I was born in the black hospital in Selma, Alabama seventy-one years ago. Fifty years ago, I turned 21; the Public Accomodations Law of 1964 was passed by Congress; and I was first arrested by Sheriff Jim Clark.
Half way through my junior year at Harvard, volunteering as a supporter and a fund-raiser for SNCC, I found I couldn't concentrate on my books. I felt so much energy and commitment building around me; I dropped out to come south to do my part in the negro freedom fight. (Yes, we were still negroes. The 'black' moniker became more acceptable when the Black Panther Party was founded several months later in Lowndes County, Alabama.)
I had been working in the low profile Selma Literacy Project on adult literacy and voter registration with Mary Varela, Silas Norman, Karen House, and Carol Lawson. Among our activities, we published the "Frederick Douglass Free Press" -- a mimeographed newsletter about movement news and activities across the Black Belt. We spoke to small groups, did individual coaching, did voter education, and showed borrowed movies about the new black nations of Africa. We also participated in mass meetings to raise the spirit and the consciousness of local residents.
On July 4, 1964, four of us were hungry and decided to test the stretch of new federal law by asking for sandwiches the Thirsty Boy Restaurant downtown. When we sat down, after being refused to be served, Clark was called in with goons and cattle prods. They ejected us and carried us off to jail. Hundreds of people joined us in jail as city-wide protests grew during the next week.
Bail and a federal court order freed all of us after 11 days. For me, that first "sit in" was unintended. But the confrontation sealed the start of the organizing that led to the Pettus Bridge police riot and the Selma-Montgomery 50-mile march a year later. I hope this note will help me to reconnect with those who worked in Selma in 1964-1965.