MONTGOMERY, MARCH 1965
In March of 1965, I had just turned 19. After spending most of my childhood in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I was a sophomore at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia—a women’s college that my mother and her two sisters, my father’s mother and aunt, and my father’s sister had attended. The television screen in the dormitory lounge, which had been filled with images of Kennedy’s assassination and funeral in November of the previous school year, now showed pictures of college students, nuns, rabbis, and stars like Harry Belafonte–all flocking to Selma to prepare for the third attempt to march to Montgomery. In my two years in this suburb of Atlanta, I had heard Julian Bond speak at a student association formed with others from Agnes Scott, Emory, Morehouse, and Spelman. I had marched in demonstrations down town. I had been a server at a banquet in honor of Martin Luther King’s Nobel Prize. “Where,” I asked my friends, “are the sympathetic white southerners who believe in voting rights for everyone?” We decided to go to Montgomery for the final day of the march.
That was more easily said than done. Agnes Scott required us to have permission from our parents—not just for political rabble rousing, but for any trip out of town. It was the tail end of the “in loco parentis” era. Some of my friends’ parents said no because they disapproved of the civil rights movement. I called home and reached my mother. She had been a liberal activist during her own time at Agnes Scott, so she was sympathetic, but she was worried about our safety. She told me to call my father at his office. My father, who had spent our Tuscaloosa years teaching at Stillman College—a historically black institution—and who had received threatening phone calls from the Klan, approved of the march, of course, but was even more aware than my mother of the risks we faced. I won him over only when I told him that the president of the Christian Association, whose parents lived in Alabama, had their permission to go. Only years later, when I was the mother of teenage sons, did I realize how my request for permission had tested my parents’ love for me. After my plans were made, I had to meet with both my great-aunt Emily and my math teacher—to listen to their objections and let them pray over me. I was not dissuaded.
I remember very little of the trip from Decatur to the outskirts of Montgomery. But I have vivid memories of the march itself. We walked first through narrow streets in a black neighborhood, singing those songs I had come to love through my participation in marches in Atlanta: “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round,” “Just like a tree, planted by the water, I shall not be moved,” “Woke up this morning with my mind set on freedom,” “Keep your hand on the plow, hold on.” The mood among the marchers was relaxed and festive. We were far from the front of the march, along with many others who were in their late teens and early twenties—a few white, more black–and a sprinkling of older adults and children. Many of us were carrying American flags.
Onlookers had gathered to celebrate the occasion. I remember passing small unpainted frame houses with old people sitting on porches in rocking chairs, holding little dime-store American flags on sticks. Their faces expressed the triumph of those who had waited a lifetime for the present moment. I remember passing a two-story brick elementary school set close to the road. Every window was crammed with teachers and children, leaning out and cheering. (I imagined the whole school, out of balance, toppling over.)
Then we made a right-angle turn, and everything changed. Instead of walking on narrow streets, we spread out to fill a wide avenue leading to the state capitol. There was a huge poster on an upper story of a downtown building, a blown-up photograph of Martin Luther King and others sitting in chairs at a meeting. The large printed title read, “Martin Luther King at Communist Training School.” I had heard this charge made before, by members of the John Birch Society. I knew that the meeting in the photograph had taken place at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, where Dr. King and Rosa Parks and others had gathered to make plans and practice non-violence and sing the updated spirituals that would become the theme songs of the Movement—but not to become disciples of Lenin, or Trotsky or Mao.
Those watching from the sidewalks were white, and they were not celebrating our arrival. The flags they carried were confederate ones. They yelled insults as we passed. In that era, nothing was more upsetting to segregationists than the threat of “race mixing” between black men and white women (although, of course, unacknowledged race mixing in the other direction had been going on for generations). Many of the Jim Crow regulations against such activities as sitting down at a table to eat together were designed to prevent any opportunities for socializing between men and women of different races, and, of course, the lynchings of the recent past reflected the climate of hysterical fear and anger. So I should not have been shocked when someone from the crowd yelled out as my friends and I passed, “Which one did you sleep with last night?” But I was.
I think I remember uniformed members of the federalized National Guard standing at the edge of the sidewalk, between us and the heckling crowd. But what I remember most vividly is the defense created by those walking with us. As we came around that corner, athletic young men had quietly moved to the ends of each row, turned to face the crowd, and locked arms to provide a protective wall as they continued marching sideways. I was astounded by how quickly and quietly this happened—and by how much planning must have taken place in advance.
We reached the capitol building, where we heard Peter, Paul, and Mary sing. We listened to some of the speeches. But shortly after Martin Luther King took the podium, and before he slipped into his famous rhythmical, poetic style, we left to find our car and navigate our way out of town. Because of the warnings from my father and others, we wanted to get away before traffic snarled. So we were not there to hear King say, “How long? Not long.” And we were long gone by the time Viola Liuzzo was shot in Lowndes County—a white woman in a car with a black man, ferrying marchers back to their cars.
The fiftieth anniversary of those days is upon us. I was happy to watch the Selma movie, but I did not have any desire to return to Selma for the big event at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. However, I would like to reach out to others—in the North Carolina Triad where I now live and beyond—to share memories of the Selma to Montgomery march with each other, to speak to those who would like to learn more about it, to discuss how participating changed our lives, and to commit ourselves to advancing the unrealized dreams of those who walked any part of that journey from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.