I thought I knew the civil rights story, but a weeklong seminar with Hesston College students, faculty, staff and friends March 7-14 gave me much more.
What I knew were the broad outlines, major events and leaders. What I discovered was the “little” people who really turned the tide of history — the teenagers, children, women and men of all ages. President Obama, at the 50th anniversary of Selma’s Bloody Sunday, called them “foot soldiers.”
At Selma we met sisters Joanne Bland and Lynda Lowery, teenagers in 1965. They were among the 600 who attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge and walk to Alabama’s capital of Montgomery on March 7. State troopers and sheriff’s deputies used tear gas, clubs, cattle prods and police dogs to disperse the marchers. Mounted officers attacked the crowd and trampled some underfoot, then charged into Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the marchers had met and prayed before beginning the march.
Bland still tells the story of that day and the next Tuesday when they tried again — and finally, two weeks later, when they completed the 54-mile march to Montgomery under the protection of federalized National Guard and FBI agents on the orders of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
At the City of Jude, a Catholic school where marchers camped the night before reaching the capital, we met Mildred Lewis and Dick Howlett. Lewis had made sandwiches for the marchers such as Howlett. He was visiting Alabama for the first time in 50 years.
In 1965, he had been profoundly affected by his Unitarian youth minister James Reeb, who was killed in Selma by a blow to the head. He determined to travel from Boston to Selma to complete what his pastor had begun. He marched the 54 miles to Selma in the company of “foot soldiers,” who numbered 25,000 by the time they arrived.
The march to Montgomery, in part, led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In Meridian, Miss., we met Rosco Jones, a teenager during the Selma march. We were spellbound by his stories from inside the movement.
He was to have been one of four men to investigate a church bombing in Philadelphia, Miss. But as he was on the phone with organizer Michael Schwerner, Jones’ pastor appeared at the door to remind Jones that he had duties with the youth group that night.
Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were abducted and murdered that night, June 21-22, by the Ku Klux Klan. Their bodies were found 44 days later. Jones was spared but still carries survivor guilt.
At the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., we heard the story of the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing that killed four girls — Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14; and Denise McNair, 11. The disaster inspired further action and helped lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In the Civil Rights Institute next door, we saw the Buster Brown shoes and the purse that belonged to McNair and a bloody shard of brick pulled from her head.
What shook me the most was an enslavement simulation at the Slavery Museum in Selma. We were the slaves. The final room was a lynching site. Here the re-enactment became all too real when my friend and colleague Tony Brown was placed on a stump with a dangling rope around his neck. I still cry at the memory of the scene.
But for 3,446 blacks between 1882 to 1968, it really did happen — in this land of freedom, opportunity and justice for “all.”
John E. Sharp teaches history at Hesston (Kan.) College.