[Excerpted from 1965 This Bright Light of Ours: a Memoir and Stories of the Wilcox County Freedom Fight, an unpublished book by Maria Gitin © 2011. For more stories and to leave comments please visit Maria's civil rights book blog: thislittlelight1965.wordpress.com/. ]
See also SCLC/SCOPE Summer Project, 1965 for web links.
In 1965, I joined hundreds of other college students in a voter education and registration drive aimed at supporting disenfranchised African Americans in poor rural counties across the Deep South in their long struggle to register to vote. The 15th Amendment of the US Constitution ratified in 1868 gave all citizens the right to vote, regardless of race or creed. The Voting Rights Act of 1964 reiterated and detailed this right. Problem was, lawmakers and law enforcers in the South not only ignored these rights they fought them with every legal and illegal weapon in their vast racist arsenal.
On March 8th I saw Dr Martin Luther King Jr. for the first time. He pointed his finger directly at me and what I heard him say was, "We need you white northern students to come down this summer and join our nonviolent struggle, become part of The Movement and help our people fight for our rights."
In an era when there were only three channels, the images on the small black and white TV at my friend Jeff Freed's parents' house were grainy, but unforgettable. Jeff kept trying to explain the political significance, but I could only watch in horror as masses of white Alabama state troopers and Selma policemen attacked peaceful primarily black marchers from the safety of their horses. Tear gas canisters were launched from huge guns. Troopers beat hundreds of people including young children as they scrambled for safety, just because they had assembled to march to Montgomery for voting rights. Dr Martin Luther King Jr was not among the marchers on that Sunday the 7th when the unprovoked attack took place, but he rapidly responded with a compelling national call to nonviolent arms.
I headed to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) office on campus because I had heard that their effective Mississippi Freedom Summer got the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed. There I was told I could only belong to Friends of SNCC, the white support group, so I joined that and began to get some instruction in the role of whites in the Freedom Movement. My Protestant roots from Penngrove easily intertwined with the political education I absorbed in San Francisco. Everything I was learning from the books I read and from activists on campus fit right into my liberal childhood faith, and continued to do so when I converted to progressive Reform Judaism a few years later.
While I was trying to figure out what I could do specifically to respond to Dr. King's call for action, down in Atlanta SCLC's Rev. Hosea Williams and SNCC Chairman John Lewis, an SCLC board member, were planning an ambitious voter education and political organization program named the Summer Community Organizing and Political Education (SCOPE) Project, spearheaded by SCLC.
During the spring, the 1965 Voting Rights Act that was supposed to fix the remaining voting exclusion loopholes left in the 1964 Civil Rights Act was making its way through Congress. The SCOPE project was timed to coincide with what SCLC strategists had good reason to believe would be the first summer that the new Voting Rights Act (1965 VRA) would be available as a tool. The 1965 VRA was expected to become law before the project began in June.
I learned that the most important new provisions contained in the 1965 Civil Rights Act provided for checks on Southern practices that continued to conspire to deny blacks their right to vote.
One section would require states and local jurisdictions with a documented history of discriminatory voting practices to obtain prior federal approval or "preclearance" of planned changes in their election laws or procedures. Communities with concentrations of U.S. citizens who were not yet fully literate in English must provide those voters with assistance when they register, including informing them of the details of the elections, and clarifying how to cast their ballots. The bill also provided the Department of Justice with the authority to appoint independent federal observers and examiners to monitor elections to ensure that they were conducted fairly.
Existing federal civil rights laws were not enforced in the South. Racist and fearful county voting officials cooperated with the ongoing denial of voting rights to black citizens, most egregiously in Alabama and Mississippi. For example, Wilcox County, Alabama had a more than 70% majority African American population and years of largely unsuccessful voting rights efforts and lawsuits. Documents filed by Hosea Williams to support the Selma to Montgomery march state that although whites of voting age were outnumbered two to one by blacks of voting age in Wilcox County, no eligible black voter had ever been registered. White voter registration was 113% of eligible voters and black registration was .09% according to the federal voting records on file at SCLC in spring 1965.  Due to this egregious injustice, Wilcox County, where I was assigned, was selected as one of the Alabama counties for the SCLC-SCOPE voting rights campaign and for continued filing in federal courts.
