What are your most vivid childhood memories? Hopefully, they do not include seeing your father shot or watching him pull up Klan crosses. These childhood terrors are experiences of author Cleo Scott Brown, who chronicles her father’s successful fight to win voting rights for blacks in Louisiana. Cleo speaks nationally on race and reconciliation using lessons from her father’s story. She is also the sponsor of the “Mile in My Shoes” African American male writing project. She resides in Goose Creek, SC.
Witness to the Truth by John H. Scott & Cleo Scott Brown tells the extraordinary life story of a grassroots human rights leader and his courageous campaign to win voting rights for African Americans in northeast Louisiana, one of the last places in the south to allow African Americans the right to vote. Told in Scott's own words, and recorded by his daughter Cleo Brown, Witness to the Truth recounts the complex tyranny of southern race relations.
Raised by grandparents who lived during slavery, Scott grew up learning about the horrors of that institution, and he himself experienced the injustices of Jim Crow laws. Without bitterness or anger, he chronicles almost one hundred years of life in the rural south, including his grandparents’ recollections of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, and his own recollections of migrations between the two World Wars, the displacement of African American farmers during the New Deal, and the shocking methods white southerners used to keep African Americans under economic domination and away from the polls. Chapter president of the NAACP for more than 30 years and a recipient of the A. P. Tureaud Citizens Award, Scott embodied the persistence, strength, and raw courage required of African American leaders in the rural South, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s.
BPM: Take us inside the book, Witness to the Truth, in your own words.
“Witness to the Truth” is a book I wrote about my father who grew up in the almost all black northeast corner of Louisiana. It was a place of thriving black businesses, neighborhoods, and schools, but there was one big problem. Because of the large black majority, from the 1890s until the 1960s, not one African-American was allowed to vote. My father, who was born in 1901, chronicles almost one hundred years of life in the rural south, including his grandparents’ recollections of slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, and his own recollections of sharecropping, the displacement of black farmers, and the shocking methods white southerners used to keep African Americans under economic domination and away from the polls. Although just a small-town farmer and preacher, my father ultimately was able to convince Attorney General Robert Kennedy to join him in his battle to break a system that had been in effect for over 70 years.
Although my father’s crusade took 25 years, his longsuffering reminds us that it was the persistent efforts by ordinary people that impacted the rights of blacks throughout the South. His story also reminds us that we too have the ability to make changes in our own communities and he inspires us to start making a difference.
BPM: What makes you powerful as a person and a writer?
I have personally experienced the worst of human behavior and the worst of economic conditions and I have come through all the struggles happy, sane, at peace, and a lot wiser. God has taught me how to be better rather than bitter.
BPM: Who are your mentors? Where do you find your inspiration?
My mentors and my inspiration are my parents. From my father, I understand that no problem is too large to be tackled. It only takes one person persevering to change a whole system. Because of him, I find it hard to think small. From his life, I also learned that life’s bad experiences can either break you or make you and that I actually got to choose which outcome I’d have in my life. From my mother, I learned that you’re never too old to evolve into your better self. She finished high school when I was in high school and got to have a successful career late in life. Because of her, I strive to always be changing for the better.
BPM: Finish this sentence- My writing offers the following legacy to future readers...
My writing offers the following legacy to future readers... it simplifies the incredibly complex subject of race in America in a way that leads to reflection and discovery, regardless of the racial background of the reader.
BPM: Who should read Witness to the Truth and why?
History-lovers and people who like inspirational stories will want to read this rare first-hand account of the breaking of the final strongholds on voting in the south. Others will like the book simply because my father tells a great story and he has so much to share about where we’ve been and where we need to go. It is also a great historical memoir for high school students. In fact, the most consistent comment across ethnic and regional lines has been that the book should be required reading for every school student. In classrooms where it has been used in conjunction with my study guide, it has generated excellent discussion and reflection about how Americans relate to and deal with issues of race. This story has also proven to be especially thought-provoking for white readers who came of age during the time that many of the cruelties recorded in the story took place.
BPM: What issues in today's society do you address in the book?
