SCLC’s SCOPE project in Wilcox County Summer 1965

June – August 1965 SCLC’S Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) project – Wilcox County

Hosea L Williams with his top SCOPE staff outside the Freedom House in Atlanta in the Summer of 1965. As stated by his daughter, Dr. Barbara Williams Emerson in February 2012, "It is a good photo from the period, but it says nothing, or everything, about female participation": L to R- Benjamin Van Clarke, Stoney Cook, Carl Farris, Andrew Marquette , and Richard Boone. – Courtesy Barbara Emerson Williams. Copyright, all rights reserved.

Hosea L Williams with his top SCOPE staff outside the Freedom House in Atlanta in the Summer of 1965. As stated by his daughter, Dr. Barbara Williams Emerson in February 2012, “It is a good photo from the period, but it says nothing, or everything, about female participation”: L to R- Benjamin Van Clarke, Stoney Cook, Carl Farris, Andrew Marquette , and Richard Boone. – Courtesy Barbara Emerson Williams. Copyright, all rights reserved.

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

Dan Harrell in front of Antioch Baptist church

Dan Harrell in front of Antioch Baptist church

(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.”

Ethel Brooks SCLC Wilcox County field staff

Ethel Brooks SCLC Wilcox County field staff

 

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

More about VEP: http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_voter_education_project/

Searching for Ralph Eggleston

Former Camden Alabama Academy students and other civil rights activists recall a student leader named Ralph Eggleston who was from Southern California who attended the Academy in Wilcox County , Alabama, as a boarding student in the mid-1960’s and have been looking for him for years. If you are Ralph Eggleston, or related to him and know where he is today, please leave a note at this site. His is mentioned as one of the main student leaders of the successful civil rights movement in Wilcox County, Alabama, the subject of my forthcoming book: This Bright Light of Ours: Stories of the Voting Rights Fight, University of Alabama Press, 2014. If he is alive, Ralph Eggleston would be between 60-64 today. There is a reunion this summer in Mobile, AL, that he may wish to know about. He has not been not forgotten. Please leave comments here if you know anything about Eggleston. Comments will be moderated, and then posted. Thank you!

Alice Walker from a 2008 Commencement Address for Graduates of the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado: “And we today, all of us on this earth, are exactly who we have been waiting for. It is for us to change the direction of the planet and we must not lose our belief that we can do so. ”  That’s what Eggleston, Pettway, Threadgill and all the students of Camden Academy believed – that they could end segregation and discrimination. As young as they were, they took to the streets and demonstrated, spoke and boycotted until they won! ¡Si se puede! Yes, it can be done! Then and now. Check back for upcoming events

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.