New Release from the 6th Floor Museum, Dallas TX “Voices from the Civil Rights Movement” miniseries.
Thank you Curator Stephen Fagin for surprising me by having read “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight” and for great questions. More about the book: www.thisbrightlightofours.com
April 10, 1965 – Camden
Smoke Bombs Halt New Wave of Alabama Marchers
Quotes Camden Academy students Ralph Eggleston and Charles Mimms. Photo of Jim “Arkansas” Benston, white SNCC youth, being beaten by Camden city police. Source: Chicago Defender special by Leon Daniel
Dr. King came through on another whirlwind tour of Alabama while a 200-person march was already underway. The 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.
Note: This was a ludicrous charge since the students and adults 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 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)
Camden civil rights leaders declare they will protest daily until allowed to register and to vote. They do so and continue until school lets out in the end of May.
This date was this author’s 19th birthday celebrated with friends in San Francisco where she had already signed up for the SCOPE project. After SCLC orientation in Atlanta with Wilcox residents Ethel Brooks, Charles Nettles, Mary Alice Angion and others, I was assigned to that county for the summer voter education and registration project.
Source: Chicago Daily Defender and personal memory.
For more history of the Wilcox County Voting Rights Movement read: www.thisbrightlightofours.com
Thanks to friends and freedom fighters Robert Powell and Alversal and Albert Lawson for bringing and carrying the Wilcox County Freedom banner to the Selma Jubilee next Sunday, the Wilcox Movement will be represented at the 50th Jubilee. Learn more about the Wilcox County Voting Rights Fight at http://www.thisbrightlightofours.com.
All civil rights workers, family, descendants, friends and allies are welcome to join our group. Meet at on MLK Street directly across from the steps of Brown Chapel no later than 1:30 PM. If you come in on the bypass and then up Broad to any of the cut through streets, you can usually park on Lawrence by the elementary school, then cut through the Carver housing development and find the sign. They will keep it up on the long poles so everyone can find it. Every year so far we have gotten interviews, photos and news coverage. Plus had a great good time walking together. I won’t be there in person this time, but will be with you in spirit. Please send photos from your cell phones! Thank you!
Northern civil rights workers used to joke that whatever faith we came South with, by the end of our work, we were all Baptists in the southern African American tradition. Although very few actually converted, these churches were vital to our work and that of freedom fighting communities.
At the end of the Civil War newly free communities quickly established their own religious institutions. Baptist churches were independent, without national boards, which enabled congregations to become active in the Civil Rights Movement. Churches were the spiritual center of the Black community. Sunday morning and Wednesday evening services joined congregants in sermon, prayer and song. Civil rights rallies, called mass meetings, were held separately. Some of the most active churches in Wilcox County are still lovingly preserved including: Antioch, Pleasant View, Pleasant Grove, Little Zion #1 and Boiling Springs.
Under the pastorate of Rev Samuel Freeman, Camden’s Antioch Baptist Church became “Movement Central” for Wilcox County. Dr. King spoke there several times between 1963-1968, including when he spoke from the doorway of a metal trailer due to threats to bomb the church and to kill him if he entered in 1966. Marches to the courthouse often began at Antioch and was where leaders regrouped after attacks by the mayor, sherriff and their citizen posse. Mass meetings drew local as well as national leaders to lend support to the stalwart community. Now 144 yrs old, the church survived many attacks on its building and congregants. In July 1965, while serving as an office for SCLC’s SCOPE voter registration project, armed men shot up the church and savagely beat local youth. In January 1966, David Colston Sr., was shot and killed at close range as he pulled into the church parking lot with his family to attend a mass meeting on voting rights. The courage of congregants sanctioning civil rights actions while living close to violent segregationists cannot be overstated. In 1996 Antioch became a registered historic landmark and is still supported by a small but loyal congregation.
