This Bright Light of Ours offers a tightly focused insider’s view of the community-based activism that was the heart of the civil rights movement. A celebration of grassroots heroes, this book details through first-person accounts the contributions of ordinary people who formed the nonviolent army that won the fight for voting rights.
Combining memoir and oral history, Maria Gitin fills a vital gap in civil rights history by focusing on the neglected Freedom Summer of 1965 when hundreds of college students joined forces with local black leaders to register thousands of new black voters in the rural South. Gitin was an idealistic nineteen-year-old college freshman from a small farming community north of San Francisco who felt called to action when she saw televised images of brutal attacks on peaceful demonstrators during Bloody Sunday, in Selma, Alabama.
Atypical among white civil rights volunteers, Gitin came from a rural low-income family. She raised funds to attend an intensive orientation in Atlanta featuring now-legendary civil rights leaders. Her detailed letters include the first narrative account of this orientation and the only in-depth field report from a teenage Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) project participant.
Gitin details the dangerous life of civil rights activists in Wilcox County, Alabama, where she was assigned. She tells of threats and arrests, but also of forming deep friendships and of falling in love. More than four decades later, Gitin returned to Wilcox County to revisit the people and places that she could never forget and to discover their views of the “outside agitators” who had come to their community. Through conversational interviews with more than fifty Wilcox County residents and former civil rights workers, she has created a channel for the voices of these unheralded heroes who formed the backbone of the civil rights movement.
About the Author
Maria Gitin was a national fundraising and diversity trainer for twenty-eight years. She has served as Executive Director of a YWCA, founded a shelter for survivors of domestic violence, and continues to register voters in communities of color. Currently, Gitin is a frequent presenter on cultural competency and voting rights. She lives in Northern California with her photographer husband, Samuel Torres Jr.
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THIS BRIGHT LIGHT of OURS
Stories from the 1965 Voting Rights Fight
By MARIA GITIN
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESSCopyright © 2014 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
The Call to Action
It was after 4:00 a.m. when we heard truck doors slam as booted feet quickly surrounded Antioch Baptist Church where our exhausted group of newly trained civil rights recruits was trying to get some sleep. "Get down and stay down till I say," shouted our leader, Major Johns. Then there were shots—unmistakable shotgun shots. I moved closer to Bob, a fellow civil rights field worker I had met only ten hours earlier. "They won't kill us tonight," he whispered as I shivered in fear. "Not likely anyway. I've only been cattle prodded once and never been arrested yet. Welcome to Wilcox County, Alabama, that's all." I held my breath and prayed.
How could white men who called themselves Christians come onto this sacred ground with the intent to scare us away when we were only here to help ensure that all Americans had the right to vote? How dare they? Well, I'll show them, I thought to myself. I won't be afraid. After a while they stopped shooting. My heart was racing as I heard the sound of heavy boots retreating to trucks that roared off" down the dark tree-lined highway.
It was the summer of 1965. I had joined hundreds of other college students in a voter education and registration drive aimed at supporting disenfranchised black people in segregated counties across the Deep South in their long struggle to register to vote. The Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in 1870, gave all citizens the right to vote, regardless of race or creed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 augmented this right by requiring equal application procedures for all voters. However, lawmakers and law enforcers in the South not only ignored these rights, they also fought them with every legal and illegal weapon in their vast racist arsenal.
I had just turned nineteen and was full of optimism. We student civil rights volunteers believed we could make a difference, force the law to work for instead of against the people, and maybe change some minds, too. Despite excellent briefings in Berkeley and orientation in Atlanta, I had only a vague idea of what awaited us until that first fearful night as I crouched on the hardwood floor of historic Antioch Baptist Church in Camden, Alabama.
San Francisco, California, and Selma, Alabama
In the spring semester of 1965, I was a freshman at San Francisco State College. On March 8, I saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on television for the first time. In my youthful imagination I believed he pointed his finger directly at me and said: "We need you to come down 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 tried to explain the political situation, but I could only watch in horror as masses of white Alabama state troopers and Selma policemen attacked unarmed peaceful protesters from the safety of their horses. They launched tear gas canisters from huge guns, and troopers beat hundreds of people, including young children as they scrambled for safety, just because they had tried to march to Montgomery for voting rights. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not among the marchers on that Sunday, March 7, when the unprovoked attack took place, but he rapidly responded with a compelling national call to nonviolent arms.
