My Mom and Dad, Patricia and Sandy MacLean, participated in several efforts towards fair housing and civil rights locally in Rhode Island in the 1960’s. But Mom was able to participate in two events farther away: the March on Washington in 1963, and the last leg of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. The March on Washington story was told in a previous post. The Montgomery story, below, is much darker, and more complex.
Mom and Dad gave me a booklet given to them by Dad’s brother, a Unitarian minister, in the period following the march. The Unitarian Universalists had a special interest in the Selma to Montgomery march because they had sent three ministers to Alabama for the march and only two returned alive. Their book is called “To Bear Witness” and presents a mostly pictorial essay about the march, and its meaning. Unfortunately I cannot reproduce the photographs here but I will include some snippets from the book and from a talk my mom wrote when she returned home.
The March from Selma To Montgomery, Alabama, 1965
Despite the 1964 Civil Rights Act signed by President Lyndon Johnson, voting rights denials and segregation problems were escalating in Alabama and other places. Selma was a particularly oppressive location with fewer than 1% of blacks in the county registered to vote, and the struggle to register voters was centered there. Violence or arrests by government officials in response to nonviolent protests were common, sometimes with deaths resulting. The death of voting rights demonstrator Jimmie Lee Jackson in February prompted the call for a march from Selma to the Alabama capital, Montgomery, to request protection for voter registration.
Sunday, March 7
On March 7, 1965, about 600 people marching from Selma to Montgomery, the state’s capital, in a voting rights protest, were brutally attacked by state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Called “Bloody Sunday”, the images of that day were broadcast widely to a shocked nation.
Two of the march leaders, John Lewis, today a Congressman from Georgia, and Amelia Boynton, lifelong voting rights activist, were at the front of the march, and among the first to be clubbed. The image of Amelia laying dazed or unconscious on the street that day was a call to all Americans. This website tells the story of Amelia Boynton in the About and Video sections. The short video about Amelia’s amazing life was very moving.
[from To Bear Witness:] On Monday, March 8, 1965, Martin Luther King sent telegrams to many religious groups in North America. He sent one to the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston:
“In the vicious maltreatment of defenseless citizens of Selma, where old women and young children were gassed and clubbed … we have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all … It is fitting that all American help to bear the burden. I call therefore … join me in Selma … In this way all America will testify that the struggle in Selma is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land.”
With the nation, Unitarian Universalists responded.
Tuesday, March 9
On Tuesday March 9, a larger group was in place but was unable to have more than a prayer ceremony at the bridge due to a restraining order.
[from To Bear Witness:] THE TRAGEDY. On March 9, after being turned back by Alabama’s troopers on Route 80, Martin Luther King said, “Let’s return to church and complete our fight in the courts.” But Selma’s time of trial was not over. That night James Reeb, Orloff Miller, and Clark Olsen ate a quiet supper at Walker’s Cafe. As they walked away, a group of white men ran toward them, shouting, “Hey, niggers!” All three ministers were beaten from behind. Jim Reeb was clubbed across the side of his skull. He died two days later.
The march into Montgomery, Thursday, March 25
On Thursday, March 25, with their First Amendment rights reaffirmed in a court decision, the march finally made its way to the end of the 50-mile walk to Montgomery, and was joined by as many as 25,000 people from all over the country. The call had gone out for support leading up to that day, and many thousands responded. The job was to bear witness – to stand next to those who were being violently and systematically attacked on all sides. To dare the “officials” with the clubs to beat, gas, and imprison hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of Americans who demanded the right to vote for all Americans.
Mom gave a talk at her church when she returned to Rhode Island. The first and last paragraphs, below, are from a different talk mom gave, at her current church, in 2003. The rest are from the 1965 talk at her church in Warwick.
I responded to the call. The R.I. Council of churches chartered a plane. We drove to Boston and flew out of Logan airport late at night. We arrived in Montgomery in early morning. The airport was crowded. Black people with cars were waiting to drive us to the place where the marchers were to assemble.
