Expanded version of the story told to the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the student-led sit-ins of 1960, the rise of youth-led activism, and the founding of SNCC. Main library, San Francisco, March 27, 2010.]
In the Spring of 1965, I was a freshman at San Francisco State when I saw the vicious attack on the marchers on Bloody Sunday in Selma. I thought that was so wrong!
I went directly to the SNCC office on campus to see what I could do. They sent me next door to Friends of SNCC where Jeff Freed told me about the summer voter registration project that SCLC was organizing, the Summer Community Organizing and Political Education project or SCOPE. Without hesitation or information, I signed up.
After 4 weekend trainings in Berkeley, and six 14-hour days of orientation in Atlanta — I imagine I was one of the few goody-goodies who actually attended all those sessions — I and 4 other white students were plunged into Wilcox County Alabama, one of the most actively demonstrating counties just 37 miles from Selma. Even though Blacks made up 70% of the population, only 10 African-Americans had been allowed to register to vote since Reconstruction. Infamous Sheriff Lummie Jenkins, his posse, and the KKK kept a reign of terror over the county, despite which the people, led by local students demonstrated daily. The racists had beaten, and chased away countless outside 'agitators' as well as locals before us. Extreme violence rather than jailing civil rights workers was the norm in rural Wilcox.
For the past 2 years, I have been writing a memoir. Part I is based on letters and notes I wrote at that time, from the perspective of a 19 year old liberal white girl from a poor, unsupportive rural northern California family. Part II combines over 40 oral histories of people from that county, about their memories of that time. A blog with stories, photos and information is at thislittlelight1965.wordpress.com
Although I was arrested, chased by the Klan, and had plenty of drama that summer, today I am going to read a short excerpt about the daily life of a voter registration worker, the extraordinary ordinariness of the time. In this excerpt, as well as in the entire book, everyone is black unless I write that they are white.
This is from a section of my book manuscript, This Little Light of Mine, This Bright Light of Ours.
By the way, if there are any agents or publishers out there, I am still shopping this around.
On My Own in Coy
The first area where I was dropped off alone was Coy where I stayed in a small cabin that might have been whitewashed in the distant past. Rickety steps led to a long, wide front porch with loose boards then into a kitchen with two small rooms on either side. At the Robinson's there was no indoor plumbing, no electricity and only a wood stove for cooking and heat, standard for black homes in that county.
I always shared a bed with another young woman or child, but I was out canvassing from dawn til dusk for three days before they moved me to another area, so I didn't get to know the family that well. If I wasn't out canvassing, our SCLC leader Dan Harrell, or local leader Ethel Brooks, would pick me up to go to one of the agricultural coops to talk with the workers during their lunch break and then again in the evening for mass meetings at Little Zion Church. I told the workers about food commodities and government loans; things Dan had been telling them all along but he said they'd pay more attention hearing from someone from The North. I hardly knew what I was talking about, but people were attentive.
One of the local young men who canvassed with me was 16 year-old Robert Powell, a well-spoken good looking student who had a smile that charmed doors open for us. I'd stand back and he'd knock. Then he'd introduce me or sometimes we'd both stand at the door. Robert had good ideas about what would work best with which residents. If they only saw me, sometimes the door wouldn't open or we'd be quickly asked to leave. Often women were working at home farming, doing laundry and ironing, cooking. Sometime we got lucky. A woman would open the door with a wide smile and look of near disbelief. "My, my, my, Lawd have mercy — look at them!" A heavy set lady with her housework rag wrapped around her head waved me in, "You is the first one of them to ever to set foot in this house by invitation. We had the sheriff come out once and break everything up after my son was in the march but that were no invite. You are most welcome here young lady, most welcome."
As soon as I began working in my assigned areas, Coy, Boiling Springs and Gees Bend, locals told us why they had not yet registered. They repeated stories of lynching in the too near past, recent beatings and being fired from scarce decent-paying jobs at the okra canning or box making factory.
One afternoon Robert wanted to stop at one of the little country stores for a soda. We weren't supposed to go into any place where whites might see us together but I didn't want to show Robert my fear. There was a white man in there. He threw one glance at me before he started for Robert who took off running. I ran the opposite direction. I wasn't quite sure how to get back to where I was staying but growing up in the country did me some good. I walked along the red dirt road until I saw trucks where the highway might be, then I got oriented back to my host's house. A few weeks later, in nearby Haneyville on August 21st, Rev. Jonathan Daniels, a white minister, was walking out of a small store after buying sodas with Ruby Sales and Jimmy Rogers of SNCC. He was shot and killed by a racist incensed at the integrated trio of civil rights field workers.