While the Department of Justice processed civil rights violations complaints primarily filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), federal law enforcement did nothing to intervene in what was considered a states' rights issue by the elected representatives from the Deep South who carried tremendous political and financial weight in Congress. Thousands of eligible, yet unregistered black voters whose right to vote was denied made it impossible to get African Americans elected to any office, even to local offices such as school board trustees. Even if a potential voter managed to get through the arduous and federally illegal voting requirements in Alabama, their registration applications were deemed incomplete or inaccurate and denied. Would be voters and their families were often threatened with fabricated crimes for which they were arrested, fired from jobs, and evicted from housing. Many suffered threats and physical assaults.
SCOPE training materials said that this project planned to meet three objectives: local recruitment of potential elected officials from the black community, voter registration, and political education. SCOPE activities were expected to build on grass-roots community organizations that had been carrying the burden for a long time, bringing in fresh student "troops" who would hopefully return summer after summer to volunteer in school integration efforts, the new federal War on Poverty initiative and to support the education and election of new African American leaders.
The project resulted in over 1,200 SCOPE workers, including 650 college students from across the nation; 150 SCLC staff members, mostly scarcely paid field workers ($5 a week was a typical stipend), and 400 local volunteers, working in 6 southern states to organize, educate and assist African Americans in registering to vote. As soon as I heard about the project from SNCC and got more information at the Ec House, I signed up.
In order to join the project, I had to raise $200 for my travel and living expensesa huge sum of money for me in those days get my parent's permission, and attend intensive briefing sessions in Berkeley every Saturday for a month. I raised the money two ways. First, I wrote to the leaders of youth groups I knew through Camp Cazedero and asked them to raise money for my trip. My home church in Penngrove contributed $25; Ben and Millie Young, church youth group leaders in Mill Valley, sent $50, and a church group in Orinda, California contributed another $25. Dr. Weinstein in the Sociology Department collected textbooks from his colleagues that netted quite a bit funding for my travel expenses; in fact I exceeded my goal.
Since I was under 21, I had to convince my father to sign an affidavit swearing that he wouldn't sue SCLC if I were injured or killed, which I did by telling him that I would forge his signature if he would not sign. My parents knew that they had already lost what little control they had over me by not supporting me financially through college because I disobeyed their dictum that their children must live at home and attend a local community college to gain their financial support.
After I signed up for SCOPE, I walked around campus feeling alive, part of what was happening in the world. My brown corduroy coat that Cousin Jeanne insisted I buy so that I'd have one decent coat among the homemade and Sears catalog clothes I'd brought from home kept me warm as I walked through the swirling, dripping San Francisco fog. At one briefing in Berkeley, I volunteered to recruit more students for SCOPE since firm commitments were slow in coming. I checked in with SNCC to make sure they wouldn't have a problem with a white girl recruiting and they said it was no problem as long as I made it clear that we were not working in competition with SNCC, in fact they sponsored what the Berkeley leaders optimistically called the San Francisco State Chapter of SCOPE. Despite sitting out at the quad several foggy noon-times drawing much interest and having many stimulating conversations, when it came time to arrange transportation, I wasn't aware of anyone else from my college going to volunteer on this twelve-week project, although there may have been.
The Saturday SCOPE briefings emphasized history and nonviolent theory along with updates on current events in the southern Civil Rights Movement. The instruction we received from professors, ministers and activists was based in a genuine belief in strict nonviolence and the benefits of integration. We were informed that SCOPE was the brainchild of brilliant civil rights strategist Rev. Hosea Williams, an SCLC Program Director who they told us organized the Selma to Montgomery marches. One presenter read us the qualifications to be a student civil rights worker, "Working on civil rights in the South requires dedication, courage, and maturity; however these qualities can and have been acquired by many seemingly dilettante young college students. Any person old enough to go to college is old enough to work on voter registration." I knew I was committed and brave but I wasn't sure about the dilettante part. If that word meant anything like debutante, I was pretty sure I wasn't one. I hadn't been one of those girls with the big party at age sixteen. I was without a clue but it seemed like everything would be explained at the necessary time so I trusted the adults who I imagined had all the answers.
Although SCOPE was an SCLC project, SNCC activists whose names I regrettably did not record also spoke to us during those Saturdays in Berkeley. SNCC, the newer group of mostly college age students seemed very exciting to me, based as it was in love of all humanity. "We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence as the foundation of our purpose, the presupposition of our faith and the manner of our action. Nonviolence as it grows from the Judaic-Christian traditions seeks a social order of justice permeated by love. Integration of human endeavor represents the crucial first step towards such a society." So stated SNCC's founding Purpose Statement written in May 1960.