What I had witnessed became known as Bloody Sunday. The series of attempted marches and an ultimately successful march commonly referred to as the Selma to Montgomery March actually began a month earlier. In Marion, some thirty miles from Selma, Alabama, a white state policeman shot and killed twenty-six-year-old Jimmy Lee Jackson who was trying to protect his mother and grandfather from being attacked by state police during a peaceful voting rights march.
Jimmy Lee Jackson's murder inspired the first attempted march from Selma to Montgomery. That Sunday, March 7, march was organized and led by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) chairman John Lewis and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) project director Hosea Williams and others. More than five hundred peaceful protesters assembled with plans to walk the fifty-four miles from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery to protest Jackson's murder, to demand the right to vote, and to demand federal protection from attacks on voting rights activists by Alabama state troopers and their volunteer posse, local white men who were deputized to brutalize civil rights activists in communities throughout the South.
But before the marchers left Selma, they were attacked by state troopers and city police and brutally beaten back across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. SNCC leader John Lewis (later Congressman John Lewis) suffered a fractured skull, and many others were severely beaten and jailed.
As I watched the televised replay of this violent attack on peaceful people marching for their lawful rights, everything converged for me—from the Quaker values of my grandmother to my childhood identification with oppressed people to years of Sunday School in our small farming community to our high school debate club where we questioned why the federal government didn't intervene more in the segregated US South. When I heard Dr. King's call to nonviolent arms, I decided right there and then, "I can do that. I have to go!"
Rural Childhood and Early Progressive Influences
Although I grew up in Penngrove, a small farming community about forty-five miles north of San Francisco, my family was more progressive than many. My mother's family descended from Quakers, some of whom had been active in the Underground Railroad, a network of abolitionists who helped fugitive slaves escape to the North and to Canada in the years leading up to the Civil War. My five aunts on my mother's side were considerably more liberal than my father's ten brothers and sisters. There were forty-eight first cousins between the two sides of my family, and most of them lived within twenty miles of us.
I adored my maternal grandmother who we lived with at her Cotati chicken ranch from my birth in April 1946 until we moved to Penngrove, five miles away, on my first birthday. We lived in a two-bedroom 1904 house built for farmhands on a tenth of an acre attached to my father's parents' farm. I missed my maternal grandma Brookover's big lap and easy laughter. My paternal grandparents were not fond of children. When I toddled over to Grandpa and Grandma's house, they sent me home with a note that said "keep this child at home" pinned to my top. Stern Grandfather Brians spanked me if I was caught with stained hands in his raspberry patch. He scolded me every time he saw me, even if I was just swinging on the swing hanging from his big acacia tree. My mother's family was loving and more concerned with what was happening in the world, but they didn't live nearby. My Brookover city cousins recall liking to come to our place in the country to pick wildflowers, make hay forts in the barn, and pick vegetables from our garden to take back to Oakland and San Francisco.
My political consciousness was forged early when my beautiful, auburn haired Aunt Ruth took me to my first political demonstration when I was about seven years old in 1953. I was scared but proud as we stood outside the San Francisco Market Street Macy's store at Christmastime with signs that said "No War Toys." The protest was organized by Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in an effort to make parents stop and think before they purchased gifts of guns and toy soldiers for their young children. As I stood in the cold fog in my thin coat, my older cousin Bob took my hand when people yelled at us "Communist!" It was then that I learned that you might suffer for doing the right thing, but you also got the rewards of belonging. Aunt Ruth took us out for Chinese food afterward, so my first political protest left a good taste.
