
In Wilcox County, five white northern student volunteers joined SCLC’s Dan and Juanita Harrell, and Major Johns, two
(perhaps three) white seminary students from California and some SNCC field workers from Selma to support local leaders in voter education, voter registration and leadership development. In early April, Californian Bob Block, who had walked all five days of the March to Montgomery, came over from Selma with Strider Benston, Bruce Hartford and Charles Bonner to join a Camden Academy student demonstration led by Ralph Eggleston, Sim Pettway and other students. Block was recruited by Dan Harrell to stay on as SCLC field staff. Local activist Ethel Brooks was also on SCLC SCOPE staff that summer. Students Robert Powell, Grady and Charles Nettles, Don Green, and Frank Conner; Mary Alice Robinson and Betty Anderson were some of the many Camden Academy activists working with SCOPE on voter education and registration after their own demonstrations all spring. Local adult leaders included: Rev. Thomas L Threadgill, Mr Albert Gordon, Mrs Rosetta Anderson, Mrs. Virginia Boykin Burrell and many others from the rural areas of Wilcox County. About 30 total local and field workers canvassed all summer, resulting in 500 new registered voters before the passage of the Voting Rights Act in August. Soon after passage, more than 3,000 Wilcox residents were registered, creating a new African American majority.
Charles “Chuck” A. Bonner of Selma SNCC began to coordinate voting efforts in Wilcox County with SCLC and later, SCOPE. Bob Block and I (Joyce Brians/Maria Gitin) belonged to SNCC and SCLC. SCLC/SCOPE workers were the majority in Wilcox County that summer. Most local residents didn’t know or care who were with except for being “sent by Dr King” and “with the Movement.” Local white segregationists called us as “outside agitators.”
For more about SCOPE and Voting Rights in Wilcox County, AL This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight by Maria Gitin: www.thisbrightlightofours.com
“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
April 20, 1965 – Camden
Martin Luther King Jr came through on another whirlwind tour of Alabama during a 200-person march that was already underway. This same date, the state of Alabama secured a federal injunction against Dr. King to prevent him from using children to march and demonstrate. Source: Chicago Defender and participant-witnesses.
Author’s note: Charging Dr. King was useless since the students in each community were planning their own strategies. Dr King came to show support and give encouragement. He did not organize any events in Alabama after the Selma marches and was not even a lead organizer of those marches. He was the inspirational leader, but the white press and politicians saw him as the only leader.
April 21,1965 – US Court of Appeals 5th Circuit Alabama
Federal Court of Appeals finds “substantial un-contradicted evidence” that registration officials in Wilcox County were applying the supporting witness (voucher) requirement in a discriminatory fashion. Records disclosed only one instance of a Black person attempting to obtain a white voter as a supporting witness. Source: US v Logue, 344 F2d 290 (1965)
April 21, 1965 – Camden
Camden civil rights leaders declare they will protest daily until allowed to register and to vote. They continue to do so until school lets out at the end of May. Source: Chicago Daily Defender
April 21, 1965 – San Francisco
This author’s 19th birthday was celebrated with friends in San Francisco where I had already joined SNCC and signed up for the SCOPE project with SCLC. I left for the South as soon as the second semester of my freshman year in college was completed. My life would never be the same.
Many generous folks contributed over the past seven years to This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, a memoir and collection of true stories from the last large integrated voter registration drive during the Freedom Summer of 1965.
Fifty-five courageous individuals entrusted me with their stories of living in a violent, racist community while fighting for their voting rights in Wilcox County, Alabama. My beloved SNCC friends, Charles “Chuck” Bonner and Luke “Bob” Block (https://thislittlelight1965.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/img327.jpg) kept me honest as I recreated our teenage civil rights work and play. Wilcox County community leaders opened doors, answered endless questions and become dear friends including: W. Kate Charley, Sheryl Threadgill, Alma King, and John Matthews. Civil Rights photographer Bob Fitch (http://www.bobfitchphoto.com/) shared historic images that enrich the work immensely.
