letter from selma
Contents: July/August 2002
Pilgrimage to Selma, 37 years later
by Richard D. Leonard
On a Monday morning thirty-seven years ago I walked into the Community Church of New York, where I was minister of education, little dreaming that by evening I would be in Alabama, immersed in a struggle that would change our country.
Hundreds of Unitarian Universalists responded including two who would be murdered, the Rev. James Reeb of Boston and Viola Liuzzo, a lay person from Detroit.
This March 11, the anniversary of Reeb's death, I returned to Selma for the first time, with a busload of fifty-four UU ministers who had attended a convocation in Birmingham (see page 38). At age 74, I was long overdue to visit the sites so deeply etched in my memory. On the bus were my wife, Polly, seeing Selma for the first time, and three other veterans of the 1965 events in Selma the Rev. Clark Olson, the Rev. Orloff Miller, and the Rev. Gordon Gibson.
In 1965, the several thousand civil-rights protestors had been largely confined to the well-tended black housing development surrounding Brown Chapel. Now we were free to visit the Dallas County Courthouse, where black activists had bravely attempted to register to vote; the Good Samaritan Hospital, where victims of Bloody Sunday were taken; and even the used-car lot operated by O'Neal (Duck) Hoggle, one of the three white men accused of attacking Reeb, Olson, and Miller in 1965 as they left a black-owned restaurant. Olson positively identified Hoggle in court as the one who swung the club, but the all-white jury acquitted him.
Our bus driver, Joseph Selmon, a native Southerner and civil rights activist, told us that Hoggle sells most of his cars to blacks who are unaware of his past. Hearing that Hoggle today relies on the black community for his customer base gave my stomach a turn. In 1998, Olson's daughter Marika brought her father back here for a documentary she produced for CNN called "A Murder in Selma." With cameras rolling, they visited the used-car business hoping to talk to Duck Hoggle. He turned his back and slammed the door on them.
Our bus continued on Jefferson Davis Street, a major paved artery named for the Confederate president, and turned onto the less improved Martin Luther King Jr. Street. Our driver quipped, "Look at that street sign. That's probably the only place you'll see those two side by side."
I feared to see how the years might have treated Brown Chapel, which despite its name is a good-sized church. Brown Chapel is where we met almost constantly, where Dr. King exhorted the rapidly growing throng of supporters to stick to his program of nonviolence and to wait out the legal struggle over whether we would be allowed to march. It is also where Reeb was eulogized by Dr. King and the UUA president, the Rev. Dana Greeley. That day, the front row was filled by the entire board of trustees of our denomination.
When I arrived in Selma in 1965, the church was so packed that I could barely wedge myself into a tiny vestibule outside the sanctuary and strain to hear Dr. King. At one meeting, people were so jammed in the balcony and stairs that the collection plate couldn't be passed to them. There was a shower of coins, and the bills came floating down. Our group in 2002 comfortably moved around the empty sanctuary.
The church looked exactly as I had remembered, with richly colored woodwork, dramatic organ pipes, and gorgeous stained glass. It is now a national historic monument and has been lovingly preserved.
From the front steps I could see the spot in the street that in 1965 had become known as the Selma Wall. For seven days, in an extraordinarily tense face-to-face standoff, police had held back the marchers while a U.S. district judge first issued an injunction forbidding the march, then reversed the order. As the standoff wore on, the thousands of demonstrators teemed into the street on the chapel side of the line, holding their ground day after day, night after night, singing freedom songs even as torrential spring rains pummeled us.
Today fancy ironwork grills on either side of the street mark the spot. I was dismayed to find no one locally who knew the significance of that point in the street. And I was struck by the peacefulness no one was walking about and only an occasional car passed by.
Many marchers thought as I did at the time that getting the vote would be the main hurdle of the civil rights struggle. Once that was done, we thought, everything would work itself out. It's disheartening to realize how badly our optimism missed the mark, as poverty and remnants of the old power structure continue to dominate so many Southern black communities.
Our next stop was Strong's Restaurant, formerly Walker's Cafe, where a group of UU ministers had eaten together just before Reeb was fatally attacked. Clark Olson and Orloff Miller held back tears as they relived the scene. Reeb had been on the curb side. The attackers came from across the street, yelling "Niggers!" at the three ministers. One swung a two-by-four and struck Reeb. Olson, just arrived in Selma, had not received the nonviolence instruction to keep walking and not to look at antagonists. He turned and looked straight in the face of the man wielding the board. The attackers fled. After accompanying Reeb by ambulance to Birmingham, Olson and Miller were taken out of Alabama for their protection as material witnesses. Though the memory was painful on the return trip, sharing the missing pieces of the story that each of us held, and sharing prayers for Reeb and Liuzzo, acted as a salve.
Before leaving Selma, we visited the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which marchers crossed on Bloody Sunday; they crossed it again two days later after the call for clergy went out, only to be turned back by a solid cordon of wooden clubs held by police; and for the third and final time when the order permitting the march came through. On March 11, 2002, we crossed it yet again, in silence. The group asked my wife Polly and me to take the lead.
Traffic was heavy at 4:45 P.M. But cars courteously stopped in both directions as we crossed the highway. The drivers' faces showed no displeasure. Several honked and waved to congratulate us. Civil rights pilgrims are a familiar sight to residents these days.
As we crested the long bridge, we first glimpsed the road to Montgomery. On the other side, instead of police, a collection of deeply felt, homegrown, artistic memorials to the Selma Voting Rights March greeted us. We joined hands in a circle and sang together the freedom songs we learned thirty-seven years ago.
The Rev. Richard D. Leonard is minister emeritus of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City and the author of Call to Selma: Eighteen Days of Witness, (Skinner House Books, 2002; $18). Editor and writer Kimberly French assisted in the preparation of this article.