During my youth in the 1940-60s, rural northern California was mostly white and Protestant. We joked that tiny Penngrove had a population of two hundred, counting cows and chickens, but at least 25 percent of the kids in my elementary school had parents who were born outside the United States and many more had immigrant grandparents. Our tiny kindergarten through sixth grade elementary school was a melting pot of Jewish, Russian, German, Polish, Portuguese, Azorean, Japanese, Italian, Irish, and other ethnic groups, but there were no African American families.
We were the first wave of post-World War II baby boomers. My closest elementary school friends were Jewish except for my cousin Michael, who was Catholic. Some of my classmates said that the pope told their Catholic parents how to vote. I heard stories of prejudice and persecution from my earliest years, including one about a Jewish man who was literally tarred and feathered for attending a Socialist Party meeting in Santa Rosa, the county seat.
I learned from a young age that religion could divide people, especially in a small town. I also learned that faith could bring people together, like when I joined my best friend, Jackie Goldstein, trick or treating for money to plant trees in the new state of Israel. We were given money, Halloween candy, and praise from the adults whose doors we knocked on in nearby Petaluma. Afterward, we all danced and sang with an Israeli folksinger at the Jewish Community Center.
Jackie and I are still friends today. We look back in amazement at how serious we were. In second grade, we pored over Life Magazine photos of bodies piled in the Nazi gas chambers as Jackie explained that she could have relatives among them. I led her to the secret Indian graveyard in the hills behind my uncle Ben's property where entire families were wiped out by smallpox contracted from white settlers in the 1800s. We whispered made-up Indian blessings as we put daisies on the broken-up granite gravestones that had no names, just "Indian child. Age 10."
My father teased my mother about her Indian blood, which her sisters denied. Even after I learned that my great-grandmother was born on a Potawatomi Indian reservation in Indiana, they said she was likely the daughter of a Quaker teacher at the Indian school. After World War II, northern white people talked about a new melting pot America. They didn't want to talk about separate heritage, although our teachers taught us that white Spanish missionaries had enslaved and slaughtered Indians, and they even mentioned "Negro" slavery. But they said it was long ago, in the distant past, and that everyone was the same now. I wasn't so sure about that.
My Japanese classmates had been born within months of their families' release from federal internment camps where those born in Japan and Americans of Japanese descent alike were incarcerated during World War II. People did not add "American" onto ethnic designations in those days, even though most Japanese people in California referred to themselves both as Japanese and as loyal Americans. Many Japanese families returned from the internment camps to find their houses and farms stolen through false paperwork or destroyed by those who had agreed to watch over them while they were away.
Returning internee parents and grandparents watched warily as their Americanized kids played with white classmates. Once while visiting my Sunday School teacher Shirley Nakagawa's home, her parents shooed us away from their beautiful Shinto shrine where their ancestors' photos were displayed. Some adults, like my Italian Aunt Liz, were openly biased and used slang like "Jap" and "Portugee," while in other homes I heard that same aunt called "Wop."
It was easy for me to identify with those who were considered "other." Although we didn't look different, our nonfarming yet not-really-professional father, our tiny house on a tenth of an acre, and me wearing glasses from the age of three, were unusual in that era. My father's siblings lived on large farms all around us yet there was very little socializing. At rare Brians family gatherings I overheard his brothers talk about my slightly built father. "Never had what it takes to be a farmer; thinks he's better than us with his slacks and shirts. Doesn't make enough clerking at that hardware store to support all those girls," they said. My father was short, wiry, but strong for his size. He could repair anything and worked long hours after his regular job to improve our home and property. As the oldest girl, I often helped him with painting and yard work.
My mother gifted me with little sisters, one after another five years apart: auburn-haired, brown-eyed, brainy Sylvia; cute, creative, sandy-blond Alberta; and then adorable, little blue-eyed, blond Cindy. My mother was a pretty, petite, dark brunette, a talented gardener, seamstress, singer, and cook, but she was insecure, and emotionally unstable. Her family left Oklahoma when she was only four and a half, after her father failed at farming. They spent a year and a half as migrant workers picking fruit and cotton living out of a tarp-covered truck. During those formative years, my mother must have felt insecure. Like my mother, I had to wear glasses from an early age and sometimes mean boys called me "four eyes." I developed into a sensitive child in the midst of a community of hardy, hard-working farm kids, many of them my first cousins on the Brians side. Sometimes kids called me "fraidycat," although I was inquisitive and adventurous enough to get in trouble at school and home as often as any child. In the creek I captured tadpoles that turned into frogs hopping around the house, and I sneaked bouquets of allergy-producing acacia branches into the room I shared with my sisters.
