Marching with King in Selma
Rev. Paul Carr, Jr.
March 18, 2015
Eyewitness Account from Selma
On Monday, March 8, 1965, the Washington Post featured on its front page an AP photo of poor blacks being stomped, beaten, and shot with tear gas in Selma Alabama by state troopers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge which spans the Alabama River. Under the photo was a Macedonian call to aid by Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King asked the "white clergy of the nation" to join with him in another attempt to march to Montgomery, the state capital, some 54 miles east.
This photo began to stir the nation's leaders to action, including President Johnson. When I read this, I was 29 years old, and was serving as Associate Pastor, Bethesda, MD United Methodist Church. My life prepared me to respond to this call. In August of 1963, I was part of the March on Washington and heard King's "I Have a Dream" speech. In 1964, I had participated in the United Methodist Church's General Conference, meeting in Pittsburgh where the issue was the Central Jurisdiction, which was designed to separate blacks from whites. In addition to my participation in civil rights issues, I was keenly aware that my father, as Superintendent of Orange County Schools, was leading the very difficult desegregation of a school system. In the 1960s, in our country, the issue was civil rights. My wife, Jean, and I had talked through these issues and were at peace with our stance. Having said all this, this call from King could be dangerous. I had been married for four years. our daughter was almost two. Was I really prepared for this? The issue at hand was voting rights. The black population in Selma was 15,000, the whites 8,000, You had to be white to vote in Selma. John Lewis, now Congressman John Lewis, detailed the efforts of blacks to register to vote in his book, Walking in the Wind. It was now 9 am on Monday morning. Now that I had decided to go to Selma, I had some questions. Exactly where is Selma and how do I get there? I got on the phone and started phoning my network of clergy friends in the Washington DC/Baltimore area.
One person I called was The Rev. Gordon Cosby, Pastor, Church of The Saviour, an innovative ecumenical church which had greatly influenced Jean and me. Gordon said "Yes"; Harry Kiely said "Yes". So did Jack Mote and Bruce Poynter, all United Methodist Friends. The network expanded.
Sometime during mid-day, I learned that a plane had been chartered to take 40 clergyman from the DC area to Montgomery, AL. We were to meet at Washington National Airport at 4 pm for a press conference, then leave at 5 pm. I arrived wearing my clerical collar and a small handbag with essentials for an overnight stay.
A photo was taken at the airport by the chartered plane with the 40 DC clergy who were taking the trip. Leading our group of Protestant, Catholic and Jew was my own United Methodist Bishop, John Wesley Lord.
On board, someone passed a magazine with a photo of a policeman on a motor cycle, with the caption written in hand, this is the enemy, love him! Remember that on Bloody Sunday, the people most of us considered our friends and protectors, were now being thought of as the enemy.
About 7 pm, just after dark, our plane arrived in Montgomery. We were told we could get a bit to eat at the Montgomery airport, but when we entered the terminal, there was no time for lingering. We were met by SNCC workers (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) who had rented cars to transport us to Selma. We learned that the dome lights in the cars had been disconnected to not attract attention, A caution against a possible sniper we were told. This was when my blood ran cold. We were in enemy territory. En route, the Alabama police had set up a road block for a "traffic survey". a bright light flooded the interior of our car revealing one black driver and five white clergymen. "Where are you guys going?", he asked. Selma.
We were allowed to continue without incident. Our drive took us to Brown's chapel AME Church, which had served as headouarters for SNCC and now SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership conference).
By now it was close to 10 pm. People inside the church were aware that King had put out a call for help. King himself had not yet arrived at Brown's Chapel; he had been preaching at his father's church in another city. King's lieutenants were holding the crowd until he arrived. Some grew restless with the promise that many white clergy had been invited to the march the next day: "They ain't comin', I'm tired of waitin'" some were heard to say.
At that moment, the first clergy to arrive burst through the doors, and the crowd came to life; "Glory, glory halleluia, glory glory halleluia".
The host for one of my colleagues shared this response to our arrival, "Tonight was the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen in my life, when you walked in. I'd give up my place in glory to have seen that sight."
Not only our delegation from Washington DC, but also religious leaders from New York, Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles began to arrive.
I sat upstairs in the balcony. We all welcomed the arrival of Dr. King who joined his colleagues Ralph Abernathy, Andy Young, James Farmer, Julian Bond and others.
We sang We Shall Overcome holding hands and swaying.
Some of the numbers gathered that night had bandaged heads, arms and legs -- all of them veterans of Bloody Sunday.
King said that the Federal judge had not cleared us to march the next day but that his people had waited 400 years and the presence of some 1,000 marchers from around the county was evidence that God wanted us to take a stand for justice. "And, we are going to march; nobody is going to turn us around."
I remember King asking the crowd this question: "What are you willing to die for?" I asked myself, "What has captured my devotion so that I am willing to die for it?" King then said, "If you are not willing to die for something, then you are not alive." The blacks in Selma had no money, or power, no prestige to wage a war. The only weapon was their bodies. Only two choices, death or freedom.
With that the crowd broke up. It was near midnight. I only knew that I had come to Selma to march. I did not know the sleeping arrangements. We soon learned that arrangements had been made. A 17 year old teen came up to me and invited me to spend the night in his home.