SNCC was born with these stated ideals, however a rapidly emerging philosophy of self-determination and black liberation was permeating the organization as I already understood from being denied membership in the "real" SNCC on campus. SCLC leaders were still staunchly pro-integration and believed that we mostly white SCOPE student volunteers would bring media, money and perhaps safety although the increasing violence towards whites and blacks working together in The South did not auger well for that outcome. Some SNCC leaders anticipated that we would bring more violence because white racists go crazy when they see white women with black men. They also anticipated that we would bring superior attitudes that disrespected their sacrifices and achievements. Dr. King believed strongly that integration of all races and faiths would result in equal justice and opportunity for all. I took careful notes and wondered what it would be like in the trenches; how things would play out in whichever county I was assigned.
The SCOPE project was conceived of as an ongoing summer project, a summer Peace Corps right here in the US where, we were told, things were as bad for blacks in the South as in any third world country. During the year, we students could influence our colleges, families and communities to get active in civil rights and hopefully, send money to support the year round Southern Movement. The briefing leaders were open about the fact that most uneducated, disenfranchised blacks would be more apt to listen to a white college student than to one of their own youth. They aimed to use bias as a tool to overcome prejudice. We went in understanding that this was a temporary thing, that we were to help raise up the "The Oppressed Negro", a term used in SCLC talks and literature, as if they were a third person singular. It didn't strike me at the time how odd it was or that objectifying poor, unregistered blacks denied decent jobs and education might be contributing to the problem. It was how they spoke then, just as the sole use of the pronoun "he" meant a person; no one said or wrote "she."
I eagerly looked forward to each of the briefing sessions during which they tried to teach us the entire history of segregation, the status of past and pending civil rights legislation, how The Movement worked, how to control our own unconscious bias, what to expect and how to behave when we went South. Much of it was a blur, but I remember feeling that it was a great turning point for me and for the United States. The leaders made it very clear that we were to be white allies to an entirely black led organization, which was just fine with me.
The person who stands out most clearly from the briefing sessions is Rev. Cecil Williams, the dynamic young African American preacher from Glide Memorial Methodist Church who exhorted us to make the South safer for black voter registration with our young, white, eminently newsworthy, federally- protectable bodies. One fact that stood out in my mind was that we could be killed but worsegirls could, had been and probably would be raped by jail guards and Ku Klux Klan members.
We reviewed footage of the beatings and tear gas canisters fired at marchers during Bloody Sunday in which Rev Williams himself had been injured. We listened to stories from people who had been on the big successful Montgomery to Selma march and heard about the recent murders of Jimmy Lee Jackson, Viola Luizzo and Rev. James Reeb in Alabama as well as the previous summer of 1964 assassinations of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman while they were working with SNCC to establish Freedom Schools in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The message I got was that this was risky business; the stakes were high but the cry for justice was more important than any of our lives.
We were given sketchy written materials including a flyer that said "Help me find the key to freedom" next to a drawing of very dark black man in chains. The briefing leaders taught us to think of ourselves as heroic, temporary, disposable perhaps, but absolutely essential right now. Our leaders continual use of the term "The Negro" seemed to objectify a group of people facing a serious sociological problem that we who had more economic and educational privilege could help them overcome if we all worked together. This appealed tremendously to idealistic college students like me who wanted to tackle tough social issues head on.
We were given a required reading list for student volunteers. It included: Freedom Road, Howard Fast's study of Reconstruction; The People Who Walk in Darkness, a black history book by Schulte Nordhootle; V.O. Key's Southern Politics and COPE AFL-CIO's How to Win, to give us an idea of grassroots activism. Films of civil rights workers being attacked and inspirational stories from the front by Rev. Williams added to my strong impression of how important this movement was. On my own I read Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington which my professors labeled reactionary compared with Souls of the Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois, which I also read. I read most of Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth, which I found very upsetting. According to Fanon, I was an oppressor without even knowing it. But then I reasoned there was just one solution to that. If people who look like me have messed up The South, then people who look like me ought to go fix it. I read most of these books in one month, taking even more time away from what should have been preparation for my final exams.
1. In SCOPE Orientation materials, Rev Williams had updated this data to indicate that in Wilcox County .09 % or six black citizens were registered as of January 1965, while white voters were registered at the rate of 113% of the Voting Age Population.
2. These numbers are the ones cited by SCLC SCOPE Director Rev. Hosea Williams' reports published in The SCOPE of Freedom edited by Willy Seigel Leventhal.
Copyright © Maria Gitin, 2011.