Civil Rights: My Participation in the Last Day of the Selma-Montgomery March
Rev. Dr. Janet E. Wolfe
Montgomery AL, March 25, 1965

[Original letter: March 29, 1965, revised August 21, 2014]

With the entire nation, we in Boulder, Colorado, were shocked and sickened by the brutal attack on Negro marchers in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 1965. The following Sunday a group of men from Boulder, including the Rev. Wally Toevs, Presbyterian university pastor at the University of Colorado, Roy Mersky, law librarian, Phil Danielson, CU regent, Leslie Fishman, economics professor, and Willard Conrow, active layperson from First Presbyterian Church, Boulder, went to Selma, hoping to participate in a subsequent march. They were present in Montgomery on March 16, and had received permission to observe the demonstration at the municipal buildings. They became involved in the resulting meele when mounted possemen attacked. The possemen were composed largely of "rednecks" hurriedly deputized for the occasion, wearing cowboy hats and wielding canes and clubs on the non-violent demonstrators.

The control that Martin Luther King and his aides have over these demonstrations is tenuous, but it is a marvelous example of nonviolent resistance. The student demonstrators either hold hands and sing, or, if the attack is especially vicious, they cover their heads and crouch. They do not move unless the leader so directs. The Boulder men, although they were on the opposite side of the street, became involved in the attack. None was injured. Three horsemen would club a demonstrator to the ground. Other demonstrators would fall on the injured one to prevent more clubbing. A Japanese-American student from Pennsylvania who was injured was standing near Rev. Wally Toevs. He was clubbed down and then dragged unconscious down the sidewalk by the feet with his head bumping on the walk.

After this attack, the demonstrators were driven about six blocks back into the Negro section of town. A Montgomery motorcycle policeman charged into the crowd and ran over a number of people. Again, the control of the demonstration was superb. The policeman was not injured in spite of the anger of the crowd. When we received word of this in Boulder, we sent a number of telegrams to congressmen recommending federalization of troops.

Throughout the week, we received further reports about the sickening state of affairs. One woman whom Rev. Wally Toevs interviewed, a cook at Brown Chapel, gathering place of the movement in Selma, had been with the movement for about two years. She had been fired from her housekeeping job for this activity and is currently unemployed. She said that the Alabama Negroes can afford to fight, for they have nothing to lose but their lives. "They feed us sowbelly and corn pones in jail. They think that is mean, but it is not a hardship to us because we eat that all the time." She explained that her father was a sharecropper for a white landlord. They had always received a portion of the crop too small to sustain them all year. They would then have to borrow from the landlord and thus were always in debt, preventing them from leaving his service.

Meanwhile, George Williams, a Boulder businessman and former Democratic county chairman, began investigating the possibility of chartering a plane to Montgomery in the event that the march was approved. We were able to fill the 90-seat plane and a 33 seat bus. I took the bus. We encountered our first difficulty, probably a minor one in retrospect, in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Our bus driver at that point, a white southerner, was not particularly sympathetic. He made an unscheduled stop, and three punks in the depot shouted a few choice epithets, such as "Heil, Hitler!" and "Go Home."

In Memphis, Tennessee, we really began to feel the hostility, although there were no incidents there. Crossing into Mississippi we felt was like entering Nazi Germany, exemplified clearly by the bus driver's remark at the port of entry: "Well, I'll go in and pay off the Gestapo." There is a bus permit required in Mississippi (at least for us). In order to avoid arrest for that charge, the driver paid for the permit, giving our destination as Daytona Beach. We were detained for 30 minutes, during which time we discovered an empty whisky bottle on the bus. One of the "Gestapo's" favorite tricks is to arrest civil rights workers for illegal transportation of liquor. We disposed of the bottle (I won't say where!) but we feared that we would be searched. We were not, however, and no other incidents occurred in Mississippi.

... My first impression in the daylight in Alabama was the beauty of the land juxtaposed on this rotten mess. This is a real tragedy of the situation. The climate is pleasant, and the resources, at least in Alabama, are quite plentiful. Yet the substance is wasted on hate and bigotry.

We arrived at 6:30 a.m. at St. Jude's, the Catholic compound where the marchers made camp the last night. They were just breaking camp. One of the first groups we encountered there was from Tougaloo College, Mississippi, a Negro school. An active SNCC worker from there had been in Boulder last year. We marched with this group. The march did not get underway until noon, because, we heard, Dr. King was being served a summons for the suit brought by the franchised bus line in Selma. SCLC had been running a line for Negroes boycotting the segregated city busses. During our wait we encountered many fascinating people.

... The Montgomery Advertiser's editorial page is typical of southern newspapers. The first editorial, entitled "Silence,"urged the citizens to ignore the rabble. The second was a sarcastic essay about a cat who was not satisfied with catching sparrrows but was waiting at the maid's door to capture the fat parrots inside. It closed with: "We don't wanna hurt. We just want you to get the hell home." The third made reference to Montgomery as the seat of the last battle of the Civil War. (It was 1965, not 1865!). Throughout the editorials and open forum, demonstrators were called beatniks, pseudo-clergy, paid agitators, unemployed scum who must not have families; otherwise they wouldn't have time to leave their hearthsides, etc. A later paper printed a comment from a white observer. "Ugh! The filth! I felt so contaminated that I had to gargle before I could eat."

