Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Crossing the Bridge, Selma, 1965

Selma, Alabama, 1965

Our boy Tommy, Monica’s and mine, was born on February 10th, a month before Martin Luther King sent out the call for people from all over the country to come down to Selma, Alabama, to add momentum to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s campaign to win the right to vote for black people. Monica and I agreed, I had to go. Dan Berrigan gave me sixty dollars, the airfare. I flew into Montgomery, not knowing where I was going to stay the night. I walked where my nose led me with the intention of knocking on the first Catholic rectory door I came upon. So it was. I told the pastor why I had come. The local clergy had been forbidden to participate in the demonstrations, but not from aiding and abetting. The priest set the table, warmed up some leftovers, put a bottle of bourbon by my plate, sat with me and ate, then gave me a bed. The next day I took a bus to Selma, and was met there by Leroy Moton. He showed me the town. I had a choice of accommodations, he said. The floor of the parish center at Saint Edmund’s Church was littered with clerical Roman collars, black trousers and jackets. I chose to roll a bed into an x-ray room that was under construction at Good Samaritan Hospital when no one was looking and establish a comfortable little nook for myself.

Selma was strictly segregated in those days. The white people lived in a pretty little town with tidy pretty houses, green lawns, flowering trees and shrubs. The black section looked like something out of the old South Africa, shanties mostly and a project on sun-baked clay. On Sunday, March 7th, six hundred people attempted to cross the Pettus Bridge on a March to Montgomery to press for voting rights for all. The police met them with vicious dogs, high powered fire-hoses, water-cannon. The whole world saw it on television, peaceful black demonstrators with dogs tearing at their flesh and high powered water-cannon knocking them over and pinning them against walls with such force as to rip their clothes off. Two days later, three of the “outside agitators” were attacked with a baseball bat, one of them critically, a white man, Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister. Many blacks had been killed, but that wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. When a white man lay dying, Martin King seized the moment and put out the call. He asked everyone who could to come to Selma. I had to go.

At that point, the black people of Selma tried again to take an elderly black gentleman to register to vote. The police stopped them in front of Brown’s chapel, so they sat down in front of the police, and they sat there, and they sat, for four days and nights, under the sun and the moon. We sang, “They got a thing called the Berlin Wall, in Selma, Alabama.” “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round, turn me round, turn me round. Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round. Keep on a-walking, keep on a-talking, walking up to freedom land.” “Paul and Silas were bound in jail, ain’t nobody for to go their bail. Keep your eye on the prize, hold on, hold on!” “We are soldiers in the army, we have to fight, we know we have to die.”

The state police chief came to intimidate us. Bull Connor had the neck of a bull. He played his part well. And with him came a public relations officer from Governor Wallace’s office, Wilson Baker, Mutt and Jeff, as the saying goes, “good cop, bad cop.” They weren’t happy. We sang to them, “We love Bull Connor....” “We love Wilson Baker in our hearts.” We tried to mean it. We had to hold on to the belief that good will overcome evil and to trust in God. I joined a group of about twenty clergy to picket Mayor Joe Smitherman’s house. Bull Connor promptly arrested us and herded us onto a bus. We started to sing. He growled. We stopped. That man was truly frightening. The arrest was clearly illegal and we were released shortly.

But those white people wanted to kill us, they really wanted to kill us, some of them. Doctor King told us that blood would flow. He said it had to be our blood, not theirs. He meant it. We knew it, and we accepted it. Our blood, not theirs! “We are soldiers in the army....” A different kind of army! A policeman had killed Jimmy Lee Jackson, just another black man, for trying to shield his grandmother from another police bully. Just arrived, I was with Jimmy Lee Jackson’s people for his wake. His little brother’s face! A nine year old suddenly stripped of his innocence, the sorrow in his eyes. He had seen hatred, blind, stupid hatred.

Jim Reeb’s body was taken to Brown’s Chapel. Abraham Joshua Heschel recited Kaddish as the overflow congregation hummed, “We Shall Overcome.” Martin King preached, Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Church gave the benediction. Bishop Shannon, then President of Saint Thomas College in Minnesota, was there, and Richard John Neuhaus, priests and nuns and rabbis and ministers, black and white together, in Brown’s Chapel. After that funeral the police lifted the barricades and we marched to Selma Town Hall and we registered that voter.

Then at last the great March to Montgomery. I was a marshal for the first leg. A smaller representation made the whole route walking on Highway 80. Attorney General Nick Katzenbach mobilized the National Guard to protect us. At night we all gathered, one night at the Hospital of Saint Jude to hear Harry Bellafonte and Joan Baez sing to us. We made it to the state Capitol, a sea of people, and left our demands with Governor George Wallace. Then we returned to Selma.

When we arrived back at Good Samaritan Hospital, I went to the old folks’ solarium hoping that we made the evening news. There on the TV screen was President Lyndon Baines Johnson addressing a joint session of the Senate and the House of Representatives, and the nation, an estimated audience of seventy million people. He was talking about us in Selma, he named us, he spoke of “that good man,” Jim Reeb. He told America that we were right, that the problem was not a “Negro problem, or a Southern problem, but an American problem,” and that it was “deadly wrong” to deny any American the right to vote. It was time to rid this nation of every trace of bigotry and race hatred, he said, and he asked Congress to send him the Voters’ Rights bill, that he would sign into law. This was a Southern white man speaking with a Southern accent. With his every phrase, our hearts lept. He punctuated his text with the words, “We shall overcome.” As he ended, he looked up straight at the camera and the world and he said again: “We shall overcome!” He placed himself with us. The Congress rose and roared approval.

We were thunderstruck. At that moment, we knew -- we had won! After so much suffering and death, nonviolence had won. The South was going to change. America would change. We had touched the conscience of the nation. We had won! I looked around that room at hardened radicals, veterans of bitter and bloody labor battles, veterans of the peace movement who had paid the price for refusal of military service in long prison terms, and I saw tears streaming down their faces. Dr. King wept too. Nobody in the Movement ever saw him cry before, just that once.

Lyndon Johnson knew what he was doing. Against the advice of his closest advisors, he was handing the South over to the Republican Party, shattering the Rooseveltian coalition of Southern conservatives with Northern liberal progressives and realigning American politics for the foreseeable future. We had crossed more than the Pettus Bridge.

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