Making News, Causing Trouble

Reading Peter Buck’s [] memory of seeing a cross-burning put in mind the time I visited the site of a cross-burning in Camden, Alabama while working on the Summer Conference on Community Organizing and Political Education (SCOPE) project in the summer of 1965.

Making News, Causing Trouble

They told me that Rev. Ralph Abernathy, VP of SCLC and Treasurer of SCOPE wanted to speak with me. In a firm, resonant voice barely constraining fury he demanded to know how I expected they could let me stay when I kept breaking the rules. He recounted my expensive medical bills that cost precious dollars that were needed for bail and other expenses. Then, like a bolt of lighting from a dry sky, he read, nearly shouted this paragraph from an article published in the Washington Post on July 12th: “Nineteen year old Joyce Brians from San Francisco State College sleeps at night in Negro homes. By day, she goes out canvassing alone on rural red clay roads with local Negro boys who point out homes of potential voters.”

He droned on but I couldn’t hear anything else he said, knowing that this was just the type of sensationalism about “race mixing” that we had been warned about. I begged to stay, pleaded that I didn’t know how the reporter got those words from me and told the truth; I was tricked. But I didn’t give any details about how I was tricked. I told him that I would never cause a problem again and begged to be allowed to stay until the end of the project in August. After a while he relented but he told me that if he heard one more word, even one more word about me for anything at all, I could just pack my bags.

Paul Good, a Washington Post reporter had stopped by the Academy when only Connie and I were there. He asked if we wanted to walk up to Hangman’s Hill to see where the KKK had burned a cross during the student spring demonstrations. I remember thinking it must have scared the kids half to death and how brave they were to keep on protesting.

When we got to where I saw the burnt cross with a big circle of dark soot all around, I collapsed on a log. How could people use a symbol of Christian love and sacrifice as a symbol of hate and fear? Good, pulled out a six-pack and said, “Have a beer; it will calm you down.”  I had never taken a sip of alcohol on Camden Academy grounds before, picturing Rev. Threadgill and hearing his stern warnings.

Good began asking questions, lots of questions. At first, I told him flat out that we were not allowed to speak with reporters, that all questions should be addressed to the SCOPE project leaders. He said not to worry, that I wouldn’t be quoted, that this was just “deep background.” My doubts were clouded by the shock of seeing that burnt cross, the hated symbol of the KKK I had come to fight, the beer and most of all, the need to talk to someone outside the Movement.

Years later when I found both The San Francisco Chronicle and The Washington Post articles, I was even more grateful to Rev. Abernathy for letting me stay when I read the rest of my statement: “‘My happiest days are working out there,’ she says, ‘But there is a lot of frustration with SCOPE. They spend too much time talking about organizing and there isn’t enough action. I mean, the people here want to demonstration (sic) against police brutality but SCOPE leaders hold them back.’”

– from This Bright Light of Ours 1965 all rights reserved by author

© 2012