July 9, 1965
Camden, Wilcox County, AL
I had a rather narrow escape today & when I got back to The Academy [an all black Presbyterian private school in Camden that was used as our headquarters after the church was damaged and closed by the police] & got your letters it made me so happy I wanted to cry. I sure think about you all often.
I was with a Negro boy & girl & one other white boy today walking down the highway when a man in a pickup truck tried to run over us — we jumped across a ditch but he kept coming back to try for more. He had a shotgun pointed at us, too. We finally decided to try to get to a phone. We went into a Negro cafi & tried to call the Academy (now SCOPE headquarters) but the line was busy. Our white Klan friend kept cruising up & down in front of the place while we two white folk hid in the outhouse. The woman who owned the place got scared & made us leave. We hid in the woods & tried to plan what to do. Finally the Negro boy went to try to find another phone. It took him over an hour. At last someone from the Academy came to pick us up & we made it safely back to town. I wasn't scared — just mad. Now our chances are blown in that community — Arlington, 'cuz the folks are scared of us.
I'm so tired of living in constant danger that I can't be afraid anymore. Every nite when I go to bed I just say "Thank God no one got killed today." We are getting people registered, tho' the Klan is trying its damndest to see that we don't.
To answer your questions:
It is very hot. It rains & thunders & lightenings for about an hour every day — usually while we are out canvassing. We seldom get cars. I have walked as much as 25 miles in one day.
I move from house to house, nite to nite. Everyone is afraid to keep us longer than that. They won't let me stay at The Academy anymore except in emergencies like tonite (there are Klansmen at the gate to the Academy but they can't come up here) cuz we didn't get that letter yet [from Rev Hosea Williams approving me for this housing]. I usually share a double or single bed with another girl. I've never had a room or bed to myself. Few of the homes have running water or electricity. I've never stayed in a place with indoor toilets.
We eat on the run — ice cream bars, milk — whatever we can find. Few people can feed us because they are so poor. When they do — it is usually fried chicken, grits, corn, beans, etc. I seldom get vegetables or meat and never get any kind of fruit. I guess I miss that the most. I'm losing weight slowly but we have to eat when we can, as much as we can cuz we never know where our next meal is coming from.
I seem to survive on the sleep I get. Considering I had pneumonia 2 wks ago I'm in great shape. I do get tired quicker than the others but the doctor said he's never seen anyone shake it so quickly.
I haven't been to church at all since I've been here cuz we aren't allowed in the white one and the Negro one has been closed by the sheriff. But I pray constantly & read my Bible every nite. Whenever a few of us gather for meals I ask grace. I feel in God's hands more than I ever have before.
My work right now is mainly going from shack to shack trying to convince people to get off their behinds & get down to register. We usually split up and get local kids to show us around. We never work in white pairs cuz the people are still scared of us. [Note: these comments pain me today; the local people were courageous beyond belief — just living there was a constant struggle. I was echoing the talk from leaders who were frustrated with the pace of registration.] We get all sorts of reactions and excuses, but we also get the rewards of seeing people stand in line at the courthouse all day & finally walk home with a new kind of pride that says "I'm a registered voter." We have what we call Mass Meetings where we give pep talks. They are rather like football rallies. I've never gotten to really 'preach' but I've given a couple of short talks.
I will try to remember you at 6 PM [they apparently asked me to make a mental connection with them at their dinnertime] but if I don't I will do so at some other time during the day. I am getting pretty tan. I wish I could get really black & blend in more-- I feel so conspicuous — I'm so white. I've almost caused more near accidents. White folks just about drive off the road when they see me walking down the street carrying a Negro child. But I'd say they are just going to have to get used to it.
Well, I must get some sleep now. Please remember I love you all even tho' I can't write as often as I'd like to. Please keep writing & sending little goodies to me-- They really mean so much.
All my love, Joyce
We constantly had to change plans, strategies as the white segregationists — police and Klan — were relentless in moving us first out of Antioch Baptist Church and then out of Camden Academy. As we moved towards the passage of the Voting Rights Act, our work was to line up voters ready, willing and able to register the first day as well as to continue to test the 1964 Civil Rights Act, pressuring the county registrars to register voters now. Pushing back, the other side saw their mission as destroying the Movement and terrorizing local black folk so that they wouldn't vote, even when they had additional legal tools to back their already existing rights that they were unable to exercise.
Going back to The Academy meant they had scared us out of the field. To make sure we didn't get a false sense of security, they chased us right back out into the field. By late July it felt more like the locals were protecting us in emergency impromptu freedom houses on a night-by-night basis than that we were being helpful to them. We felt bad, guilty that we weren't giving the locals more and instead, were taking from them: food and bed space mostly. But worst of all, that we were bringing them into even greater danger.
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.
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