Rev. Frank Smith, pastor of Pleasant View Baptist Church in Lower Peachtree, paid dearly for his leadership in the fight for equal, integrated schools. Jesse Smith recalls his parent’s courage by allowing him to start a “Freedom School” at the church and by housing white civil rights workers. Stokley Carmichael, as well as SCLC leaders Daniel Harrell and Major Johns spoke at the church. Reverend and Mrs. Smith lost their teaching positions and were banned from teaching in Wilcox County as punishment for their involvement in the Movement. After years of lawsuits, Rev Smith and other unjustly fired teachers received small settlements from the Board of Education. Rev Smith then ran and was elected to the Board of Education.
Boiling Springs Baptist Church is in a remote, rual area between Catherine and Alberta in Northwestern Wilcox County. Many African Americans in this region were active in the Movement. They allowed their children to canvass for voters and go to march in Camden and Selma. Families like the Burrells and Lawsons kept “Freedom Houses” where civil rights workers stayed. After being trained by SCLC, Virginia Boykin Burrell led literacy and voter education training at the church. Rev Kendall was the pastor for over thirty years, while Rev. L.V. Baldwin was a frequent guest preacher during the civil rights era.
Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church #1, in the tiny village of Coy 20 miles from Camden, was an action center. Brooks, Charleys, Washingtons, Angions and other families regularly joined marchers in Selma and Camden, canvassed in their own and other areas, and kept safe houses for civil rights workers. One resident estimated that more Coy community members were on the bridge on Bloody Sunday than from any other town outside of Selma. Well-attended mass meetings were held at Little Zion Baptist Church where SCLC Field Director Daniel Harrell preached often during the 1964-66 voting rights fight.
Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, was set apart from any nearby white community in the now-famous community of Gees Bend. Bernard LaFayette met with leaders there to help organize one of the early voting rights marches on the county courthouse in 1963. That march is credited with the first registration of African Americans since Reconstruction. Monroe Pettway and Rev. Lonnie Brown brought one of the early voting rights lawsuits. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited and preached at Pleasant Grove. When he was slain, his coffin was carried in a Gee’s Bend wagon.
Camden Academy Chapel, on the campus of Presbyterian mission school Camden Academy, was a center for student inspiration and moral development. Alumni recall Rev T.L. Threadgill as the chaplain and teacher who supported their demonstrations. Community leaders consider him and his daughter, Sheryl Threadgill-Matthews, among the greatest local leaders. Dr. King visited with Rev. Threadgill often, and encouraged the students in their nonviolent demonstrations. Rev. Threadgill risked his position further by allowing white civil rights workers to stay in a campus dormitory during the SCLC SCOPE Voting Rights project of 1965.
In retribution for the Threadgill family activism, the chapel and the Threadgill home were condemed and destroyed by the School Board in August 1965. By 1975 the board of education destroyed every building on this historic activist campus and closed the school. But the spirit of the Threadgills, Dr King and Movement students lives on in the hearts and minds of all who were blessed to walk those halls, and pray in that chapel.
Maria Gitin is a civil rights veteran, Wilcox County 1965, and author of “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight (University of Alabama Press 2014). For more information on the book and how to order: www.thisbrightlightofours.com
By Maria Gitin
Special to the Sentinel Published Sunday July 20, 2014
Aug. 6 is the 49th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This landmark federal legislation prohibits racial discrimination in voting and led to removal of other barriers to voting that benefit people with disabilities, citizens with language differences and those whose work schedule requires weekend voting.
The act passed only after decades of civil rights activism. Well-known tragedies on the road to enfranchisement include the murder of four little girls in a Birmingham church, the assassination of three voting-rights activists during Mississippi Freedom Summer, and the “Bloody Sunday” attack on peaceful marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
These are the stories that most of us know, but for over a decade tens of thousands of African-American grassroots activists like Mrs. Rosetta Angion organized in obscurity. While working on voter registration project in 1965, I met Mrs. Angion, mother of 16 children in the rural community of Coy, Alabama, who somehow found time to participate in voting rights demonstrations. She told me that John Lewis, now a Georgia congressman and then leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, explained, “You were not a real citizen unless you could vote.” Her commitment was so strong that she allowed two of her young daughters to march on Bloody Sunday.
