Singing for Martin Luther King, Jr.

Maria Gitin returns to her native Penngrove to share her book, which details her experiences as a civil rights volunteer.|

It was the summer of 1965, and 18-year-old Penngrove native Joyce Brians was singing the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” alongside her fellow freedom fighters in Atlanta. It was the night before Brians embarked on a 10-week effort to register African Americans to vote in a violently segregated Wilcox County, Ala.

As Brians belted the song’s last lyric in her bright soprano timbre, the man standing behind her leaned forward.

“You have a beautiful voice, darlin’,” he said. She turned to see Martin Luther King, Jr. standing beside her.

“I was thrilled,” Brians beamed.

It was an uplifting note that began Brians’ perilous work in Alabama. In the south, African Americans - and the students, protesters and leaders who came to support them from across the country - were regularly jeered, harassed, beaten or even killed.

Searching online won’t yield much information on the events of the Freedom Summer of 1965 in Wilcox County. But that was before Brians, who now goes by Maria Gitin, decided to write about it.

“Our summer was pretty much written out of history,” Gitin said. “It’s easy for the media to fixate on a leader rather than a movement, because movements are hard to understand.”

History books often leave out the struggle of about 400 students and 600 leaders to register thousands of African Americans to vote in Alabama, which preceded the passing of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965.

Gitin, who now resides in Santa Cruz County, spent years combining her personal memoir with the oral histories of others, and the result is her book, “This Bright Light of Ours: Stories from the Voting Rights Fight.” On Aug. 1, for the first time in almost 50 years, she’ll return to her hometown to speak publicly about her experiences as a freedom fighter in Wilcox County. Her talk takes place at 7 p.m. at Copperfield’s Books in Petaluma.

Her stories include running from armed members of the Ku Klux Klan, being jailed while other volunteers were being beaten, and narrowly avoiding mass shootings. But, coming from a low-income family in rural Penngrove, Gitin wasn’t a typical civil rights volunteer, and she hopes her Sonoma County roots will make her talk relatable.

“We weren’t exceptional. We were ordinary people who signed up to do something to make a difference,” Gitin said. “You could do this. That’s the message I hope most to get across.”

Gitin’s first influences came from her Quaker grandmother and her Japanese-American and Jewish classmates at Penngrove Elementary School, who talked at an early age about prejudice, war and peace.

“We really had a level of political consciousness that you would not expect at an elementary school,” Gitin recalled.

But it was King’s call for students to come to the south after violent attacks during voting rights marches that caused her to take action.

She remembers feeling “gung-ho” about the movement, with a sense of idealism that volunteers called the “freedom high.” But training for the work in Berkeley and Atlanta was just as sobering as it was inspiring. Students quickly grasped the gravity of the situation they were about to walk into.

“You were taught how to protect the back of your neck and your kidneys when you’re being beaten,” Gitin recalled. “So we knew these things might happen. But it was so wrong that we were willing to risk our lives for it. I think when you’re young it’s easier to have that sense of courage.”

Gitin never anticipated that she would live in constant fear of the white community in Wilcox County. Her most traumatic memory was an attack against the volunteers’ headquarters, situated in a Baptist church in rural Camden, Ala. Gitin wasn’t present during the violence, but she remembers the car that drove up to the school where she was staying, and the two men who emerged badly beaten, one of whom was bleeding to death.

“The Klan had broken into the church where young men were guarding our mimeograph equipment, and they shot at them and beat them with tire irons and almost killed one young man,” Gitin recalled. “We realized that the tide had really turned - that there was not going to be any way that we were going to love these people into accepting integration.”

Today, Gitin’s collection of oral histories has been transformed into a textbook, which is already being taught at several universities.

At every talk she gives, she makes sure to recognize fellow civil rights volunteers for their courage by inviting them to stand and be recognized.

“Some people feel that it’s not their place, because they were only there for 10 weeks,” Gitin said. “I thought that too, but when I went back, people told me what a difference we made. We gave them courage even though we were afraid.”

(Contact Allison Jarrell at allison.jarrell@argus courier.com)

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