I was honored when Joel and Rob asked me to present my “testimony” this morning, particularly since its Father’s Day. But today I won’t be talking about either my father or my son.
I grew up in Erie, PA in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, a time when less than 10% of the county’s population was black. I graduated from a small high school in western Erie County, where there were no blacks in my class of fifty-five, and none in the entire high school. It wasn’t until I began my studies at the University of Pittsburgh that I was exposed to other ethnic groups, and it was there that I met my first inter-racial couple, a young white girl in a wheel chair and a blind black student who pushed her wherever they went. She was his eyes, and he was her legs. But this isn’t their story either.
The first half of the 1960’s was the height of the civil rights movement, and by January of 1965 the movement came to Selma, Alabama. On March 7th (Bloody Sunday) under the leadership of SNCC’s John Lewis and SCLC’s Hosea Williams (who is not related to me by the way) 600 marchers were beaten back as they tried to walk to the state capital in Montgomery. (If you haven’t already seen the movie Selma, you really need to give it a look). Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. then came to Selma and issued a call for sympathetic Americans to join him to renew the march. On Tuesday, Dr. King led twenty-five hundred people across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the point where the March 7 attack had begun, and then they returned to church. That evening as they left a restaurant, three white Unitarian ministers who had participated in the march were beaten by a group of white men. One of them, Rev. James Reeb, died two days later. His death resulted in a national outcry against the activities of white racists in the Deep South and provoked mourning throughout the country. Tens of thousands held vigils across the country in his honor.
One of those vigils was held at Pitt. Approximately 1,000 people from the university community gathered for a rally and memorial service to honor Rev. Reeb, and a Presbyterian minister who had been in Alabama the previous week, stressed that “We are here today to affirm that which is living, to involve ourselves in that which is present…If you sit by and watch injustice and inequality, you are dead.”
The following day, word went out that students and faculty from five different Pittsburgh colleges and universities were heading to Montgomery to participate in the demonstrations. Three buses carrying nearly 130 area university students, a Rabbi from the University of Pittsburgh, and the Chaplain from Mount Mercy College departed for Alabama for a mass demonstration to be held the following day. The first two busloads received counseling from ACLU attorneys prior to departure, and those of us on the third bus were briefed by a law student regarding our rights. The gravity of the situation became apparent when they passed around a paper asking us for our next of kin. We memorized the local SNCC phone number in Montgomery, and learned what we could about passive resistance and how to avoid beatings.
Most of the students stayed at the Jackson Street Baptist Church, but eleven of us stayed in one black family’s house next door. The husband stood guard with a shotgun that night, both over us and the church. One of the student leaders later stated: “Negro families would invite us to stay in their homes, even sleeping on the floors so we could use their beds. A Negro grocer gave us his entire stock of food. Several Negro hotels threw open their doors to us; and Negro doctors, at the risk of their professional reputations, were a great help when someone was hurt. We were coming back to Pittsburgh, but these people had to live there after we left.”
Before the march began, we were again given instructions about the appropriate response to confrontation: Obey the police and be polite; remain calm; if attacked, fall to the ground and protect your head. The advice seemed reasonable at the time. Beginning at the Jackson Street Church, approximately 600 college students from across the nation joined some 1200 other participants in a march that wound its way through the campus of Alabama State College to within two blocks of the capital where we were stopped by police.
When the march entered the “white section” of town, the police agreed that we could remain on the sidewalk. Some of the demonstrators, who had been given permission to cross the street, were soon blocked and surrounded by police. And then came the horsemen, mounted sheriff’s deputies (more than four times four) who attacked the group wielding whips, clubs, and ropes. The city police created a barrier along the perimeter which prevented our escape when the deputies charged, and several of us were trapped on a porch with brick walls about waist high. The mounted posse beat everyone as they tried to get off the porch, and the crush of bodies against the wall finally caused the top to collapse which gave us a way to escape.
Twenty three students were hurt. One girl was caught between two horses-rocked back and forth-and one deputy reached down and hit her with a club. Some of the officers attempted to stop the violence, but they too were clubbed.
That evening, we were encouraged to return home by the accompanying adults, Pitt’s Chancellor, and Dr. King, who had come to Montgomery when he learned of the mounted attack. Dr. King told us that our demonstration had proved its point, but if continued, would only dissipate the impact of future demonstrations. He also told us “Don’t leave in buses that show the name of a northern city. List a southern city as your destination.” So that’s what we did. Buses were obtained and we departed about 8:30 PM with our stated destination: Raleigh.
Twenty-four hours later we arrived back in Pittsburgh. The 130 students from Pitt comprised the single largest contingency at the Montgomery march, and 26 of those remained, planning to join any further demonstrations. The general feeling of the group was one of relief and disbelief. Relief that we were again safe, and disbelief in the experience we had undergone.
Our participation was only one small part of a much larger movement that resulted in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act on August 6th of that year. Unfortunately, it was also followed by three years of racial violence across the country culminating with the assassination of Rev. King (and Bobby Kennedy) in 1968, and riots in several cities, including Baltimore.
Since this is my “Testimony”, an obvious question to ask is “Did the experience change me?” The honest answer is “Probably not”. I am still the same person, with the same beliefs, and the same concerns about social injustice that I had when I left for Montgomery. But I think that’s the wrong question. The real question to ask is “Do you think your actions changed others?”, and the answer to that is “Yes”. I’m sure it made a difference to the people in that community who saw white students from across the country who believed in them and in what they were trying to accomplish. It may have been a very small part, but it was a part of the struggle to allow blacks to vote. That’s change.
When our group left Pittsburgh for Montgomery, many of those who stayed behind thought we were simply taking a “Winter Weekend” off from classes. When we returned, they began to appreciate not only what we’d been through, but the deeper reasons for our commitment. That’s change.
A few years ago, Karen and I visited my best friend from college, who was also the best man at our wedding. During our dinner conversation he said that one of his deepest regrets from that time was the fact that he didn’t participate in the march, because he was afraid of his father’s reaction. This was fifty years after that event, and he still has regrets.
So, now I have a question for you: When the bus for social justice leaves your city, will you be on it?