Call to Selma
A Review From the Bridge, by Strider "Arkansas" Benston

See 1965: Selma & The March to Montgomeryfor background & more information.
See also Selma Voting Rights Campaign & March to Montgomery for web links.

As one of the organizers of the March On Montgomery, and one of the walking wounded from the assault by Alabama Troopers on Edmund Pettis Bridge on Bloody Sunday, March 7,1965, I would like to comment upon this wonderful book of witness of the Unitarian Universalist presence in this turning point in American history.

The Rev. Richard D. Leonard kept a diary of his presence with us "on the line," literally, for 18 days during that "Terrible and wond'rous winter before the dawn."

My own many volumes of notes and memories are mostly lost to the ravages of time, oppression, and poverty in the intervening decades. So, this opportunity to meet the thoughts of another brother from Sylvan Street brings a ray of new light, and tears of joy and memory to a heart greatly saddened by the official effacement from our cultural memory of "this, our finest hour."

[In 1965, Sylvan Street was the main (unpaved) street through the George Washington Carver housing project in the heart of Selma's Black community. Both Brown Chapel and First Baptist churches are located there. Today, it's paved and officially Martin Luther King Street.]

"Don't go to Selma unless it is more important that you go than that you come back," Gordon Gibson

What I find most distinctive in Leonard's account, is a clear recognition of his own rapidly growing humanization in regard of the lessons which he learned from the "common" and local people of Selma, in their continuing struggle for liberation from the chains of the exploitative caste system called segregation. In the words of a Catholic nun whom Edwin Lane quotes, "One day in Selma is worth 5 years of maturity."

Leonard himself already demonstrated such maturity of wisdom and courage on day 5 of his sojourn. Although we all had mixed feelings about all these white Yankee preachers coming to town, there is no doubt that their presence DID significantly reduce the violence inflicted by the organized forces of repression, even at the cost of the life of Rev. James Reeb, one of the noblest among them.

On Friday, March 12 [1965], the representative of the President, Governor Collins of Florida, called for a meeting of all the outside ministers at the Catholic rectory, a mile from the "Selma Wall" where we faced off the Troopers day and night for more than a week, eye to eye: toe to toe. At the meeting a petition, probably written by the FBI, had been circulated, supposedly to deliver to the president of the United States. Gov. Collins then announced that he would like to explain the general role of the CRS: the Community Relations Service, which he headed.

"With those words an alarm bell went off in my head... here we were, about to be lectured to for perhaps two hours, on the importance of his office, while bedlam threatened to break loose in the housing complex. Were we being manipulated by Jim Clark and his cohorts...? I immediately stood up... I said that I felt that there was a very difficult situation back in Carver Houses that might break out at any moment, that we were undermanned there, and that I would have to go back to Brown Chapel." (*Unless otherwise specified, all quotes are from Rev. Leonard.*)

An audible gasp went through the assembled clergy at the rudeness in the face of the President's appointed representative. Governor Collins was visibly shaken... The clergy rallied to his support... Some looked at me in complete disdain. A handful of local ministers joined me as I left....

The scene was exactly as my mind had pictured it. As the several of us came up to the line demarking the police and the demonstrators, I could spot only one local minister in the center of the line trying to hold the people back. "Boy, am I glad to see you fellas! You just got here in time."

The Selma Police Chief, Wilson Baker, had been called away, and was not replaced. Neither was his car blocking Sylvan Street replaced. The route seemed open, lined by the very same Troopers who had severely beaten hundreds of citizens on the Bridge five days ago.

Rev. Leonard does not know this, but Wilson Baker had prevented a massacre in that very same spot on February 19, the night after the murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson in Marion, by those same Troopers. Had we taken one more step that time we would have been killed by the "Water Posse" of Sheriff Clark, who were on horseback and in pickup trucks, carrying rifles and shotguns, in the dark, in the rain. Of this I am certain. This time, Chief Wilson Baker was gone.

"Looking back, I continue to feel that he had been called away by some higher authority, that the road had been deliberately left open with the visiting clergy pulled out of harm's way, and that there had been a 'gigantic plot' to have the demonstration go off half-cocked, resulting in injuries and death to the people left behind.... Whoever suggested to Governor Collins that he hold a meeting with the clergy... was, I believed then and do today, out for blood." This is true.

Thus, in that critical and fluid situation, our [Unitarian Universalist] UU representative, not only likely saved my life, but possibly the entire Selma Movement. Had 50 or 100 people been killed that night, the story for history would have been immeasurable different. The tension was so thick that many people, especially outsiders, cracked under the strain. That same night Leonard himself writes, "I was becoming the 'basket case' I was afraid of becoming."

Leonard writes eloquently of the native democratic spirit of the communal struggle where everyone votes with his/her feet. "Also, what these six days had shown me about people's capacities! I had found myself in a setting unlike anything I could possibly have imagined, in which thousands of people interplayed with each other in almost total absence of structure. Or was it structure that, paradoxically, changed from moment to moment?"