Many issues are addressed by my father but some key issues are: 1) How and why racial divisions are perpetuated and who gains from the divisions; 2) The results of lack of involvement in the political process—when readers discover the price paid for the vote, they develop a new appreciation for exercising their rights; 3) The gullibility of the voter to political propaganda—the story details the methods used by powerful people in the past to manipulate and control how people felt about race, voting, and the economy, with the sole objective of controlling elections and maintaining power—methods surprisingly similar to what was used in the latest elections, particularly in my state of SC; 4) What could happen if ordinary citizens got involved and did their part to stand up for what is just and right; and 5) The source of rising racial unrest—it is the story of the last generation to come of age during “Jim Crow” segregation. We are now in our 50s and 60s and unfortunately we are in charge, with all our unresolved racial issues.
BPM: What impact will this book have on the community of readers?
“Witness to the Truth” is told as an intimate conversation between my father and the reader. As readers walk the road of an elder who has seen so much, they will experience what my father called “learning by accident”, which he thought was a fun way to learn. At the end of the journey, readers will discover that they will have gained a better understanding of today’s world and they will have learned the powerful lessons that history can teach us, if we only stop to listen. His words will call out to you to leave your places of comfort and become an agent of change in your own church, school, community, state, and country.
“A moving and powerful autobiography…a sterling example of the power of an individual voice raised in protest, of what happens when one person unwaveringly insists on what is right and just.”
New Orleans Times-Picayune
“Spellbinding…This book is so well written as told through the voice of Scott, it is difficult to put it down. Its contents also are of major importance.”
Charleston (SC) Post and Courier
BPM: What message in your book do you want readers to share with others?
I’d like for them share that the price for voting privileges was very, very high and that anyone who fails to exercise this privilege is guaranteed to lose something that was valuable to their future.
BPM: What do you think makes your book different from others on the same subject?
I believe that the difference is that people really “get it” after reading this story. My father, whom I consider one of the wisest people ever, took a simple story and interwove it with the accumulated wisdom of generations of ancestors. I have received feedback from many people who after reading the story experienced change in their lives: young adults who started voting; the couple inspired to create plans to get out of debt; the southern white trucker who said he finally understood; the Asian college student whose mother had taught her to dislike all black people who would now share the story with her mother; the white female who said that for the first time, she is questioning what the media says about African Americans; the young black male who has highlighted and underlined what has spoken to his spirit and who now has a new direction for his life. Just as my father’s life positively influenced many young people in his hometown and set an example for leadership throughout the country, so does his life continue to encourage and inspire another generation.
BPM: Share with us your latest news, awards or upcoming book releases.
I am working on compiling into a book the essays I received from my “A Mile in My Shoes” writing project. This project/contest for African American male students was designed to give voice to young black males who would otherwise not have an outlet for their work.
“Witness to the Truth” was selected as the Ouachita Parish Library (Monroe, LA) 2008 Summer Read Selection.
BPM: How can our readers reach you online?
Readers can learn more about the story, find links to purchase the book, and read the first chapter on my website: www.cleoscottbrown.com. Readers may also contact me directly via firstname.lastname@example.org. “Witness to the Truth”, ISBN 978- 1-57003-818-1, may also be ordered through your local bookseller, through the publisher—The University of South Carolina Press (www.sc.edu/uscpress ), or via online distributors such as www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com.
Purchase your copy today!
The John H. Scott Memorial Fund is a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation that was established in 1980. The purpose of the fund is to finance projects that advance the ideals of Rev. Scott. The primary project is the Rev. J.H. Scott Memorial Scholarship. The Fund is supported through public contributions.
Rev. Scott was a minister and civil rights activist who was devoted to improving the quality of life for his people. He used his positions as pastor, president of the East Carroll Parish NAACP and president of the Baptist Association to help Black people find a measure of justice in their efforts to meet their physical, social, spiritual, legal and financial needs. He doggedly pursued the right to vote for over fifteen years, finally reaching his goal in 1962. Visit the website: http://www.jhsfund.org/
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