We waited more than 3 hours to start the march in the muddy fields at St. Jude’s School, where the marchers had camped the night before. We were tired when we started. The group from Rhode Island fell in near the end. Thousands had gone ahead of us. As we went out through the gates and into the Negro community, six abreast, women on the inside, I immediately forgot how tired I was. I will never forget the faces of those people. They waved to us and we waved back. Every house had a front porch and from them old people and children smiled at us. We passed a school where every window was filled with children and their teachers. Several times I heard “Thank You” and “God Bless You.” One of the spectators brought out a jar of water and it was passed back from hand to hand. We sang “We Shall Overcome” and the words seemed to have a great deal of meaning — “Black and white together, we are not afraid, we shall overcome.”
We were divided into small groups for the day, to stay together and watch out for each other. My group included my friend Avis Stone, Rabbi Rosen from Hillel House at Brown University, and Rev. Homer Tricket, minister of the First Baptist Church in America in Providence, R.I., founded by Roger Williams.
We marched for an hour and a half. As we left the Negro section there was a minister standing at the edge of the road, holding a little sign. It said – “Keep Smiling.” We tried to keep smiling but it wasn’t easy. Some of the white people looked at us with outright hatred in their eyes, even the children. Some laughed at us, some made remarks, but in all fairness, not many. There were a few confederate flags in evidence. Many of the white people looked to me as if they were simply amazed by it all.
We climbed the hill to the capital and over it we saw the Confederate flag and under that the flag of the State of Alabama. No American flag.
At the rally we could not hear the speeches very well. It was hot and it had rained on us three times. The last time no one bothered to put raincoats on – it felt good. I saw tired marchers sleeping in the street. Finally Avis spread her coat down on the street and said “Here sit down.”
We moved up closer to hear Dr. King speak. When he was finished we were warned to be extremely careful going back to the airport. We walked down the hill past hundreds of Alabama National Guardsmen and boarded buses which took us back to the airport. The bus took us again through the Negro section. The people waved goodbye to us as we went along.
I arrived home at about 4 a.m. When I got up at 7:00 and turned on the news, I heard about the death of Mrs. Viola Luizzo. She also had left her home and children to go to Montgomery. She had gone to help with voting registration. She was riding with some black people in a car after the march and she was shot.
The march from Selma to Montgomery and what took place on the Edmund Pettis Bridge changed the hearts and minds of America. Because of television we could see the senseless violence and brutality.
It is noteworthy that at both marches, Mom ran into my Dad’s brother, Kenneth Torquil MacLean, a Unitarian Minister. Each meeting was a surprise and, particularly at the March on Washington, an incredible coincidence considering the huge crowd that day.
The idea of bearing witness, of showing up, of noticing a wrong … of throwing so much light on something by the mere fact of thousands of eyes witnessing it … is a powerful one, then and now.
The most wrenching pages from To Bear Witness show, on facing pages, an atmosphere that Mom described well: a photo of a group of 6 whites on a sidewalk, the adults with arms folded in front of them and sneers that look centuries old, the teenage boy with a newer, less practiced, and somehow more tragic, sneer, facing, on the opposite page, a photo of an old house and porch with about 15 black children dangling their feet over the front edge, shod in white socks and school shoes, looking a little scared, with three or four black adults behind them looking hopeful, with a hint of triumph.
To Bear Witness contained some amazing and moving photographs; you can view some of them in a special gallery on the website of one of the photographers, Ivan Masar.
There are many more pictures of the Selma voting drives and the attack at the Pettus Bridge as well as the several-week struggle to finish the march to Montgomery on the Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement website.
Several months after these events, the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed into law.
MacLean, Patricia L. Address to the Warwick Congregational Church, Warwick, R.I., Spring, 1965. Published here with permission of the author.
MacLean, Patricia L. Presentation to the First Presbyterian Church, Holland Patent, NY, January 19, 2003. Published here with permission of the author.
to bear witness: Unitarian Universalists from Selma to Montgomery. Boston: published by the Department of Adult Programs, Unitarian Universalist Association, 1965.
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This was the second post of a two-part series. The first post, Mom and the March on Washington, is here.