1965 - Memoir From Selma

March 7, 1965, was the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama.

March 9 was the march that stopped short of the bridge.

March 21 was the 21-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, the state capital.

I joined the march to Montgomery

Fifty years ago I was 31, a part-time Mennonite pastor and a full-time instructor at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

Mennonites in 1965 did not have a tradition of protesting and marching. My congregation respected my conscience and did not oppose my unexpected behavior in going to Selma. The Sunday morning I was gone, no one said anything to my wife Marie. They were good people. They just did not know what to say.

Later that year I talked to the editor of The Gospel Herald. His concern was that he had heard rumors that some of the young university students in the movement were misbehaving sexually. I believe that possibility was more important in his mind than the structural evil of denying citizens the right to vote—and Sheriff Clark’s use of police force to bloody the heads of citizens who met to march and pray.

Two years earlier I had given a talk to a local service club about why so many people were traveling through our community for the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King would give the “I Have a Dream” speech. All of the service club members’ questions and observations to me were hostile about King and marches. Now King has a statue on the Washington Mall. In 1965 for many in my Ohio community he was an agitator and communist sympathizer.

Why did I borrow money from the bank, get a ticket and fly from Cleveland to Montgomery?

The triggering event that moved me was that I saw Bloody Sunday on March 7 on a black and white motel TV while traveling. Marie and I did not have a TV at the time. Think of the odds against my seeing Bloody Sunday.

Only recently I learned that J. Lawrence Burkholder, teaching theology at Harvard Divinity School, participated in the second march to the symbolic bridge on April 9. So did some faculty and students from Bethel College, Kansas.

Selma was a small rural town. In 1965, 90% of Blacks were prevented from voting.

I flew from Cleveland to Montgomery on March 19 and a movement volunteer took me to Selma on Friday night. We slept in the brick row houses of the large black community. It was wall-to-wall people in beds and on the floor.

My black hostess had lost her dishwashing job in a country club because she was seen with movement people. She asked us all for a donation for using her home.

Saturday morning we attended workshops on nonviolence. It was the rule. No exceptions. If we thought we could not be nonviolent in the face of beatings, we were invited to go home. We were urged to take the dome light bulbs out of our cars. They didn’t want to make it easy to shoot into the car at night when light made a driver visible for a sniper. If the cops came for us, they told us in the workshop to insist on being arrested together, with locked arms, black and white.

Physicians for Social Responsibility were there. They were making splints out of rolled newspaper to respond to the possibility of broken bones.

Many groups came.

Protestant ministers of many denominations.

Presbyterian seminarians from San Francisco.

Episcopalian clergy (who were denied entrance to an Episcopal congregation on Sunday).

Catholic priests and nuns came.

And a prominent Jewish theologian.

A few courageous blacks from northern states came.

Just meeting others from all 50 states, even Hawaii, was exciting.

We knew that there was some danger.

James Reeb, a Unitarian pastor from Boston, was clubbed to death on Friday night. He was denied prompt transport in an ambulance to a hospital. He did not die right away but lived for a time. President Johnson sent yellow roses to his hospital room and referred to him as “that good man.”

Viola Liuzza was shot dead because she was seen transporting a black man to participate in the movement.

Jimmy Lee Jakson, an unarmed young black man, was shot dead by police.

John Lewis, now U.S. Congressman, endured a beating on Bloody Sunday that fractured his skull.

Before leaving Ohio, I called down to Brown Chapel in Selma and talked to a local black person. I asked his opinion about risk. He said, “If I were you, I’d stay just where you are.”

Not everyone was in the movement.

At that time U.S. soldiers were in harm’s way in Vietnam. It seemed to me that those of us who believe in peace must also consider putting ourselves in harm’s way for the kind of struggle against oppression allowed by our conscience.

King sought court protection for the march from a federal judge, who granted it. On Saturday, Bobby Kennedy, the U.S. Attorney General, federalized the Alabama National Guard to protect the marchers. Jeeps, helicopters and uniformed soldiers arrived Saturday night before the Sunday march.

It was a disgusting task for these southern white young men. You could see it in their facial expressions and body language. One took out his bayonet and made a scratch in the paint of a movement car from front to back. One guardsman spit on a priest. But those incidents were not common.

The FBI was there to keep the National Guard in line.

Saturday night was an exuberant meeting at Brown Chapel, an African Methodist Episcopal Church. The church was packed, with people sitting on the window sills. Multiple offerings were taken to support the movement.

Young minister Andrew Young spoke, inviting us to “love the hell out of Alabama.” He would later become Mayor of Atlanta and the U.S. representative to the United Nations.

Comedian Dick Gregory contributed humor in this tense situation. He said that Sheriff Clark had declared that the march would happen only over his dead body. “That would be a good route.”

We sang numerous freedom songs. “Freedom is a-coming. I’m not gonna let anybody turn me around. We shall overcome.” One of the verses says, “We are not afraid.” The many professional musicians there included Peter, Paul and Mary.

These freedom songs kept up the spirits of suffering people, some of whom at the Saturday meeting would have bandages on their heads on Bloody Sunday.

Prior to the march, movement people were in the streets, and a clothesline rope was put up by police to keep folks from marching to the local courthouse. So they sang. They made up lyrics to the tune of “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” and sang it to the police who were standing only a few feet on the other side of the rope line.

