When my brothers and sister were little in the mid 1960's, my parents were very active in politics and the Civil Rights Movement in the South. In March 1965, our father piled us in the car to drive to Alabama to join other members of our Unitarian Universalist Church to march in the Selma Civil Rights March.
This week, the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., I was inspired to write this diary of my family's experiences at the Selma march that changed our nation's history forever.
The Selma Civil Rights March was really three marches:
1) The first one started on March 7, 1965 in Selma with 600 marchers led by John Lewis, but did not last long as marchers were attacked after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge by state police, some on horseback and others wielding tear gas, whips and clubs.
The nation was horrified as they watched images of peaceful protesters being chased down and beaten. Many asked if this was really our nation.
2) The second march was partly organized by Martin Luther King Jr. as he put out a call across the nation for clergy, church members and ordinary citizens to come to another Selma March while a Federal Judge was mulling over a court order to allow the marchers to proceed. 2,500 marchers completed a short walk to the Edmund Pettus Bridge again and voluntarily turned around.
No violence occurred during the actual march but that night three ministers, supporters of the Selma March, were brutally beaten and one died - James Reeb, one of our fellow Unitarian Universalist ministers. James Reeb was from Boston and our hometown church was in Roanoke, Virginia.
3) The Third Selma March: The uproar over the beating death of James Reeb brought thousands more marchers to Selma. A federal court order was given to allow the marchers to finally complete their trek from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, the state capital.
8,000 marchers started the march in Selma on March 21, 1965 but only a few hundred were allowed to actually march the whole way to Montgomery according to the Federal Court order.
We joined the Selma marchers in Montgomery on March 25 after driving from our home in Roanoke, Virginia. I don't think we realized the historic significance of the moment when we drove up to join our fellow Unitarian Universalists at the march assembly point in a school yard at the St. Jude Educational Institute.
My father was on the only member of our family that was going to march that day, I guess due to safety considerations due to the real possibility of violence after the previous events.
25,000 folks left the assembly point at St. Jude's for the final leg of the third march through the streets of the Alabama state capital, Montgomery. I remember watching the marchers peacefully walk by and seeing my father as he marched in stride with the rest of the 25,000. The march was led in front by John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr. and joined by ministers, priests nuns and rabbis in the front lines of the march.
1st row: John Lewis, a nun, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Bunche, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Fred Shuttlesworth.
2nd row: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Bunche is Rabbi Maurice Davis.
From Wiki Commons.
The final leg of the Selma march ended at the State Capitol building in Montgomery with no police attacks on the marchers. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "How Long, How Long" speech. The marchers peacefully dispersed which was almost anti-climatic.
Even though the Selma March ended peacefully, the violence was not over. One of the most heinous crimes of the Civil Rights era occured that night as Viola Fauver Gregg Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist church member from Detroit was shot by Klan members in her car ferrying returning marchers to the airport.
The Ku Klux Klan shooting of Viola Liuzzo sparked outrage and her death, the beating death of James Reeb and the police beatings of the marchers at Edmund Pettus Bridge created such outrage across the nation that President Lyndon Johnson pushed the 1965 Voting Rights Act through Congress in a matter of months.
President Lyndon Johnson speaks before Congress in support of the
1965 Voting Rights Act
Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and died on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
Walter Cronkite announces the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Selma march was a final turning point in a long journey that continues to this day with GOP voter suppression continuing every day.
Let us honor those fallen Civil Rights Movement heroes by continuing to fight the continuing onslaught of voter denial and voter suppression.
6:10 PM PT: Any date or name corrections, suggestions, thoughts are welcome.
6:13 PM PT: Since my family was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, there were threats against our family including a cross burning that thankfully never happened. My father said he was able to meet Martin Luther King, Jr. twice at Civil Rights meetings.
11:39 AM PT: Thanks for the rescue and including my diary on the Community Spotlight
5:47 PM PT: Talking to one of brothers today, he said looking at the pictures of the march and the gathering before the march, he was probably one of the youngest ones there as a toddler. He looks back on it and thought we were just "Human Shields" as a young family of three young boys and my sister as the final leg of the Selma March began.
My brothers and sister were not actually allowed to join the march but watched along the march route sidelines in downtown Montgomery as the marchers courageously moved by. I still have a photo we took of my father marching by our family.