Among the "filthy beatniks" we encountered were two Yale professors, the president of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and many other dignitaries. (SFTS students were doing logistics for the march, such as setting up tents and cleaning up campgrounds.) The real heroes of the movement are not the dignitaries, but the Alabama Negroes. One woman with whom I visited described the fear of the police. They extend no significant protection to the Negro community; cases involving two Negro parties are seldom prosecuted, brutality is a constant fear, worse in Birmingham than in Montgomery, Negro police have no jurisdiction over whites, and of course, a white man has little fear if he commits a crime against a Negro. I fear that many white travelers in the South have failed to experience this feeling of the police state which so haunts the civil rights workers, for white southerners are usually very gracious people as long as one does not upset the segregationist system.

There were many signs carried by marchers. One was a brilliant blue, orange and white, saying "God is color-blind." Another, an Episcopal creation, showed a crucifix, half white, half black, with barbed wires running through the body.

After wading in a mixture of mud, rain, and old orange peels for 5 hours, we began marching through the Negro section. The spectators were jubilant. There were many old people and mothers with small children. One woman in a wheelchair was vigorously waving with both hands. Then the iceberg descended! We entered the white community. Most people made no response at all. Downtown, there were many people looking out windows; in one building there were a number of whites and one Negro. The Negro was very reluctant to smile and wave, but he finally responded to our encouragement.

Local dignitaries sat stony-faced in a balcony at the Jefferson Davis Hotel. We waved. There was no response. We heard surprisingly few crank remarks; a few punks delivered some on one corner, but the army cast a pall on this sort of activity. When we arrived at the capitol, we were seated on the pavement that extended solidly beyond the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a long block from the capitol. This church was where Martin Luther King began the bus boycott in 1956. Among the galling things we saw were the confederate flags sewn on the federalized National Guardsmen's uniforms. A Montgomery policeman not far from me tightly gripped his billy club and glared all afternoon.

At 3 p.m. the mass meeting began. Speakers included Andrew Young, Albert Turner, leader of the Marion, Alabama group, Amelia Boynton, leader of the Selma movement who was injured on the bridge, Dr Ralph Bunche, A. Philip Randolph, and Rosa Parks. Martin Luther King's speech was quite political in tone. The Negro revolution, he said, is part of the twentieth century and must be successful if the Great Society is to work. This speech is the source of his well known saying, "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." He talked about segregation and inferior education, and the need to have access to the ballot box to remedy these conditions. "Selma, Alabama, has become a shining moment in the conscience of man. If the worst in American life lurked in the dark streets, the best of American instincts arose passionately from across the nation to overcome it." [This paragraph added in the 2014 revision.]

... Our reasons for going: Many people ask why "outside agitators" go to Alabama. We are not outside agitators, we are citizens of the United States, and Alabama was not being run according to the principles of democratic government. The unconcerned people of Nazi Germany minded their own business while Hitler rose and murdered six million Jews. The right to vote is basic and non-negotiable. It is not a right that has to be earned, but a right that has existed since the founding of the nation. It has been expanded throughout the history of the country and has included Negroes for 95 years prior to the march. The South would continue to defy the Constitution and their moral responsibility without a great deal of pressure from the rest of the nation. We went also so that we might have a better picture of the situation in the South in order to make a deeper impression on the more complacent citizens of this nation.

No, we do not think the North, or Boulder, is perfect. There is housing discrimination, unemployment, inferior education, and some discrimination in public accommodations. We are working on test cases in these areas. Various groups at CU are raising funds for SNCC, CORE (which works primarily in the North), and SCLC. All of us can help by applying pressure for strong voting legislation, for support of the challenge of the Mississippi delegation in the House of Representatives this summer, and for local fair housing.

The Sunday after our return we held a meeting of the three groups that went to Alabama. It was volcanic. The entire 130 people are so incensed that they are determined that "We Shall Overcome."

...At a mass meeting following the return of the six Boulder men that went to Selma and Montgomery earlier, Rev. Wally Toevs read the following from Albert Camus' The Plague. [My translation from the French.]

"Listen, in effect, to the crises of cheerfulness that rise in the village; the laughs that often accompany this cheerfulness are always menacing. For one knows that this crowd lives ignorant joy, although they could read it in books; that the bacillus of the plague neither dies or ever disappears, but rests for dozens of years dormant in the furniture and the linens, waits patiently in the bedrooms, the wine-cellars, the handkerchiefs, the waste paper, that sometime the day will come, for the sickness and instruction of man, when the plague will reawaken in the rats and bring death upon the happy city."

As the spring of 1965 wore on, and I completed my master's thesis on the political philosophy of the theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, I decided that I would apply to attend San Francisco Theological Seminary in the fall, rather than doing further graduate studies. It seemed to me that going to the last day of the Selma March was something like going to church on Easter, but that my commitment to the cause required further action. So I, along with Richard Krushnic and Pam Mausner, also students at CU, applied to the Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) project of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. [added 2014]

Copyright © Janet Wolfe, 2015

[See The March to Montgomery and Summer Community Organization Political Education Project (SCOPE)for background information.]

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