The black community and the white clergy and supporters had been thrown together and functioned with unbelievable efficiency, without benefit of committees, subcommittees, mimeo machines, telephones, anything that my ecclesiastical experience had told me was essential for getting things done. If Dr. King were taken out of the picture , briefly or forever, there was someone equally eloquent to stand in his place. If a person performing a vital function anywhere had to leave, somebody was ready to step in... People like myself, who had come thinking that at best they would be good observers, found themselves quickly enough being asked for leadership by those with a few hours less experience.

If the question were asked, 'Who is performing the most important job? Or Who is in charge here?' it would have been impossible to say....

It was amusing too to think about people who had arrived in Selma believing they were leaders, and who found that they could not lead. They usually took the next plane home....

Perhaps we were experiencing pure democracy for the first time. One followed whom one respected, and ignored whom one didn't.... Basically, the leaders were those who had the most experience. They knew what the alternatives might be, and the consequences, and we listened to them. "I was tremendously affected by the words and actions of both SNCC and SCLC staff, and by many of the local people. It was a tremendous fusing of love and justice into action. My theology has been permanently affected," Gordon Gibson.

Leonard wrote of the reasons for coming to Selma. "I found that, to a person, black or white, people had been drawn to Selma thinking of themselves as observers. Having observed, they were absolutely obligated to participate."

Although I stayed in Selma for 2 years instead of the traditional 2 days or weeks, the same is true for this reviewer. (An account of my work in another town, Demopolis, later that year can be found in the book, If White Kids Die, by Dick J. Reavis, University of North Texas Press, 2001.)

"If you go, take no halfhearted commitment, for there is no place for it in Selma. Take your life with you as a gift entire  — or just to be there is a risk of everything you are or hope to be. You will find the terror unbearable if you go in any other spirit," David A. Johnson.

Speaking of the concern of white America over the death of Jim Reeb, Leonard writes: "Dignitaries were arriving from all over. They, of course, walked up to the front of the line. Not all of them got a good response from the crowd. Particularly offensive were the white ministers who talked of the death of Jim Reeb without linking it in any meaningful way to the deaths of countless blacks in Alabama."

Dr. King arrived... From the moment the service began I found myself ... furiously angry at the behavior of my white colleagues... From the balcony I saw a sea of dignitaries clearly unrelated to the events in Selma... It is hard to imagine a more jumbled collection of prepared prayers and speeches rattled off in a patronizing way. It was ecclesiasticism at its worst ... When King began to speak, however, it suddenly seemed right that we should all be there ... He then asked, "What killed Jim Reeb?" And answered, "an irrelevant church, an indifferent clergy, an irresponsible political system, a corrupt law enforcement hierarchy, a timid federal government, and an uncommitted Negro population."

Even the President of the United States that night spoke, "At times history and fate meet in a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for Freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama." He never spoke truer words. But if we forget, or ridicule the lessons of Selma, we can lose our country.

At times one sees the Yankeeism, the whiteness, and middle class assumptions creep in; But this book is about honesty, and meaningfulness rather than self-justification. I respect Rev. Leonard far the more for his revealing various attitudes and acts with which I strongly disagreed, both at the time and now, 38 years later, than had he written to be "politically correct" to some presumed audience.

Leonard was fortunate enough to have gotten into the 300 people who really walked the walk. That only amounts to one half of the people who were beaten on the Bridge. I didn't even know that I would be included until the list came out. I organized, and conducted the internal security force for 24 hours a day, for the entire march. The marshals whom Rev. Leonard mentions were mostly for daytime show and crowd support. It was a way to allow a few more white folks and outsiders to feel vicariously the entire event and to go home proud. I had no white guys or outsiders in my group of 14 who patrolled all night every night. Half of us spent the entire second day with the Alabama National Guard burning out 100 mounds of fire ants to clear out the campsite. On the third night, in heavy rain, at 2:AM, my guys caught General Graham who had successfully sneaked through his own lines. They brought him to my campfire,

"Hey, Arkansas! We got one!"

When I challenged him for identification, he produced his active duty card, United States Army: GENERAL. I was stunned. General Graham then called my entire crew over to his headquarters, called in his entire battalion, and gave them the best tongue-lashing I have ever heard in my life. " en! Some of you do not seem to know who you are. On this assignment you are soldiers in the United States Army. If any person again breaches our lines, the soldiers responsible will never again see the light of day. Do you understand?"

"Yes Sir!"

That was the exact moment when the Alabama National Guard was finally Federalized. That is why they faced the forest from that moment forward. My crew were all from Selma, ages 17-40. They did their job.