We drove from paved roads and modest homes to unpaved roads and shanty houses. Inside the home, I was directed to a sofa in the living room.
It had been a long and exciting day, starting in my secure, suburban home in Maryland, and now ending in this modest home in the black community in the heart of Alabama. I was experiencing hunger pains (our chartered plane did not serve meals or snacks)! Without thinking, I asked my host if there was food in the house. He said, "Let's see." We went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, "Nothing". We opened all the cabinet doors, "Nothing". There was no food in the house. My host and I were both embarrassed. Had not my mother taught me, and my wife reminded me, that you take gifts to those providing hospitality? As a Christian I was committed to feeding the poor. Here I was asking for food!
Before I went to sleep, I asked my host if he were in school. He said he had dropped out of school temporarily to give full time to the movement.
The next day we were treated to a generous breakfast at Brown's Chapel by a number of spirited women who carried with them a sense of history about what we were all experiencing.
Later that morning, we were told to assemble in the sanctuary for non-violence training to be lead by Andrew Young (later Ambassador Andrew Young). We received a brief review of the history of non-violence an indispensable strategy for dealing with oppression. We were taught how to protect ourselves if we were shot with tear gas. By common agreement the young would protect the old, and the men would protect the women.
A clergyman asked, "If they are beating us, may we grab the billy stick?" A 16 year old boy, who was leading this part of the session said, "Absolutely not, this is exactly what they want. If you cannot keep from grabbing the billy stick, don't go on this march."
We were asked to look deep inside ourselves to ask if there were any impulses for violence. If so, we were not invited to march. At the end of the session, we signed a form saying we would be non violent and listing those to notify in case of an emergency. Leaving the church, I observed Dr. King talking with a small group and went up to introduce myself and shake hands. I did not know this opportunity would present itself but the significance of this brief greeting has grown through the years.
About 1 pm some 800 marchers, including some 400 clergy nation-wide, lined up at Brown's Chapel AME Church for the march three abreast. In the front row with Dr. King was my own United Methodist Bishop Lord. It was about a mile from the church to the bridge. We marched silently, only the slow movement of feet moving on the pavement was audible.
At my side was Mrs. Peabody, the mother of the governor of Massachusetts. She had been a civil rights activist in Florida demonstrations. Our training prepared me to fall on her if we were shot with tear gas.
As we approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I wondered "Who was Edmund Pettus?" I learned later that Pettus was a Confederate General from Selma who later became the Grand Dragon of the KKK. Pettis personified resistance, and white supremacy.
We could see nothing but blue sky and dark water as we marched toward the bridge's crest. Once just over the crest, we all discovered something we had read about, heard about, but never experienced. The forces of resistance were straight ahead. This was a trap. There was no exit.
This image is frozen in my memory bank. Ahead were Alabama troopers at the end of the bridge , in the road way, and along each side of the road. Each had a Confederate flag attached to their uniforms.
Standing behind the troopers were sheriff Jim Clark and his "Deputies", white men with billy clubs who numbered in the hundreds. These were the same deputies who two days earlier on Bloody Sunday had chased a father and son into a black neighborhood (where they sought safety in a cafe) and had beaten the son to death in front of the father and other cafe patrons. Their crime - they had been in the march.
Now over the bridge and surrounded on three sides by troopers and deputies, King called a halt to the march, turned facing the marchers, and asked us to kneel in prayer. I was near the front of the line and could clearly hear the prayer. After which he asked us to go back to the church.
What was the impact of our march? John Lewis reports that some 80 US cities had demonstrations of support for our efforts.
Some 70 million watched the broadcast of President Lyndon B. Johnson on television, making what some consider the finest speech of his career and the strongest statement by any US President on the subject of civil rights. It began powerfully,
"At times history and fate meet at 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 at Selma, Alabama."
On March 21st, following clearance from US Federal Judge Frank Johnson, the march of some 3,000 people proceeded peacefully over the bridge to the capital city of Montgomery. The distance of 54 miles was covered in four days.
What happened to the clergy I called to join me in Selma?
Gordon Cosby, Church of the Saviour, rallied his congregation to attack some visible injustice in Washington and, over time, For Love of Children (FLOC) succeeded in dismantling Junior Village, where children regressed, and placing them in group homes.
Harry Kiely, Jack Mote (along with Forrest Stith, later Bishop Stith), and I founded "Shepherds of the Streets", a program focused on the needs of inner city youth.
In 1968, following the death of Martin Luther King Jr., as Pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church, 14th and Columbia Roads (just north of the White House), I witnessed the burning of the city of Washington all around our church. In all, some 1,400 buildings burned wholly or in part, the largest property destruction in the city since the Civil War. Our church mobilized an emergency station to care for the needs of the people in our area.
Over the period 1963 to 1968, I was privileged to be an eyewitness and participant in the civil rights movement.
Selma is not only a place but a symbol of need and injustice.
There are Selmas everywhere including here in our county and our state wherever there is a struggle for equality and freedom.
G. Paul Carr, Jr., February 20, 2015.
[ More insights and discussion can be heard in the audio recording. ]