Dear Family and Friends:
This is another world. It's a world where I, a 19-year-old white northern woman, am not free. I am not free to go into the white section of Camden, Alabama with a Negro. I am not free to work in civil rights and still relate to the Southern whites. I can't go out after dark or go on a single date or swim in a public pool all summer. You people think you are free. When I was in San Francisco I thought I was free. But, we're not free. I'm not down here fighting so any Negro can vote; I'm fighting for my rights my human right to choose my friends as I please, to work with whoever I want, to worship with all peoples.
There is a Movement going on. God is acting in history. It's God, not Martin Luther King, or James Brevel or Hosea Williams that is leading this movement. It's faith that enables people to endure with one meal a day, four hours sleep, and one change of clothes. And they can still sing and shout praises.
We left San Francisco around 2 p.m. on Thursday, June 10. I came with three people from Monterey. We chose a Northern route for safety. It was a thrill for me to travel through Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, and Georgia. I've never been out of California before and for the first time I saw for myself some of the rest of America the beautiful. Some of the loveliest country in the world is in the Southland lush swamps, forests of trees, rolling hills, and rich grasslands. It is a rich land, but a sad one. In every town or city, whatever its size, there are two sections. One is filled with parks and flowers, mansions bordered by well-lit brick streets and hanging willow trees. The people here drive Mercurys and Cadillacs and wear white linen. But, they have terrible faces. The men all look alike they aren't hard and tough they mostly just look like punks. The women are beautiful and immaculate but none of them ever smile at me. They stare at us and swear at us and hate us with all their souls.
In the other part of town there isn't any pavement or any streetlights. The shacks they live in are falling down and full of holes. There isn't any running water or inside toilets. Some people go for a long time without a bath. I am not used to the heat and strong smells. Some faces are terrible here, too. They are sad and absent looking. The voices behind the faces mumble "yessah."
But, there are another kind of folk down here too. They are in The Movement; not all of them officially, but at least in spirit. They live everywhere in small numbers. Most are black, some are white. They have wonderful faces. These are the people who won't say "die." They can only say "Freedom." They are Baptist preachers, sociologists, laborers, Harvard graduates, intellectuals, and kids. But, they are all working together each with his own particular talent to make this a better world for all of us.
But, back to the story of what I've been doing.
Early Sunday morning we arrived at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Georgia. We were assigned to our dormitories and given meal tickets. About 400 people attended the orientation.
The very first evening we sat for 2-1/2 hours in the gym in 100-degree weather where we met and listened to the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Hosea Williams, SCOPE project director, was the main speaker. He gave us a pep talk and introduced us to the people we would be working with, including a large number of professors from top colleges and universities. We closed the evening by joining hands and singing "We Shall Overcome" followed by a closing prayer.
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 Rustin. Following that we broke up into small workshops to discuss the speech. The faculty members lead 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. He went over each section of the bill with us.
Title I the voting section which hasn't changed anything. Title II forbids anyone to discriminate at hotels and all lodgings (except for a five-room or less boarding house). Any restaurant, lunch counter that gets supplies from outside the state comes under this section. All gas stations, theaters, public meeting places. If a swimming pool has a lunch counter then it is covered. The fault with this part is that places of participation are not covered swimming pools, barber shops, bowling alleys. We can enforce this section by either legal or direct action.
1. If you aren't served in a restaurant you have the right to sue.
2. Sit-downs are effective in places that aren't covered. The Supreme Court is divided about whether this is a legal method or not.
Title III allows the Attorney General to desegregate by suit any public facility which discriminates. Title IV Attorney General can sue schools which do not integrate. Title V establishes extensive Civil Rights Commission. Title VI no federal funds can be used to discriminate or segregate. You can't district schools to segregate and still get government funds. If school districts aren't integrated by geography the students shall have a choice of schools. The drawbacks in this part are that they may not integrate and just not tell anyone or else they don't let the kids know they have a choice. Title VII FEPC goes into effect on July 2. Fair employment practices only covers employment of 100 or more workers. It bars discrimination in the hiring and firing in the apprentice programs of unions. The problem is that right now there aren't any regional offices to take care of the cases. Now we must take the complaints to the federal government. Title VIII voting statistics implements the 14th Amendment.
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. For help we can turn to the Community Relations Service in Washington, DC. We can create test cases rather than going on word-of-mouth evidence. In job discrimination we should go to employment agencies and try every legal means to secure jobs for Negroes. We must be sure that they first have the qualifications. Most of the public works will be receiving federal funds. Hospitals and clinics in most state programs are federally financed. Social Welfare Agencies are often guilty of discrimination. The county agricultural allocation agency decides who should raise what. Sometimes they make sure the Negro gets poor crops. We need more people down here who are experts in education, agriculture, and everything else.