For generous encouragement, and expert counsel over the years, huge appreciation goes to brilliant author-scholar, Lewis V. Baldwin. (www.amazon.com) For consistent and accurate fact checking, terminology, and political theory, my hero is Bruce Hartford, lay historian and web manager for the national Civil Rights Veterans website (www.crmvet.org). Scott E. Kirkland, researcher and curator of the Museum of History in Mobile, AL, played a vital role in the placement of this book, as a champion for an accurate portrayal of the Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) project, designed and spearheaded by civil rights hero, Hosea Williams.
Author-activist Bettina Aptheker, the late James Houston, and Benet Luchion provided early encouragement. Developmental editor Cassandra Shaylor helped shape the book for interest. Historian Martha Jane Brazy of University of South Alabama enthusiastically embraced the work during its final year, generously offering me graduate student level attention. Willy Siegal Leventhal’s unending fight for recognition of the SCOPE (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SCOPE_Project) project was and is an inspiration.
Thanks to my beloved cousin, Jeanne Hanks, and my friend, Debbie Kogan, for empathetic listening during my years of obsessing about this project. Deep appreciation goes to my publicist, Joy Crawford-Washington of BGC Communications, for tireless support and warm friendship. To my yoga teacher, Amey Matthews for teaching me flexibility and strength are not opposites. And to Lauren Mari-Navarro for insights and resources. To Joan for fun & friendship.
Photo by Charley Hatfield, Aptos, CA
My husband, Samuel Torres Jr., offered me freedom to pursue the project, frequent and much-needed critiques, archival research, copyright management, proof-reading, tough talk and tender love, and took great photos. I can never thank him enough, but I am working on it!
Thank you all! Have a great Thanksgiving! And Keep on Keepin’ On! – We have a long ways to go to achieve real racial and economic justice in the world!
The book has been retitled: This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight, and will be published by University of Alabama Press in January 2014. Speaking engagements and book-signings are being scheduled now. Please contact: Joy Crawford-Washington, email@example.com for more information.
In 1065 I worked with SCLC and SNCC on a summer voter registration project in Wilcox County. This is an original letter from that time, reflecting the typical naivete of a young white girl from the North. Negro was a term of respect at that time. Here is a photo of me with two of my three sisters Cindy and Alberta in our family side yard the month before I went South. We were a rural working class family.
June 24, 1965 Camden Academy Camden, Alabama
I am sorry I haven’t been able to get in touch sooner. It was good to hear your voices Sunday nite. Do you mind if I call occasionally? I just sent off my first detailed report today so you should receive it in a week or so. I’ll try not to repeat myself.
I have only received one letter since I got here & that was from Mom. No other mail has reached me. Has anything else been sent yet? While I’m thinking of it – let me know if this letter appears to have been opened. I will tape it shut.
I was in Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma for a few days with a touch of pneumonia. Don’t worry about it. I am fine now & they have me doing secretarial work indoors until I get my strength back.
Please send vitamin pills. We are having a boycott on all white stores that won’t hire Negroes & there isn’t a drugstore between here and Montgomery that will serve us. I am doing the cooking here at the Academy. I could use some recipes. Maybe Dolores could copy down some inexpensive, good-size group recipes for me.
I don’t feel badly about accepting gifts & I wish you wouldn’t assume responsibility of refusing them for me. I’m trying to get $ for a scholarship fund for civil rights workers, too. If you are embarrassed to have people involved in my financial affairs, please have them write directly to me & then you needn’t be concerned about it.
It’s difficult to tell you the truth about things around here without scaring you unnecessarily. The whites are really trying to scare us off & they are doing everything they can to keep us from registering voters. But, they aren’t going to kill us. If we refuse to be scared then they will just have to give in.
They’ve jailed 7 people so far but all were treated well & released promptly. One boy has been beaten and that was by a white man (not police).
We got 150 people registered Monday so I think it’s well worth our efforts.
