.The Fight for Selma

artsselmaLocal activist recounts her experiences in the most violently segregated county in Alabama during the civil rights movement

Forty-nine years ago, a white 19-year-old girl from Sonoma County got into a rental car with a small group of college students and drove to the most violently segregated county in Alabama.

“It was a war zone,” Maria Gitin tells GT. “They were armed with the weapons and the state laws—and we were armed with our righteous beliefs.”

Months before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law, young people like Gitin journeyed south in droves to register disenfranchised African Americans. But their beliefs wouldn’t shield them from lead pipes, bullets, or policemen’s billy clubs.

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Gitin describes how a man in his car attempted to run her down for registering voters, how she spent 26 hours in jail, and how the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself turned to her and said “You have a beautiful voice, darlin,’” after she sang “We Shall Overcome” with the trainees of the Summer Community Organizing and Political Education (SCOPE) project.

Her book, “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight”, tells countless other equally harrowing and inspiring experiences from that summer.

It began with the March 7 TV broadcasts that horrified the nation. Police officers on horseback were shown trampling, beating, whipping, and arresting men, women and children in Selma, Alabama, on what would become known as Bloody Sunday.

It was the first time that the upside-world of southern race relations entered living rooms across the country. Many, like Gitin, could not look away; Dr. King’s call to nonviolent arms shook them to their bones, and by the thousands they went to Alabama.

“We not only knew that there was a prospect of violence, we expected it,” she says. “We were ready to die for the cause.”

Training seminars educated the young volunteers on everything from the history of slavery and segregation to how to protect their back and kidneys in an assault. They were taught to be nonviolent and nonconfrontational. But they were also taught to prepare for the all-but-certain violence they’d receive in return.

Gitin recounts one instance in Wilcox County, when she was stationed near Selma, and a group of white locals beat her coworkers with lead pipes. Gitin and her friends rushed over only to be met with the barrel of a shotgun; the county sheriff was not pleased that they were shaking up the status quo.

“I still remember looking down the barrel of this shotgun and I think I wrote in one of my letters, ‘This cannot be America,’” she says.

Locals were confused by these young, mostly white, middle-class teenagers. Some were baffled and grateful; others attempted to quell what they saw as an intrusion into their way of life.

“You didn’t know sometimes if they were going to throw a firebomb into the house or start shooting. It was completely bucolic, you were wandering around the hills in a beautiful emerald green countryside and then the next day some white guys were trying to kill you,” she says. “Psychologically, it was very tough.”

Still, students who went to Selma for a summer were fully aware of the difference between their reality and that of the African American locals they had come to support: “We were there to help them register to vote, but they were risking their lives.”

The 1965 Voting Rights Act came into effect months after Gitin returned to the Bay Area, and most history books pick up from that point, with King and Rosa Parks leading the narrative. Years after her time there, Gitin decided that those early days of Selma needed to be documented.

“I wanted to tell the stories of other ordinary people who were there, and the purpose of doing that was to show that I was an example of several hundred, thousands of other kids who had this kind of motivation,” she says.

Gitin has been speaking about her book around the Bay Area, and her upcoming January speaking events in Monterey and Stanford follow the Jan. 9 release of Oprah Winfrey’s widely anticipated film Selma. In the wake of protests from Ferguson to Berkeley, Gitin hopes that reminders like the film and her book can push young activists to seize the momentum.

“I think we have potential for a real race relations movement, once again led by African Americans, if people will give it a chance and not give the bullhorn constantly to the primarily white anarchists and primarily white thugs who show up to break windows and cause a disturbance.”

Advocating for others is always a worthwhile endeavor, says Gitin, but the goal needs to be to support, and not subvert.

“It’s not like ‘I’m white, so you should love me and I’m here to be the boss,’” she says. “It should be ‘How, as a white person, can I help make this better?’”

Maria Gitin will be speaking at Monterey Institute of International Studies on Wednesday, Jan. 21 as part of the YWCA Racial Justice series, and at Stanford University on Jan. 28.


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