Civil Rights is personal. You either feel the issues in your gut or you don't. No set amount of rhetoric or logic, no quantifiable amount of insult, can with certainty move you to action. Not even unbearably evil murders, such as, the murders of the four Black girls in the Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in September 1963 or the murders of the civil-rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in June 1964 in Mississippi. Maybe you are touched by these heinous crimes. Maybe you do take some actions. But nothing definitive. Nothing that marks you and your life forever. Until one day: you act.
On March 7, 1965 the first of the three Selma marches took place. This first march was organized by James Bevel of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference ( SCLC ). Bevel wanted to channel the anger that had erupted over the Feb. 26 death of civil-rights worker Jimmie Lee Jackson. Jackson had been shot by a state trooper as he tried to enter a cafe to protect his mother from the violence that broke out during a voting-rights march in Marion, Alabama.
Bevel also wanted to focus national attention on the Selma Voting Rights Movement which he and Chicago's own Diane Nash of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee ( SNCC ) had been working on. Selma had a population of around 30,000 citizens, slightly more than half of which was Black. Yet, only 1% of the registered voters were Black. The plan was to march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital, a distance of around 54 miles.
Between 550 and 600 people left a church in downtown Selma, walking silently two-by-two on Broad Street heading toward Montgomery. Broad Street joins U.S. Route 80 that carries traffic onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge that crosses the Alabama river. At the bridge, the peaceful marchers were attacked with billy clubs, tear gas, and other violent weapons by 200 state troopers, sheriff's deputies, and self-proclaimed posse-men who boxed marchers in, giving them no way to move forward or back. John Lewis, national director of SNCC, suffered a fractured skull. He was one of more than 150 marchers injured in this 'Bloody Sunday' march.
I was in my second year of graduate work at St Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. The images and narratives of this 'Bloody Sunday' moved me and several of my classmates to ask permission from the rector to join the marchers in Selma. Permission denied.
On March 9 Martin Luther King led the second march of around 2,000 people. This 'Turnaround Tuesday' march was designed to test a court injunction against marching. The state troopers confronted the marchers and then suddenly ( and suspiciously to King ) stepped aside. King decided to march back to the church and seek federal protection. That night James Reeba Unitarian Universalist minister committed to non-violent civil disobediencewas beaten to death by a white mob. He had just arrived from Boston to join the marchers.
My mates and I decided to call an assembly of the entire community to discuss what our duties were in this struggle for justice in our country. We were committed to the principles of nonviolence both as a spirituality and as a political strategy. Our assembly drew not only students but many faculty, visiting scholars, and civil-rights workers.
We went back to the rector to ask permission to join the marchers in Selma. Again permission was denied. This time we were informed that the bishop had been advised of our requests and had also denied us permission.
On March 21 the third march to Montgomery commenced. On March 25 around 25,000 people arrived in Montgomery where King gave his speech: How Long; Not Long. On the evening of this successful day, Viola Liuzzo was shot to death by Klansmen. She had been tasked with the job of shuttling marchers to and from the airports, train stations, bus terminals, and local homes and colleges. Her car was driven off the road by Klansmen who then fired upon the car, mortally wounding Viola. Her companion Leroy Moton, a 19-year-old Black man, was miraculously saved by being covered in Viola's blood and mistaken as dead by the killers.
This time we did not ask for permission.
We consulted with contacts we had in SNCC and various clergy organizations. They all advised us to head for Greenville, Mississippi, and assist with the voter registration work of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. But, that is another story for another time.
On August 6, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that has become a bulwark of civil liberties for all U.S. citizens.
Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.