There is a lot of tension among people here – trying to be brave when they are living in constant fear. I refuse to be afraid all the time. If I am, then the enemy wins. If I am not afraid – then I win the victory. After all, what can they do to me?
Thank God things aren’t this bad in the rest of the South. Alabama is the most racist state in the union – I don’t care what you read in the papers. Before we got here, Sheriff Jenkins distributed firearms to all the white folks and told them not to hesitate to use them. This is a backwards county. There are no industries or big businesses or healthy farms. The irony of it is that the land is beautiful & fertile. If black & white would just work together, I know they could make Wilcox a rich county.
My main function right now has been that of mother – even though most of the people here are years older than me. I just try to make them more comfortable – physically & mentally.
I’m getting a [black] Southern accent even though I fight it. It sounds funny.
I think of you all & pray for you. When I was in the hospital, I kept dreaming I saw little Cindy [my youngest sister] walking in my room with a bouquet of flowers. She was so beautiful it made me cry.
Please don’t be alarmed at how or what I write. Things are so different here & I’m just trying to tell you.
Notes to Family Letter #1
First arrests: We had stepped into a pattern of entrenched racial tension that had been going on for over a century and had increased dramatically in the months before we arrived ever since Martin Luther King Jr. appeared in person to lead a march to the courthouse in Camden right before Bloody Sunday in March 1965. If some voters managed to get registered, those who helped them would be arrested, shot at, beaten immediately. They wanted it to be crystal clear that every move African-Americans made towards equal rights put all our lives in danger. My comment “they were treated well and released promptly” was uninformed and part of early instruction that we should try to downplay reports of violence. When I was arrested myself, I got to witness this “good treatment”.
My family & Money issues
For all except the wealthy in those days, long distance was considered a real luxury and most people only called out of state on Sunday evenings when rates were lower. My particular family was proud of being poor but independent and was aghast at their fundraising daughter. I saw myself as part of a larger collective, something much bigger than my family and had no problem raising money for a good cause. They were embarrassed by my appeals for funds to various individuals and church groups who had helped me pay for my trip. Other white civil rights workers didn’t know what I meant when I talked about raising money for my trip so I imagine they had jobs or parents who helped. I had big ideas for getting scholarships for our local high school graduate activists so that they could go to Selma or Montgomery for college, but I didn’t get far with that concept when all around me were dire daily needs. Still, I did collect and re-distribute money all summer, either by buying food and feeding people or by giving black and white students small loans that they never needed to pay back. I wrote to people in California and they sent me more money. That was really the beginning of my later career as a nonprofit organization fundraiser.
This letter is copyright by Maria Gitin (formerly Joyce Brians) and is a section of a book to be published in 2014.. It may not be used in any print or other format without permission in writing from the author.
June 20, 1965 First Public Letter Continued…
Around 2:30 a.m. we arrived at Antioch Baptist Church in Camden, Alabama. We had to sleep on the floor without blankets or pillows. Never have I slept on a sweeter bed. But we only slept two hours when we were awakened. Major Johns had stood guard over us because there were Klansmen driving up and down in front of the church. Some of the kids left then for their counties. We had been promised a place to stay by a certain Negro who backed out at the last minute. The rest of us were nearly stupefied with hunger, exhaustion, and a little bit of fear. We had to find housing in a town where whites hate us and most Negroes are afraid of us.
In the morning, I got dressed and went to the church service. There were only a few people there—lots of children and a few ladies, no men. After church I talked to the children who gathered round me and asked them to help me canvas for voters. They told me their parents wouldn’t register because they just don’t care anymore. The children are beautiful—they still have hope. There isn’t hardly anyone in Camden between 18 and 35 years. There is nothing here for youth—no jobs—no schools—no social life—no opportunity for advancement.
Sunday night I was initiated to my first mass meeting. It was held in the little community church at Coy, a nearby village. Major [Johns] and Rev. Harrell preached for two hours about the importance of registering to vote and the people really responded. Continue reading