Rural kids were expected to do a lot of hard work, and my parents took that tradition to extremes. As the oldest girl I was responsible for dishes, laundry, ironing, cooking, cleaning up the kitchen after dinner, weeding the garden, feeding the chickens, and taking care of my sisters. Housework consumed most of my after-school and weekend time. When I was still in elementary school, I sprained my neck while helping my father shovel sand into the cement mixer to install a sidewalk around our house. The country doctor yelled at my father, "You are working this child like a slave!" That admonition stayed in my mind for a long time, although my parents continued to work me just as hard as before.
From earliest memory, regular attendance at Penngrove Community Church and its summer Camp Cazadero were my refuge from home and primary source of social consciousness. The church was Congregational, a progressive Protestant denomination later called the United Church of Christ. We were taught acceptance of all races and to believe in world peace. Some members of our church organized an early peace march before the United States formally entered the war in Vietnam. My parents' faith didn't ease the constant conflicts between them, arguments that seeped from under their bedroom door into my sensitive, inquisitive ears. Although my parents were nondrinkers, they were both given to unexpected fits of rage, at each other and sometimes at me, often over money. My father kept a ledger where he itemized every penny spent on each child. I was deemed expensive due to my need for glasses and orthopedic shoes. From a young age, I longed for my parents' approval but always felt like a failure in their eyes despite my decent enough grades and starring role in school musicals. I was eager to get away from home.
Nearly every summer, I attended Camp Cazadero where I learned new songs about peace and justice, including "Kumbaya," an African hymn that I would later sing in Georgia with other civil rights volunteers. In the redwood forests that covered the hills of northern Sonoma County, about fifty miles from my flat farmland home, we hiked, swam, and sang as well as listened to talks about world problems. At Camp Cazadero I learned the importance of putting faith into action. I met a minister who visited death row inmates and organized demonstrations against the death sentence at San Quentin Prison, despite his neighbors in wealthy Marin County threatening his life in anonymous letters. Another church leader told us of going to Africa, not to convert black people to Christianity, but to work on race relations between black and white churches there.
During the summer of 1959 I met a person of African heritage for the first time. Our church's student minister from the Berkeley Theological Seminary pulled up with a very dark man in a white starched shirt in the backseat of his 1952 Chevy. Rev. Barton conferred with my father for a few minutes and then drove away, leaving the man and his small brown suitcase. Rev. Enriche Sucquaqueche was a distinguished African minister who was stranded in the United States because the Angolan war of independence from Britain broke out while he was making the rounds of Congregational churches and summer camps. I was grinning ear to ear as he shook my hand and he said, "You can call me Henry." He settled into a quickly made up half room off of the garage. My father warned me, "Don't even think about going out there and don't bother him at all; understand?"
Excerpted from THIS BRIGHT LIGHT of OURS by MARIA GITIN. Copyright © 2014 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations xi
I My Freedom Summer 1965
1 The Call to Action 7
2 The Journey Begins 30
3 The Wilcox County Voting Rights Fight 48
4 Welcome to Wilcox County 57
5 They Were Ready for Us 67
6 Selma and SNCC 75
7 Out in the Field 84
8 Things Heat Up 105
9 The Terror Continues 112
10 A Brief Reprieve 120
11 Back in the Field 126
12 The Beginning of Doubts 137
13 This May Be the Last Time 143
II Looking Back, Moving Forward: Stories of the Freedom Fighters
14 The Intervening Years 157
15 Joyful Reunions 172
16 Tragic Losses, New Friendships 186
17 We Remember Them 210
18 We Honor Them 230
19 Keep Your Eyes on the Prize 249
20 A Change Is Gonna Come 262