Rev Frank & Mrs Etta Pearl Smith Family

Smith Family 1950
Children L-R Geraldine, Carolyn, Frank Milton, and Jesse

During the Wilcox County AL SCOPE-SCLC voter registration drive of summer 1965, my boyfriend, Bob (Luke) Block often stayed with the Rev & Mrs. Frank Smith family in Lower Peachtree. Jesse Smith, then a sixteen year old student leader recalls: “I remember Bob real well. We were sort of like brothers then. One day I was cutting Larry’s hair and Bob asked me to cut his. He had great faith in me; I had never cut white hair before, but I went ahead. It looked real bad on the sides. He looked at it in the mirror for a long while and then he said,”It’ll grow back.”

Bob (Luke) Block 1965

“I admired Bob for his ‘never give up’ attitude.  Somewhere in Pine Hill he asked this man was he a registered voter. He said, ‘Son, that ain’t none of your business.’ We made a U turn – no use talking to him- but we kept on goin.  In Lower Peachtree we had been trying to get the people to go over to sign up for commodities. Bob got Mr. Campbell and his wife to sign up after they wouldn’t listen to me or other black students. They needed that food for their family. After Mr. Campbell signed up, a bunch of other folks went over and got signed up. That was a big help. One night Daddy wrote out the complaints of the students at the high school: No running water, no library, gym or science lab. The student body signed it. Someone from the Board of Education came and we gave the letter to him.” – Rev Jesse Smith, Montgomery AL interview with Maria Gitin June 8, 2009

Rev Frank Smith was fired from his teaching position at Pine Apple High School immediately upon passage of the Voting Rights Act, August of 1965. The official reason provided by the Superintendent of Schools, as was the case with all of the activist teacher terminations, was low attendance in Smith’s classes. The real reason he was fired was because he had allowed white civil rights workers to stay at his home, SNCC and SCLC to meet at his church and because his children were active in the Movement. It took fifteen years of legal filing, but in 1980 Smith won a back pay settlement and was elected to the same Wilcox County Board of Education that terminated him — victorious at last.

Carolyn Smith Taylor represents the Smith Family
2010 Selma Jubilee

The Smith family, Frank Smith Jr, (may he rest in blessed memory), Geraldine Gwendolyn Smith, Carolyn Smith Taylor, Jesse Smith and Larry Smith keep their parents’ memory alive by living up to their ideals.

Making News, Causing Trouble

Reading Peter Buck’s [peterlbuck.wordpress.com/] 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

Letter from Movement Boot Camp – The SCOPE Orientation

This is an excerpt from my original letter written from SCLC’s Summer Community Organization and Political Education Orientation project in June 1965 in Altanta Georgia. Please note that the entirely African American leadership of this project used the terms “Negro” and “The Negro” as the preferred term of respect for blacks at that time. As a white teenager, I soaked up their words and tried to transcribe or paraphrase them for my supporters back home in California. The Orientation lasted for 5.5 days & nights. The 14-hour a day schedule was packed with lectures by famous and soon to become famous civil rights leaders, workshops, discussion groups and films, punctuated by constant singing of Freedom Songs taught to us by Mrs. Septima Clark. I attended virtually every session including Sunday evening pre-sessions, took copious notes and mailed them to my dear friend Jeanne Searight in San Francisco who transcribed and mimeographed them to send to people who donated funds for my participation.

© Maria Gitin – all rights reserved.

Excerpt from my first letter to Supporters  June 1965….

Monday, June 14, really began the intensive week-long session. Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, VP at large and treasurer of SCLC, told us the history of SCLC beginning with the famous day when Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus any longer. For those who would like more background history for this organization, I suggest reading The Negro Revolt by Louis Lomax, which also gives the history of the other civil rights groups.

Hosea Williams then gave us a long and fine talk on “Why We are Here.” He made us see our responsibility and our obligation. As has been said so many times, “none of us are free until all of us are free.”

We had a discussion and general announcements and then adjourned for lunch. Food in the South is something else. My stomach is beginning to adjust to grits, collard greens, okra, and black-eyed peas. We had little meat or milk and no desserts or fresh fruit. I have a feeling we Northern Fat Cats are going to come home skinny.

In the afternoon we heard the history of the whole civil rights movement from SCLC staff member, Bayard Ruskin. Following that we broke up into small workshops to discuss the speech. The faculty members led these sessions and two or three staff members sat in on them. Many of our more practical concerns were dealt with here.

After dinner Dr. King was scheduled to speak, but he wasn’t able to come. However, Joseph Ruah, counsel for Leadership Council on Civil Rights gave an informative presentation on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He said the only reason the bill was passed was because Martin Luther King dramatized the need for it.

Mr. Ruah went over each section of the bill with us in great detail, both its provisions and its shortcomings. This is the first bill that really makes any difference. The other side is licked. Now we must gain legal equality in the last mile. We can create test cases rather than going on word-of-mouth evidence.

We were allowed to ask questions about implementing and strengthening this bill. Many of us sat up far into the night and discussed the ’64 bill and its possibilities of ending job, housing and economic discrimination. I think it is a good bill, but we must put it into effect ourselves.

Tuesday the 15th was nonviolence day. This was one of the most fascinating subjects to me. I talked to men, women, and children—black and white– who have had their “heads whipped” by state troopers and who can still honestly sing I Love Everybody.

Rev. James Lawson, Director of Non-Violent Education said “violence is a man-made force. But nonviolence can also be a force. Nonviolence is the courage to be—to insist on one’s own existence. There should be compassion and solidarity between all persons. Every man is me—even my enemy. When you love people you enable them to become human. Nonviolence is contagious and it does work.” He urged us to back all boycotts. “Civil disobedience forces people to take a new look at their policies. They will accept the responsibility if we just act as though we expect them to.”

Rev. Andrew Young, a handsome dynamic leader in the field of civil rights, gave us some more inspiration and understanding about nonviolence. We had workshops to discuss nonviolence. Kids who had been beaten and whipped told us that it doesn’t really hurt that much when you know you have a reason for taking the beating.

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