On March 21,1965 at the invitation of my friend and colleague Andy Young, along with my brother in ministry, Rev. Dr. Carl Dudley, and I went to Selma, Alabama. Dr. King routinely sent out calls for clergy and others to join him in marches and demonstrations which brought attention to the unjust laws and law-makers throughout the south. As I remember Carl Dudley earlier had been the only white minister out of 100 invited by Dr. Dr. King to join him in Miami, Florida to address what would become the title of one of King’s booksWhere Do We Go From Here? There were so many organizations and churches sending representatives to Selma that there were no more commercial flights available for my group of clergy to travel to Selma. However, the late Cardinal Ritter of St. Louis, Missouri and a champion of civil rights made a call to James S. McDonnell, CEO of McDonnell Douglas Aircraft who made his private plane available to us. Further, five of the Presbyterian ministers invited to travel with me were given an ultimatum by their Sessions (The governing board of Presbyterian churches) not to go to Selma if they wanted to keep their pastorates. All five ministers accompanied me and Carl anyway.
One has to remember the movie Selma is just a movie and not a documentary, albeit in my opinion it was a wonderful artistic achievement and I encourage all to see the movie. A documentary is giving factual material in an artistic form and there were some omissions which might have encouraged many more folks to see the movie. When we arrived in Selma our airplane was diverted to a small airfield a couple of miles away from the main Selma airport but closer to the local church that served as headquarters for the marchers. Unfortunately the movie did not capture the importance of the role the local churches played in the Selma marches. We went directly to one of the many local churches welcoming us to Selma where we sang, prayed and prepared for the march ahead. The songs steadied our nerves and the prayers gave us courage to participate in the march. In retrospect I could not have put myself in harms way except for the fact of my young age of 30 and the inspiration following Andy Young in Selma.
It was a beautiful warm and humid day and the crowd was huge as we awaited Dr. King’s arrival to the podium. I remember the presence of many white protesters who lined the streets as we marched to the center of the area where Dr. King would be speaking. They shouted at us and called us all sorts of ugly and disrespectful names but they could do nothing more because the White House had sent the national guard to protect us. Furthermore, the freedom songs, the prayers and the strength of the crowd itself had thoroughly prepared me for such a time as this. The movie did not give much information about the strong support we experienced from many white clergy and students from around the country. The movie unfortunately did not capture the bravery and sacrifices of the black citizens of Selma who cheered us on and provided water for us and who left their porches to embrace us as we began gathering for Dr. King’s speech. These citizens had to remain in Selma after all of us had left and that put them once again in harms way. But they never complained nor did they stop their efforts to “let freedom roll down like a mighty river” in a segregated and hateful city of Selma. I can never forget how they made all of us marching feel welcomed. These citizens are the real heroes even though particular names like John Lewis and Andy Young and others were mentioned in the movie and rightly so.
As the March ended and Dr. King left the podium Carl Dudley and I headed back to the church where we were to meet the clergy from St. Louis who had traveled to Selma with us. I felt so affirmed and comforted by what had just occurred in Selma defying all of the efforts of Governor Wallace to keep us from marching. How I wished the movie could have captured the joy and determination and the inspiration of those whites having their first experience of praying and singing and worshipping in a black church. The movie did not show the courageous Catholic Nuns who gave the march organizers their permission to place them at the very head of the marches and demonstrations especially in Selma. To be clear this decision was a part of the organizers strategy because we believed even the angriest of whites would dare not attack or denigrate the Nuns with national television cameras rolling. And it worked.
A few weeks ago I answered a phone call from Nate Dudley, eldest son of the late Rev. Dr. Carl Dudley. Nate was calling to ask me to speak to his daughter Emerson who had just been to see the movie Selma with the family and he wanted Emerson to hear directly from me about her Grandfather’s experience with me in Selma. I will remember for years to come my telephone conversation which is further evidence of the importance for everyone to see the movie irrespective of the historical omissions. I told Emerson the story of her grandfather and I had while walking back to the church where we were to meet our group. As we were about 150 yards away from the church Carl and I looked up and we were being surrounded by about 50 or more angry white people, mostly men who began shouting at us and calling us names. They referred to Carl as a “N” lover as they got closer and closer to us. There was some minor pushing and shoving of us but Carl and I had had nonviolence training which was a prerequisite for clergy like us who were directly involved in the movement. I was not terribly frightened at first but as they got closer to us it became clear that Carl and I could be harmed. In an instant one of the white men spat in my face which caused me great anger in spite of my nonviolence training. For one moment Carl froze because he knew I had been violated and as well as we knew each other he had no idea how I would respond to this violation of me. In a nano second I thought to myself “I am going to die or get hurt badly because I am going to knock this guy in the mouth regardless . . and in the next second I saw my pregnant wife’s face and I realized I might never see the birth of our second child.” I caught Carl’s eyes and he had a sheepish smile on his face that told me we should run which we did and as we looked back having left them in the dust (remember we were very young) we heard them laughing and saying “look at those N run”. Needless to say this was a defining moment in my life which made me rethink my role for future marches and demonstrations. It would be several years before I would participate or demonstrate in marches where there was a possibility that I would be personally violated again.
Selma is worth seeing because it reveals a horrible period of segregation and discrimination and violence and death of black people. It reveals how we were treated by a large segment of white people in this country which so many of today’s generation have no knowledge of. I just read an article about a curriculum known as Advance Placement which is believed to be too negative and critical about American history especially history like the kind represented in the movie Selma causing a State politician to introduce a bill banning AP in the classrooms. Selma reveals what really happened in America and everyone needs to know about this historical stain in our history. Selma does just that and I encourage everyone to see the movie and have discussions and conversations about it. I believe our future generations need to know about the country’s history so they may learn from it rather than deny it really happened. I had to control my inner feelings in the movie Selma especially the clip on the four girls killed in Sunday school at a Birmingham church. But that is an historical truth and fact which needs to be known. The tragedy of 9/11 is revisited every year since it occurred as a reminder of America’s resolve and determination in the midst of that horrific terrorist attack. Advance Placement is but one way and an important way of assuring the history of America is authenticated.
As we were preparing to leave Selma that March day in 1965 we discovered via radio that Mrs. Viola Luizzo a white woman from Detroit had been brutally murdered. After the euphoria of the Selma march and Dr. King’s speech and a coming together of peoples from all around the country her death caught everyone off guard. There was a pall over the country upon hearing the news of Mrs. Luizzo’s murder making for a toxic and scary atmosphere which engulfed me and Carl. People are dangerous when they respond out of fear and anger and that was the atmosphere for many more months to come. The Rev. James Reeb a white Unitarian minister was brutally beaten to death having stopped in a convenience store in Selma. That incident is portrayed in the movie Selma and as awful as it was it is a part of America’s ugly past and needs to be known. As I near my 80th birthday in September 2015 I am mindful of how truly fortunate and blessed I am to have lived through this period of history. I know for a fact that I am alive today because of the nonviolence training I received at the hands of Ambassador Andy Young. I know for a fact that “trouble don’t last always.” I know deep in my soul why the songs in black churches were central to my survival and participation in Selma and elsewhere. And that is why “I don’t feel no ways tired. I’ve come to far from where I started from. Nobody told me that the road would be easy. I don’t believe God brought me this far to leave me.” And so it is.
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