Following a presentation at Cabrillo College last year, a student asked me why he should register to vote. “After all, doesn’t voting just support the status quo?” Apparently, many agree with this discouraging view. Although better than the state average, only 34.8 percent of Santa Cruz County registered voters cast ballots in the recent primary election. Nationally, only 23 percent voted in the 2012 presidential election.
Why should we vote? There is a saying that bad officials are elected by good people who don’t vote. Low voter turnout results in a small fraction of voters electing officials who make decisions that affect all of us.
Thousands of courageous people like Mrs. Angion and her daughters risked their lives for your right to vote. To honor their legacy and to make your voice heard, please register now and vote in November. Visit Santa Cruz County’s elections website at www.votescount.com.
Maria Gitin will read from her book, “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight,” at Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 11.
Many recall visits by Dr. King in 1965-66 to support the voting rights movement in Wilcox County . Several shared their memories with me for This Bright Light of Ours. Here is an excerpt “I remember him coming to the school (Camden Academy). I was a senior in 1965. One of our instructors prepared us for his visit. She taught us how to greet people in power, I can’t remember which teacher but she was a woman who had traveled to Europe and met dignitaries. She showed us a film of meeting one of the Presidents in Europe so we would know how to behave properly.
He came and spoke to us, we all shook his hand. When I got home I put my hand that he shook in a plastic bag and my mother couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t take it off. I remember he had the softest hands I had ever touched on a man, really soft.
I don’t remember him marching from school. During the same visit he did lead a march from the church I believe, but I wasn’t in it. I only remember shaking his hand, but I didn’t not march. We lived out in Possum Bend – once that bus left you didn’t have a ride home. I would walk down to the bottom of the hill to the bus station and off they’d go to the church or the courthouse. ” excerpt from an interview with Alma Moton King in 2008 for This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight by Maria Gitin, University of Alabama Press 2014. Read more 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
Following the attacks on nonviolent protesters on “Bloody Sunday” and subsequent protests throughout the state of Alabama prior to the March from Selma to Montgomery at the end of this month, Rev Hosea L. Williams filed suit demanding that the federal government to step in to protect the marchers against state troopers and city police, which, under great pressure, they eventually did. The protections seem to have been limited to the famous march to the capitol and not extended to Wilcox or any other county where demonstrators continued to be arrested, beaten and tear gassed.
March 17,1965- US District Court Middle District of Alabama
Hosea Williams v George Wallace The federal district court issues its order permitting the peaceful assembly without interference, and orders Governor Wallace and others to provide adequate police protection to “Negro” citizens in the exercise of their constitutional rights. The court noted that as of October 1963 zero (0)% of Black citizens in Wilcox County were registered to vote.
Source: Williams v Wallace, 240 F.Supp 100, 1965
Wilcox County was and is one of the poorest counties in the nation, but is rich in untold history of heroes fighting for African American voting rights, a right denied by practice and Alabama state law one hundred years after that right was promised by the US Constitution.
My manuscript is a memoir, an oral history and an apology for any harm I caused as a young white civil rights worker. It is also an unabashed appeal for resources. My book is a love letter, a deep appreciation for being accepted first as a young student volunteer and later as a writer entrusted with personal stories of the Freedom Fight in one small county in the rural Deep South. But we don’t have to wait for the book to be published to help the deserving people of Wilcox County today.
In March of 2010, Wilcox County, Alabama had the highest unemployment rate in the state at 24.8%.
Wilcox Academy is a 100% white private Christian high school with fewer that 350 students. Wilcox Central High has more than 2000 students who are 100% African-American. 100% qualify for free lunch program according to Alabama Dept of Education statistics for 2009. Lack of tax dollars and additional parental contributions to the public school handicaps their ability to purchase new equipment and to offer some enrichment activities.
There are many bright spots, especially programs for children and youth. Some of these are featured in earlier posts. All can be funded directly. Those wishing to contribute larger donations may want to give through the Black Belt Community Foundation. www.blackbeltfound.org
Black Belt Community Foundation
PO Box 2020, Selma, AL 36702
888.847.1126 Tax Exempt # 63-1270745