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. I think it is a good bill, but we must put it into effect ourselves.
Tuesday the 15th was non-violence day. This was one of the most fascinating subjects to me. I talked to black and white, men, women and children 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, spoke on this subject. He said violence is a man-made force. But non-violence can also be a force. Non-violence 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. Non-violence 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 non-violence. We had workshops to discuss non-violence. 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. In the afternoon C. Van Woodward of Yale University addressed us about "The Relationship of Southern History to the Negro Revolt." He said the South has a separate history from the rest of the nation. Secession, Civil War, and Reconstruction occurred only in the South. We must learn from past history. We have a tendency to reject the past and treat it as a burden rather than a guide. The Negro started out with ideological handicaps. Darwin's theories really perpetuated racism. The clergy and labor movement ignored the Negro problem. Even socialists didn't do anything for the Negro in the 19th century. Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson didn't recognize the problem.
In the 1920s there was nothing to discourage racism and the KKK grew in numbers. The New Deal was merely patronizing and the problem grew. By the end of the century the conservatives persuaded the populists to join with them in disenfranchising the Negro. European immigration coincided with Negro disenfranchisement. In 1907 Europe moved in on the continent, but the U.S. didn't get there soon enough to get its share. However, we did pick up some imperialistic attitudes from Europe. Asian and African peoples face the same problems as the Negro here, but there is one difference. They are in a majority in their countries. There have been some positive changes, however. Northern opinion is more positive, mainly due to the Negro voting strength there. In the South they do know that they have to change. The whites here don't want to lose business through boycotts or get a bad image. A white man may not really love a Negro but he can see that his interests are the same. Urbanization helps social change because cities can exercise the vote even though rural counties carry weight in Congress. There is a second reconstruction going on and let's hope it is more successful than the first. After every speech we had question and answer periods which proved to be quite valuable.
In the evening, the event we had all been waiting for occurred. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came into town. He rode in a parade, headed by a band of small boys beating drums. Wherever he goes hoards of people follow him. He is indeed the leader of The Movement. When he rose to speak a hush fell over the audience. He didn't yell and he didn't shout but what he said gripped our hearts, and our souls and our minds. This is par to what he said: History is being made here. It is the students who are making history now. People have reached the end of their patience. With non-violence we found a new ally for freedom that black and white together can use. New York has abolished the death penalty and taken strong civil rights measures because of student non-violent pressure. SCLC believes in the value of student groups and for this reason has organized SCOPE. We are here because we are humanitarians and patriots. The depreciation of the Negro has affected our nation drastically. The older generation is lost because it hasn't achieved democracy. We are the Hopeful Generation because we can face the racists in Montgomery. The 1965 Voting Rights Bill will give government sanction to "outsiders." The Supreme Court and Washington, DC are outsiders. People say it is sacrilege to use churches for civil rights meetings, but Thomas Paine and Paul Revere used churches. SCOPE workers are wanted and needed by the community. If people say you are crazy maybe they are right . . . but it is "creative maladjustment." Don't be satisfied with less than Freedom.
After King left, shouts and cheers ringing in his ears, we saw the film "Right Now," made by the United Church of Christ, which tells the story of voter registration. "Big Lester," (Lester Hankerson) a 250-pound Negro, was the hero of the movie and was also sitting with us in the audience. He said a few words and I could tell that he has a heart as big as he is and he is going to love everyone right into freedom.
We sang freedom songs that night as we did whenever we had free time. I began to feel that they call "soul" in the songs. The freedom songs are the heartbeat of the Movement. When we are joyous we sing "Freedom is a comin'" and when we're tired we sing "Hold On." For every occasion there is a song to express our feeling.
By Wednesday, June 16, we were beginning to get pretty tired. Long evening discussions, parties, and little food are standard in the Movement. It's strange but true that the tireder and the hungrier we got the more sure we were that it was worth it. Never have I learned so much in such a short time.
On Wednesday we looked into the Negro labor problems. We heard from James Bevel, SCLC Director of Direct Action. He said that Negroes all over the country have been prevented from sharing in the accumulated knowledge of society. They have been exploited and their humanity has been destroyed. We haven't been able to end segregation by integration; we have been tricked. Busing New York kids to white schools doesn't give them equal education. Segregation is a smoke screen. The Civil Rights Bill of 1960 says that Negroes are human but the white folks won't admit it. The Negroes don't even want to vote, they have been so humiliated. We must ask them to work with what they have. That is how the Movement started and that is how it gets its strength. Many reforms are needed. When the people in Harlem regain their humanity they will burn that eyesore down. The money, the power is in the hands of the federal government and we must get our power from them.