“We’ve got a rope that’s a Berlin Wall, a Berlin Wall, a Berlin Wall.

We’ve got a rope that’s a Berlin Wall in Selma, Alabama.

Hate is the thing that built the wall . . .

Love is the thing that’ll make it fall . . .

We’re gonna stand here till it falls . . .”

The crowd added verses as they sang for hours.

They improvised with another freedom song: “I love everybody, I love everybody, I love everybody in my heart.” Then they added names: “I love Governor Wallace, I love old Bull Conner, I love Martin King, I love Lyndon Johnson, I love all the troopers . . . “ going on for hours.

A Selma layman was one of the speakers in Brown Chapel. He said, “History will remember what is happening now in Selma, Alabama. History textbooks will have pictures of what is happening in Selma, Alabama. And later on your grandchildren will ask you: ‘Where were you, Grandpa, when these things were happening in Selma, Alabama?’ You will be able to say, ‘I was there.’

What a prophet! I have seen Selma pictures in history books. And in February 2015 near the anniversary of the march, my oldest grandchild Laura asked me to send her a note about Selma memories.

Sunday morning before the march, I had an orange and some scrambled eggs for breakfast. A service was held outside Brown Chapel because, at 3000 strong, we could not fit inside the church. TV cameras from major networks and European countries recorded the service. Cameramen climbed trees to get good views of the outdoor service.

The ministers preached from the steps leading up to the church. Jewish Abraham Joshua Heschel read the Old Testament lesson. A Catholic priest read the New Testament lesson. Baptist Martin King preached the sermon on the biblical theme of deliverance, freedom and the marching of the Israelites.

Then we lined up to march.

We began about noon as white people were coming out of their churches. Selma was heavily churched. They looked at us with wonder and contempt on their faces. They were on the sidewalks. We were eight abreast, going down the street.

The Selma newspaper editorial, calling us outside agitators, condemned the movement. The local clergy published a statement against the march. Business leaders opposed us. No wonder local white people had a low opinion of us!

We were told to march in an orderly way and not to sing through the town. From Brown Chapel across the Edmund Pettis Bridge over the Alabama River.

Who was Edmund Pettis? The name is in large letters on the bridge. He was a Ku Klux Klan leader and a Confederate general. The bridge, scene of Bloody Sunday just ten days earlier, was well named. This time we went with a protective court order from a federal judge, which King and his people had negotiated before the march.

We had two of the four lanes of Interstate 80 for our march.

Local white young people went back and forth in their cars on the other two lanes of the interstate, with slogans written on their cars: “Coonsville USA.” “Selma hates niggers.” “Yankee trash, go home.”

A sharecropper next to me on the march looked at the signs and said, “They figures they could hound us if you all weren’t here.”

We marched for about eight miles the first day. The march to Montgomery was safely completed in five days, and Governor George Wallace was given a petition for redress of grievances. He did not meet with King or the 25,000 marchers or accept their petition.

From the beautiful state house in Montgomery we could see the Alabama state flag and the Confederate flag, but no U.S. flag. The marchers were carrying Old Glory.

The nation and the world were watching.

Most marchers camped for the first night and then went on. I went back on Monday to teach my classes on Tuesday at Youngstown State University. I found intense interest in the march back home. I was interviewed numerous times for TV, radio and newspapers. I spoke in churches and to civic organizations.

About five months later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law under President Johnson. It changed the political realities of the Deep South. Blacks had won the precious right to vote. Previously, only registered voters had been able to serve on juries. Now accused persons of color could see some people of their race in the jury box.

Sheriff Jim Clark, whose troopers beat black citizens on Bloody Sunday, was defeated in his next bi for re-election.

I also was changed.

I will never forget the spiritual power of nonviolence pushing back against violent power—the powerful traditions of segregation, racism and official use of clubs and guns against unarmed people.

Recently there was a public, official apology to freedom riders who did the sit-ins at McCrory’s lunch counter and were arrested. They were legally pardoned by a southern judge.

I have been impressed, in 2015, by the public ceremonies of the 50th anniversary, especially by the number of children and grandchildren of arch-segregationists who said that they had changed. Even a granddaughter of Governor Wallace.

They understood their parents’ actions in light of the racism of earlier times. But now they have moved beyond such attitudes.

King’s nonviolence reached into the hearts of people in a way that was impossible for Abraham Lincoln’s armed forces in a war that took the lives of 750,000 Americans.

But for many, the Civil War has not ended, at least on the cultural level. The struggle continues. Voting is still being constricted in some of the southern states. Voter suppression is real. Gerrymandering by state legislatures has diminished black voting power.

And attitudes and hearts still need to be transformed to fully include Asians, Latinos, African Americans and other minorities—within the Family of God and within the Body Politic.

About the Author

Vic Stoltzfus

Vic Stoltzfus has worked 30 years in higher education, half that time at public universities and for 15 years as Dean and President at Goshen College. With his wife Marie, he is currently engaged in assisting formerly incarcerated people in re-entry. He is also a member of a College Mennonite Church committee that raises money for needy international students at Goshen College. His interests also include prison reform, gardening, travel and reading. Vic and Marie are the parents of three daughters and seven grandchildren.