Coy quickly became one of my favorite places to work because it was where Ethel Brooks lived. Ethel was only five years older than me but I looked up to her as one of the most active, progressive and exciting adults.
Ethel was an attractive, high-energy twenty-four year old with medium brown skin, dimples, a huge grin and thick unruly hair. She had a seven-year old son that her mother watched while she and her Dad were out doing community organizing. Ethel had encouraged and "carried" (the local term for drove) students to participate in the Selma marches. She had already been in the Camden jail several times and kept a pair of old paisley pedal pushers that she called her "jail pants" in the back of her car.
I wasn't the only person attracted to Ethel's fiery brand of leadership. She had convinced dozens of high school students to join her on the infamous "Bloody Sunday" march in Selma — a march many of you were in — and the folks we just were with three weeks ago of back there still recall surviving with pride.
Once we were driving back from her place in the bend area of Coy to Camden. A Lane Butane (local Klan leaders) pickup truck started chasing us. Ethel tried to outrun them, driving faster and faster over the bumpy one lane road. At the crossroads where Harvey's store is, she pulled onto a sidetrack in back and hid until the pickup passed us. Whew!
Then, to my horror, she pulled out behind them and started tailgating them with her window rolled down, yelling and laughing wildly. Another worker and I were screaming at her "Ethel stop! Stop!" We were laughing, but at the same time we were scared half to death. Finally, she backed off. The white men glared back at her with faces that said "Crazy lady. We'll get you next time." before they roared on. She wasn't always nonviolent, but her reckless courage sure made us feel braver.
I loved being out in the field because that was what I came here to do, it was generally further away from the sheriff and his "goons," as the locals called them, and I felt important, after all, this was my summer job. It added fuel to my fire that my white boyfriend Bob kept saying he was so impressed since the other white girls worked at the church office or taught Head Start in town, while I was out canvassing.
My recruiting spiels were improving, too, based on results. More folks agreed to be picked up or meet at the church in town and walk up to the courthouse together to try to register. I expect there were a whole lot of local adult activities that had as much to do with the increase in action as our project did, but Dan encouraged us by giving us credit in private while cautioning us to be humble in public.
Another hot humid afternoon I was with teamed up with Robert again somewhere far out in the country. I knocked on a weathered door at the end of a long weed-filled path. An old, old lady cracked open the door and stood there staring at me with no expression. While we were coming up the path, I had noticed that her pump was broken.
Robert introduced me as "from Atlanta," which in the most recent sense was true and was as far away place as he knew at the time. Anyway, that didn't cut any grease with her. She didn't know Atlanta, she didn't know the U.S., the Constitution, or even the State of Alabama. She didn't know of any area larger than Wilcox County. Challenged as to why she should put on her Sunday hat, wait by the road for a local leader known to have an unreliable car to pick her up for a long dusty ride into Camden for what might be a futile attempt to register, I looked around desperately for some personal goal connected to her life.
"That pump! That pump could be repaired and then you could get the whole area on water, on a county water line. If you vote, If you vote you'll at least get to tell them what you want, what you deserve." She shook her head at me pityingly, and shut the door.
But next Monday registration day, when Robert and I passed her place on his father's mule, she was sitting out by the mailbox on a wooden bench, an ancient straw hat jammed on her head, her purse on her knees. She nodded in faint salute as we waved wildly and shouted "Freedom Now! Freedom Now!"
I want to thank Bruce Hartford and others for all their work on the veteran's website and bringing this event together.
In addition to the incredible local leaders, honor also goes to those who worked Wilcox before and with us including Bernard and Colia LaFayette, John Lewis, Dan & Juanita Harrell and Major Johns and so many more.
Appreciation goes to Charles Bonner and Eric P. Jones of SNCC who worked side by side with us and counted both me and Bob Block as working for SNCC as well as SCLC — whites weren't the only ones doing counting double in those days!
Finally, I want to honor those who came after including Dorothy Cotton and Ms Septima Clark who brought their citizenship school to Wilcox County. My husband and I just returned from Camden & Selma Alabama where people are still grateful for their experience and our involvement in The Movement.
Copyright © Maria Gitin, 2010
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the this story belongs to Maria Gitin.