Michael Harrington, author of The Other America, spoke next. He said: The most hampered citizen of the United States is at the same time the most dynamically aware person in the USA. Sixty percent of the Negroes live in the South and forty percent in the North. In the South Negroes are mostly in urban areas. In 1950 the Negroes quit moving North because indigenous leadership arose. The Church became the basis for the freedom movement. Really, in the North they aren't given education or decent jobs, anyway. The Negro entering the economy now is faced with a bad situation. Industrialization can no longer use unskilled or uneducated workers. Since Negroes are poor they are less educated, less politically aware, and less able to do anything about it. But, out of this unique suffering came the Negro militant spirit. The Negro Movement (10% of the population) acts as a catalyst for social reform. Negroes called attention to poverty. The Civil Rights Movement is breaking up the Dixiecrat-GOP coalition. From 1938 until recently they really ran the country. Goldwater campaigned to this coalition and ended up really shattering it.
President Johnson's theory is that the USA economy is so abundant that we need not have conflict about distribution. Job Corps won't take anyone with a criminal record. In Harlem that included almost everyone. So he is choosing only "the cream of the poor." In the next five years we need 1.5 million new jobs a year just to keep only 5% unemployed. The problems of automation are not Negro problems but American problems. Negro labor, churches, civil rights, all must get together to get legislation and political power. We have a strong basis for social change. We aren't clearing the slums . . . using black and white together. That could mean hundreds of new jobs. This is not a Negro movement; it is a movement for social reform.
Our third speaker was Brendon Sexton of the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity. In brief he said: the War on Poverty isn't going to end poverty. The Medicare Act could do more than the whole program. Negroes and the aged are the poor of this country.
Our county assignments were made and a person from each county gave a short talk. Randolph Blackwell, Program Director for SCLC, talked about community organizing. There will be leaders and organizations in every community we will be working in. Be sensitive to the leadership. Don't base your analysis on education or economics. In the Negro community leadership is determined differently. Don't have preconceived notions about who can and cannot be involved in voter registration. Watch for unique situations. Lines of thought and action go more along age groups than any other factor. Senior citizens may be in the program but they bring their backgrounds with them. They think they are radical, but they really aren't. Don't offend them by implying they are out of focus. The young adult segment will be the best trained. They will feel they have a right to determine policy in the community. Beware of taking part in something that will alienate the rest of the community.
Youth leaders (16-23 years) are desirable, energetic, and capable. Identify with this group but be careful you don't get caught up in believing that the ends justify the means. There must be guidelines. Don't waste your time trying to restructure the values of the people you work with. Try to work within their accepted value structure. Be flexible. You can't afford to be dogmatic. If there are community organizations, work with them. Avoid cliques. The key to success is working with sensitivity with them. Stay out of arguments. We need not defend ourselves. You do not have to defend SCLC. You have not come to confront the white community. We are justified if our project is carried on in a fashion that will bring the Negro community through this experience intact.
Herbert Colter spoke on how to organize a Get-Out-The-Vote campaign. Telephone committees are necessary to get carpools, baby-sitters, furnish the poll workers with food. Get people who are eligible to vote, get white people, knock on doors.
Andy Marisett told us how to organize youth in a black-belt community. Find out if they are doing anything at all. Talk to a couple of boys about the Movement. Get thrown in jail. When you are released have a mass meeting. On Saturday you can find kids on the baseball field. Go to parties wherever they are.
Mr. Turner told us how to organize a civic meeting. In the rural South locate the meeting where the most people can be reached. Find a building that is not too fancy or too obvious. Elect officers to run the organization. Get some by-laws. Hand pick the first members. Get independent farmers who can't be fired. Don't meet on nights when something else is doing.
Big Lester, specialist in street-corner registration, had only this to say: Don't give up when you are turned away. Get them to register!!!!
Golden Frinks told us about mobilization of the community for direct action. Find out who the white leaders are and who the Negro leaders are and who the minister is. Find the kids and play with them. See what needs to be done in a particular area. Learn a lot about the county. Create confidence but don't act like you know it all. Call for 6- to 13- year-old kids to meet and the parents will come out of curiosity. March them to the courthouse to demonstrate.
Jim Williams spoke specifically about SCOPE: You are a representative of SCLC. Be careful how you say what you say. No matter how bad the local leadership is, don't degrade them. Build confidence in the local leaders so when we leave we don't leave them alone. Talk to them on their level. Know a little theology, talk religion. Keep the kids constructively busy. Find a liberal reverend who can set up mass meetings. Canvas the area. Keep the meetings short. Be convinced that you can do something. Forget yourself and become an instrument of the local people.
Rev. Harrell, the staff person from my county, spoke last. He reiterated what the others had said and added that it is important not to create conflicts. We are all working for one goal . . . voter registration!
