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Dick Myers on Selma plus 50

 

Saturday, March 7th is the 50th anniversary of the abortive Selma, AL march known as Bloody Sunday. Later this month we will be celebrating the successful walk led by Dr. Martin Luther King across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and the 54-mile march along Route 80 to Montgomery on behalf of voting rights for all Americans.

The 50th anniversaries of the various milestones of the Civil Rights movement are bringing back to me memories of several road trips I took throughout the south a couple of years ago to visit first hand those seminal venues in our country’s history. My intent was to do research for a still uncompleted book with a civil rights hook.

I have always believed that history comes alive and is better understood by visiting the historic sites first hand. This is especially true about the Civil Rights era because many of the sites are still standing much as they were 50 years ago. For instance I stood on the east side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a small memorial park looking at the same back side of the stores and warehouses in downtown Selma that you see in pictures from Bloody Sunday and in the movie “Selma.” .

Another must see stop is in Atlanta for the Dr. Martin Luther King Historic site that includes Dr. King’s crypt and nearby the home where he grew up. In fact most towns in the south had an event important to Civil Rights History.

Other sites I visited included the Dexter Avenue Parsonage in Montgomery where Dr. King lived while serving as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. You can still see the bullet holes in the house that was fired upon while Dr. King, Coretta and their children were inside. You also can view the very pulpit from which Dr. King preached.

Montgomery is also home to the magnificent Civil Rights Memorial Center and its inspiring memorial to those who died in the civil rights struggle. Those names include whites who traveled mostly from the north at great risk to stand beside those who lived in the south because it was the right thing to do.

Later this month is the 50th anniversary of the murder of Viola Liuzzo, a white Unitarian Universalist civil rights activist from Michigan. She was shot and killed while shuttling marchers back and forth in her 1963 Oldsmobile. Her death was portrayed in the movie.

An excellent source for the history of this era is Baltimorean Taylor Branch’s three volume set. In reading it I learned about another murder that is often overlooked in the retelling of events from 50 years ago. Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Daniels (shown) from New Hampshire participated in the March to Montgomery and then decided to stay behind and work on the voting rights issue.

He worked almost exclusively in Lowndes County, which sits astride Route 80 through which the march proceeded (a new national museum sits at the midway point of the march in that county). In a book about Daniels’ life called Outside Agitator by Charles Eagles, someone familiar with the county at the time reported that whites there “had always assumed that a black man who lived to be twenty-one in Lowndes County was a ‘good nigger’.”

In August of 1965 Daniels was among 29 protestors in the south Lowndes County town of Fort Deposit. Today the town is a pitiful, small burg with a whole downtown of empty storefronts. The protestors were arrested and taken to the courthouse in the county seat of Hayneville, then and today not much more than a few public buildings and stores.

After six days the protestors were mysteriously released without any transportation. They called for help and Daniels along with a white Catholic priest and two female black protestors walked to the nearby Varner’s Cash Store to get a cold soft drink. The store was one of the few known to serve non-whites.

Standing in the store’s door was an unpaid special deputy, Tom Coleman, holding a shotgun with a pistol in his holster. He pointed the gun at one of the girls, Ruby Sales. Daniels pushed her down and Coleman shot the Episcopalian seminarian with a full blast, instantly killing him. The Catholic priest, Father Richard Morrisone grabbed the other girl and ran but was shot in the back. He survived his wounds.

As often happened in these cases, including in the Liuzzo trial of the four KKK members involved in her death, Coleman was acquitted by an all-white jury. During the Liuzzo trial the defendant’s attorney called the mother of three “a white nigger” without a word of rebuke from the judge.

Things of course have generally changed in the South, but travelling around it is impossible not to uncover vestiges from 50 years ago. In Selma there’s a small Civil War museum that I visited. When I told the docent I was there to look at some Civil Right history he informed me that everything was blown out of proportion, it was just a few “northern, outside agitators.”

In Selma the counterpoint to that is the small but very well done National Voting Rights Museum and Interpretative Center just a few steps from the bridge in Selma’s downtown, still a little ragged but hopefully on the verge of a renaissance.

Ironically, realizing its tourism potential, the state of Alabama has embraced its history and offers well-done brochures on their Civil Rights Trail. One stop on the trail is of course Birmingham, home of the 16th St. Baptist Church where four young angels were killed in a fire bombing. Sitting across the street from the church is the magnificent Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a museum and research facility.

Also sitting across the street from the institute is the Kelley Ingram Park, site of the televised incident that may have finally mobilized the country against what was happening in the South --- the police dog attack and hosing of young protestors by Birmingham’s police force.

As I stood in Kelly Ingram Park, looking at a sculpture monument portraying the attacking dogs, an old man on a bicycle approached me and asked if I would like a guided tour. As the park is pretty small I opted out of his offer but started to talk to him anyway. He told me he was one of the young people in the park during those demonstrations. He described in vivid detail what it was like that day (details forthcoming in my book).

Showing a little bit of reportorial skepticism I wasn’t sure whether he was just trying to get a tour customer or not. So I asked at the institute and they told me indeed he was one of the demonstrators. Participants from 50 years ago sometimes are reluctant to talk unless asked.

While in Lowndes County I went inside the small Hayneville courthouse and stood in the very courtroom were Tom Coleman was acquitted. It gave me a chill. Being from the north (by Civil War standards) I beat a hasty retreat while a deputy eyed me suspiciously.

I went over to a small café on the courthouse square to get lunch, much like Daniels did 50 years ago. After eating I just casually asked the lady behind the cash register about Daniels’ murder. Yes, she said, she remembered it and had a relative who actually was one of the marchers arrested. But she added, “We don’t talk about it much around here.”

 

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