This Bright Light of Ours
Stories from the Voting Rights Fight
Publication Year: 2014
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.
Published by: The University of Alabama Press
Series: Modern South
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Title Page, Copyright
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List of Illustrations
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This book had its beginning in the actions of a nineteen-year- old, brave, intelligent, idealistic, and socially conscious white girl who volunteered to go to the heart of the so-called Alabama Black Belt during a critical period in the Civil Rights Movement. The girl’s name was Joyce Brians (Maria Gitin),...
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Deep gratitude and respect go to all of the courageous individuals who entrusted me with their stories. Special thanks to my dear SNCC friends Charles “Chuck” Bonner and Luke (Bob) Block for helping to re-create our summer as teenage civil rights workers. Wilcox County community leaders...
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Through the hazy blue light of the Mt. Konocti Blues Club, one night in December 2005, Bettie Mae Fikes’s deep contralto sang out “This Little Light of Mine” with as much passion as she had when she was a teenager with the SNCC Freedom Singers. As we sat around the table, my friends Charles...
I. My Freedom Summer 1965
1. The Call to Action
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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—...
2. The Journey Begins
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A week before we left in early June, I sang the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the San Francisco State College Choral Union and the San Francisco Symphony. The performance was my final exam for my Choral Union class. We sang under the direction of famed, stern conductor...
3. The Wilcox County Voting Rights Fight
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In the mid-1960s, outsiders easily could have been lulled into thinking that gradualism, a favored philosophy of liberal southern whites, was working. The 1955–56 Montgomery Bus Boycott, organized by the Montgomery Improvement Association with Rosa Parks as a test case, forced that city to...
4. Welcome to Wilcox County
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For some of the dozen or more of us who participated in the SCLC SCOPE orientation in Atlanta and then jammed into three VW vans for an eight-hour drive, Camden was just a stop on the way to another county. For me, this was going to be home for the rest of the summer. On wobbly legs, we...
5. They Were Ready for Us
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On Monday we began our voter registration program. The second & fourth Mondays are registration days in Alabama. There are 6,000 Negroes and only 1,000 Whites (of voting age) in Wilcox County...
6. Selma and SNCC
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I’m still in the hospital. My cough is dying down & my temp has
returned to normal so I hope to get out of here soon.
Everyone in the hospital has been in to see me, from the janitor to the supervisor. When other patients have visitors, they always send...
7. Out in the Field
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As soon as I was well, Bob Block literally took me by the hand. He explained everything that Major and Dan had told us all over again because now I needed to understand how it really worked in the field. I immediately picked up on the movement terms. “Locals” meant black people and “local leaders”...
8. Things Heat Up
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Bob stopped by the Academy to warn me that “the shit is just about to hit the fan.” The county voting registrar was still blocking new applicants by being closed for long lunches, asking for documentation not required by federal law, and generally making it difficult to register. During the first week ...
9. The Terror Continues
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During the short drive to jail, I tried not to think of the constant threat of being taken deep into the piney woods and raped by God-knows- how- many crazed racists. I thought about what Bob said—that it was safer in jail— and hoped that he was right. I desperately wanted to follow what we’d been...
10. A Brief Reprieve
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As the violence increased, Bob and I spent the night together in my room at the Academy whenever we could, although most nights we were out in the field separately. The Revs took us aside for talks. They warned us: “You are putting us in danger by being a couple. You are breaking the rules. You...
11. Back in the Field
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I went to canvass the Arlington area again with a Negro boy [ Robert Powell] and girl, and a white male SCOPE worker [Bill]. We were walking along Highway 5 when we noticed a white man in a pickup truck with a shotgun on a rack; he was slowing down. We kept on ...
12. The Beginning of Doubts
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Jan was staying in a nice little home in Selma. She had her own sunny, lace-curtained room with a big four-poster bed that she shared with me for a couple of nights. The lady of the house was a single woman in her forties who dressed sharp and had freshly processed curls. She treated us like guests at a...
13. This May Be the Last Time
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After the car accident, I continued to see everything through a green filter and my head was buzzing, but I didn’t tell the adults. There was no way I was going back to Selma or seeing any more doctors. In severe back pain, I started popping Tylenol from a big bottle my mother had sent in her last...
II. Looking Back, Moving Forward: Stories of the Freedom Fighters
14. The Intervening Years
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Bob and I were miserable on the long bus ride from Selma to Louisiana, where we met up with Bob’s buddy Jerry Roche. We held our breath when we had to change buses inside the state of Mississippi, and we spoke as little as possible to anyone else and to each other only in whispers. After a ...
15. Joyful Reunions
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Over the years, every once in a while, I would meet someone who had been in the Selma to Montgomery March or worked in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer. I would hear about a civil rights book or a film, but the stories often focused only on violence and had white heroes. Although I was an...
16. Tragic Losses, New Friendships
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After our 2005 reunion, I couldn’t stop thinking about the people we had known in Wilcox County. I wondered whether Dan and Juanita Harrell, Major Johns, and Ethel Brooks ever got to rest and be respected for their work, whether they finally elected a law abiding sheriff, and whether the...
17. We Shall Remember Them
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After the Voting Rights Act became law on August 6, 1965, we imagined that things would improve dramatically for African Americans throughout the South. We left thinking that the battle had been won, or at least that the freedom fighters were on the road to victory. National media informed...
18. We Honor Them
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Stories of heroism in the face of violent mistreatment during the Civil Rights Movement in Wilcox County could fill volumes, and yet few of these stories have been told, with the exception of Fleming’s In the Shadow of Selma. Many who moved away cannot bear to return. Some want to forget the horror...
19. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
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Without a doubt, the Wilcox County freedom fight from start to finish was homegrown and locally led. Oppressive racism coupled with firm faith in justice fueled the movement year after year. Outside civil rights workers came and went. John Lewis, Bernard and Colia Lafayette, and many others were...
20. A Change Is Gonna Come
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Through faith and nonviolent and legal activism the black majority ended government-sanctioned segregation in Wilcox County. However, with limited employment opportunities, underfunded public schools, and continued social segregation, many residents believe a new movement is needed—one...
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Page Count: 327
Illustrations: 23 illustrations
Publication Year: 2014
Series Title: Modern South