[Initially, the Alabama guardsmen surrounded the night-time campsites with their guns pointed towards the sleeping marchers as if to protect the southern way of life from any challenge of change. When they were finally forced to "...face the forrest" it meant that they were guarding the marchers from attack by white terrorists.]

I was relieved of duty by the new SNCC crew when we got to St. Jude's [in Montgomery]. So, luckily and unexpectedly, I had the best seat in the house, right on the stage, at the feet of Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Pete Seeger, and the great Nina Simone who sang Mississippi Goddamn! There is a photo of me with Joan Baez, Jim Forman, & Cleve Sellars in front of the stage at the Capitol. It was a glorious finish to an incredible journey.

But Viola Liuzzo was murdered that night as we tried to shuttle hundreds of stranded people back to Selma. I had to run a road-block on [county road] 18 just to get back alive with my 8 local passengers. I dropped them off at Brown Chapel Church, staggered up to the floor below the pulpit, and slept like a rock for 36 hours straight.

What really happened in Selma, especially the next month, when all the big shots left town and we tried to keep the Movement alive, you don't want to know.

The March itself, however, without qualification, was a high point in American history, and carried two ineradicable messages throughout the world: First, the possibility of absolute human brotherhood, discipline, and community in an epic struggle for Freedom. Second, the impossibility of pretending to be a "democracy," without allowing the absolute minimum of the right to vote.

I cannot close this commentary without a word about the singing. No singing: no Movement. It was that significant. The spontaneity, the dedication, the courage, the discipline, the heart, the community, the blood, sweat, and God! the tears! All came at levels worth dying for, with an intensity seldom seen or felt in history. But the leading character, in every occasion, was the Singing: the Freedom Songs.

"On the other side of the barricade are anywhere from a hundred to a thousand people, depending on the hour, and they are singing. This has been going on for a hundred hours, and no matter what time it is, you can always hear the singing, and always see the line," Robert Hohler

"There was always a group of us at the barrier singing Freedom Songs. The singing went on all day and all night. Years later, when I heard any of the songs, the memories brought tears to my eyes," Ralph Stutzman. "Everything is touch and go in Selma. The singing of Freedom Songs saves the day when tension gets high. Never have I heard such singing!" Howard Matson

The tears come and threaten to overwhelm me as I read these words from the heart, and KNOW their truth.

None of the outsiders knew it, but we had already won the War. That moment came in Brown Chapel, far into the night of March 7, when the posse were marauding through the Carver homes, and hundreds of us sat numb in the church:

In the words of a little girl who marched with us every day that winter:

My eyes were still swollen and burning from the tear gas. But what I saw there made me cry again. I'll never forget the faces of those people. I'd never seen such looks before. They weren't afraid, because they were too beaten to know any more fear. It was as though nobody cared to even try anymore, like we were slaves after all, and had been put in our place by a good beating.

I sat with Rachel up toward the front. Now there were a bunch of kids up there. So we were just sitting there crying, listening to the others cry; some were even moaning and wailing. It was an awful thing. It was like we were at our own funeral.

But then later in the night, maybe nine-thirty or ten, all of a sudden somebody there started humming. I think they were moaning and it just went into the humming of a freedom song. It was real low, but some of us children began humming along, slow and soft. At first I didn't even know what it was, what song, I mean. It was like a funeral sound, a dirge. Then I recognized it — "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round." I'd never heard it or hummed it that way before. But it just started to catch on, and the people began to pick it up. It started to swell, the humming. Then we began singing the words.

We sang, "Ain't Gonna Let George Wallace turn me 'round, & Ain't gonna let Jim Clark turn me 'round. No state trooper..., Ain't gonna let no horses, no tear gas — turn me 'round; ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round, NOBODY! "

And everybody's singing now, and some of them are clapping their hands, and they're still crying, but it's a different kind of crying. It's crying that's got Spirit, not the weeping they had been doing.

And me and Rachel are crying and singing, and it just gets louder and louder. I know the state troopers outside the church heard it. Everybody heard it. Because more people were coming in then, leaving their homes and coming to the church —  because something was happening.

We was singing and telling the world that we hadn't been whipped, We had WON! — Sheyanne Webb, Selma, age 8.

From Selma, Lord Selma, by Sheyanne Webb & Rachel West Nelson. William Morrow & Co, New York, 1980.

"If I could give each of you just one gift for a life time, it would be to have spent that week in Selma. Those of us who were there will have to do as Jim Bevel urged us to do: retire into our closets and rethink our entire philosophy of life. No less is possible," Hunter Leggitt.

"I know not how many years I grew that month before the Spring but, fleeting decades since scarce have left so True a mark upon my Soul," Strider.

If You are a Unitarian, Or an American, or a human, Read this book: Call To Selma, by Richard D. Leonard, Skinner House Books, 2002. Also, No Greater Love, the James Reeb Story, by Duncan Howlett, Skinner House Books, 1993.

Copyright © Strider "Arkansas" Benston


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