Thursday was a full day. Martin Luther King even made a surprise appearance. We heard from many labor leaders but by this time I was flagging in my note taking and I don't have anything of value to relate to you. After all the sessions were over we went to a movie theater and saw "Nothing but a Man," the poignant and moving story of a Negro laborer who couldn't say "yessah" any longer. Since I hadn't gone to any of the nightly parties, and I thought it important to establish rapport with certain members of the staff, I went to one Thursday night. One of the things I love about the Movement people is their aliveness. When they laugh they laugh loudly; when they sing, they sing movingly, and when they dance, they dance all night. The kind of people who join the Movement are usually creatively nervous and once in a while they need to release their excess tension. Everyone realized that when the week was over there would be no more merry-making for the rest of the summer, so we really enjoyed ourselves while we had the chance!
On Friday they tried to tell us everything else we needed to know. Rev. Andy Young led an especially good session on interpersonal relationships among the staff, SCOPE workers, and the community. We met with our county units to discuss travel plans, etc. I was to be working in Wilcox County under the leadership of Major Johns and Rev. Dan Harrell.
We got up early Saturday morning and said our farewells but ended up sitting around most of the day waiting to leave. In civil rights the concept of time is totally unlike anything I have experienced before. We have a song that goes "I'm gonna do what the Spirit says do" . . . well they not only do what the Spirit says do, they do it when the Spirit says do!!!
At last, around 5:30 p.m. we pulled out of Atlanta in a convoy of 13 cars. I rode in a VW bus with nine people plus baggage. We had to drive straight through from Georgia to Montgomery, Alabama. There isn't a safe place to stop in between. We arrived at the Montgomery Freedom House around midnight . . . hot, tired and hungry. There were about 40 of us for various countries in Alabama. We bought five loaves of bread and some bologna and sat on a dirty floor and ate. It was good.
After singing some songs we piled back into our cars. I had a wonderful group of kids in my bus (funny I should call them kids, most of them are older than me). We were sticky and tired and many of us were in great physical pain from sore backs, headaches, etc. But, whenever we felt as though we were going to cry out in despair, we started singing. We sang "Nobody knows the trouble I seen." As we sang we forgot our cares, our aches, our fears, and remembered the reason and the meaning in our suffering.
Around 2:30 a.m. we arrived at Antioch Baptist Church in Camden, Alabama. We had to sleep on the floor without blankets or pillows. Never have I slept on a sweeter bed. But we only slept two hours when we were awakened. Major Johns had stood guard over us because there were Klansmen driving up and down in front of the church. Some of the kids left then for their counties. We had been promised a place to stay by a certain Negro who backed out at the last minute. The rest of us were nearly stupefied with hunger, exhaustion, and a little bit of fear. We had to find housing in a town where whites hate us and Negroes are afraid of us.
In the morning, I got dressed and went to the church service. There were only a few people there lots of children and a few ladies, no men. After church I talked to the children who gathered round me and asked them to help me canvas for voters. They told me their parents wouldn't register because they just don't care anymore. The children are beautiful they still have hope. There isn't hardly anyone in Camden between 18 and 35 years. There is nothing here for youth no jobs no schools no social life no opportunity for advancement.
Sunday night I was initiated to my first mass meeting. It was held in the little community church at Coy, a nearby village. Major and Rev. Harrell preached for two hours about the importance of registering to vote and the people really responded.
When I finally crawled into bed, worried and scared about a hundred things, sick from the local croup, tired from the long meeting, I had a hope in my heart. It's a hope I found in the midst of these people who live in the midst of hatred and degradation; I found it in the faces of the young Negro children and I found it in the voices of my fellow SCOPE workers. This hope is that We shall Overcome.
I want to thank all of you who are making my summer possible by your contributions, your encouragement, and your prayers. I need all three in order to continue the work. If any of you want to be of further help to the Movement, write your congressman about the Voting Rights Bill, insist that it be passed now. It is a good bill and will greatly implement our efforts.
We have one great need in Camden which some of you might like to meet. There are no doctors or drugstores that will serve Negroes or civil rights workers. We need alcohol, Lysol, antibacterial soaps, and vitamin pills desperately.
Again, I want to thank you for your support. Anyone who wishes to contact me should write in care of: Camden Academy, Camden, Alabama. Please register your letter if it is important, because all our mail is opened and read.
From Camden with good hope,
Copyright © Maria Gitin (formerly Joyce Brians) 1997. No part of this document may be reproduced without written permission of author. This letter was written by Maria Gitin under the name Joyce Brians in 1965 and is part of a text for a book on these experiences.
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the information contained in the letter belongs to Maria Gitin.