The Selma March Remembered

Recently I attended an interfaith meeting at my church and it brought to mind an experience I have only occasionally thought of over the years. At the meeting the entire “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King was recited by an African-American woman. Her impassioned rendition brought tears to my eyes and it was then I reflected on my early involvement in the Civil Rights movement of the 60s.

At the age of 13 I took part, along with my father and several others from my small Illinois town just east of St. Louis, in the historic march lead by Dr. King from Selma, Alabama to the capitol city of Montgomery. The year was 1965. My father, a well known lawyer in the area until his death in 1978, among other things, was known for taking on the town’s first civil rights case when he successfully sued the local country club for denying a black man membership based on race.

There were three marches out of Selma for the purpose of bringing attention to violation of voting rights for blacks in the southern states. The first on March 7th of about 600 people resulted in what became known as “Bloody Sunday” when marchers got only six blocks before being beaten and tear gassed by local police in front of reporters and TV cameras. These images displayed across the U.S. outraged millions. The second attempt two days later was less violent, but also went only a short distance. The next day a white minister who had participated was beaten to death. On March 21st under the protection of a federal court order and troops sent in by President Johnson, the third started with 3,200 people and ended with 25,000 making it to Montgomery 54 miles away and four days later.

The event retains enormous relevance as this nation stands on the verge of possibly electing our first African-American president. Race and voting rights are once more dramatically in the forefront. Religion also is a huge issue, referring not only to Obama’s religious ties, but the Christian-Judeo-Muslim evolution that has taken place since 9/11.

My father decided to join the march on the last day taking me along. I kept a journal of that experience which I still possess and my account is from the viewpoint of a white male youth. It was written on a 3 x 5 green notebook worth 19 cents in 1965, the price still clearly stamped on the front cover. Using my notes and my memory which remains clear on many aspects of the journey, here is my brief first hand account. I have included a few actual passages intact with grammatical and spelling errors. I have added items in parenthesis for clarification.

“thur (Thursday) March 25 woke up at 4 o’clock (a.m.). I got dressed and had a small breakfast. I then had to go wake up my Dad because he had never woken up.”

The fact that it was a school day and I didn’t have to go was an added bonus. I explain how we meet three other men from our town traveling with us. One was the local newspaper reporter, the other a minister and the third, a neighbor from down the block. I was surprised at the time that this neighbor was joining us as I didn’t know of any reason why he would.

I realize now he had a certain quality which influenced my father -- he was the largest man in our town. He stood 6’6” and must have weighed close to 400 pounds. This aligned with an earlier story I had heard about my father when he had been a fighter pilot in World War II. After 75 missions over Germany, he had been shot down and spent the last year of the war in a prison camp. During the imprisonment, he sought out and befriended the largest prisoner he could find. My father, still the smartest man I have ever met, was not large in stature and so understood the advantage of having a large friend in dangerous circumstances.

We drove to McDonald Airport in St. Louis where we met another civil rights group and boarded a plane to Montgomery:

“There will be 26 others with me I have seen no other children here but me. One think (thing) I have notice there are very many rev. (reverends) here and colored people.”

Once we were in the air, though I was more interested in the fact that I was flying for the first time, the dangers were explained to us by our group leader and how we should act.

“We have been told we are not wanted and can easily be put in jail, we outsides (are outsiders) and a patch given to us show were (we’re) outsiders and we should act like outsiders.”

We landed in Montgomery at noon and took a decrepit bus to the march. We joined in just outside of the city.

“I am now walking with the croud (crowd) to the capital. I can hear in front they are singing. There are people all around me Negro and white. We are at the top of a hill and I can see thousands below me. Now everyone is singing along the street there are people (two indecipherable words) some Negros applaud us as we pass. We are now approaching the Capitol now we are at the Capitol and King is speaking it is 1:24.”

That was my only written reference to Dr. King, but I remember it clearly. We were standing in the street at the top of a small rise with thousands below and off in the distance I could see a canopy in front of the capitol building.

It began sprinkling, umbrellas popping up over the heads of people below. Then all went silent and I knew Dr. King was speaking. I could hear his voice, but not clearly make out what was being said though perhaps those around me could distinguish his words. The most remarkable memory of that moment was the command over the crowd which he invoked and the attention and respect he was given by those thousands in attendance -- truly impressive even to my young mind.

Then quickly it was over and the crowd broke up. The small group I had started out with stuck together and it was every man or group for themselves to find a way home. After walking for some time, we managed to catch a ride with two African-American women and made it safely to the Montgomery airport. Not all were so fortunate. A white female was shot and killed by the Ku Klux Klan while she along with a black man was transporting marchers to the same airport.

The journey home was another adventure in itself. My father managed to commission a small plane, but on the way back we ran into heavy weather. With thunder shaking the plane and lightening flashing in through the small windows, we were forced to land. Funny enough I felt little fear. Today I would be quite alarmed. But then, I was with my father.

Through various events including getting lost in the wilderness of Tennessee and a flat tire on a rented car, we arrived home at 9:00 a.m. Friday morning. My father said I was just in time to go to school. I protested that I was much too tired from having traveled all night (though truth be told, I had slept quite a bit). My protests won out and I got to miss another day of school adding another bonus for having made the trip.

The purpose of the interfaith meeting which led to this remembrance was to promote understanding and tolerance between all religions and people. As I look back on the many historic events of the 60s and I look at the current political, economic and religious atmosphere, I experience a similar feeling of potentiality that something new, exciting and promising could be just over the horizon. Despite the turmoil in the nation and the world and the attitudes that seek to tear us apart, something can be done about it and there is hope for a better future.

The spirit of the 60s began with great promise, but ended with murdered leaders and the mendacity of a president. In the first decade of this century we can revive the promise and fulfill the ideals envisioned for us as a nation and a people by the founding fathers. We can still set a standard for countries around the world as a nation based on government for all the people. We can still achieve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all.

Trey Mudge

March 2008