As I watched the TV coverage last Sunday morning, when Congressman John Lewis’ flag-draped casket was carried on a horse-drawn wagon across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, potent memories came flooding back to me. In early March 1965, Lewis had been beaten by police and sustained a cracked skull while trying to cross the bridge with a large group of people marching for civil rights in early March of 1965.
We were living in Topeka, Kansas, at the time, where I served as Associate Pastor of that town’s historic Central Congregational Church. On Monday, Sept. 16, 1963, I was walking past a newsstand and saw a newspaper headline: FOUR GIRLS KILLED IN SUNDAY SCHOOL IN BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA. I said to myself, “We can’t let that happen,” and I joined a march sponsored by the Topeka NAACP down Kansas Avenue, Topeka’s main street.
I was one of the few white people around, and someone pulled me to the front of the march and put a sign in my hand. The press was there taking pictures, and next morning there I was on the front page looking like I was leading the march.
We ended up in a white frame church in the African American section of town. They put me on the podium for the opening prayer, and I sat right next to Linda Brown who, as a little girl, was the central figure in Brown v. the Board of Education, the Supreme Court Case that resulted in a unanimous decision to integrate the public schools. Her father had sued the school board because his daughter was being forced to walk two miles to her segregated elementary school when there was a school two blocks away in her own neighborhood.
For the next two years, I attended rallies and marches, participated in silent vigils at the State Capitol Building, and became part of the Topeka Human Rights Council. A good number of church people were unhappy with me, but I persisted, and they grudgingly tolerated what I was doing. The one’s who supported me did so quietly, reluctant to take my side in public.
In early 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the young John Lewis and others were leading a voter registration drive among African Americans in Selma and were being harassed, beaten, arrested and carried off to jail. The idea emerged that they would walk the 50 miles or so to the Capitol in Montgomery and present petitions to Governor George Wallace demanding that Alabama honor the right of everyone to vote. They had to cross the Pettus Bridge to get there, which they were finally able to do. When the Selma marchers got to Montgomery, people from all over the world gathered for the final push to the state capitol on March 25. I flew into Montgomery with another minister from Kansas the day before.
We were picked up by an older, very pleasant African American woman who was an educator and had been on the committee that brought Martin Luther King Jr. to Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church which sits but a block from the capitol. That night there was a huge rally in an open field surrounding the City of St. Jude, a Roman Catholic hospital complex. President Johnson had ordered U. S. Army units to protect the gathering, and so trucks with machine guns mounted on them surrounded the church grounds.
Harry Bellefonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, Nipsy Russel and several other prominent entertainers mounted a temporary stage and put on a show called “Star for Freedom.” I went around to the back of the stage and climbed up among the press people there. A young officer asked me what paper I represented, and I said, “The Messenger.” He said, “Come right on up.” “The Messenger” was our church newsletter.
After that we were taken to a road house in the Black section of town where great pork sandwiches were served and some of the best jazz music I ever heard was being played. And you never saw such dancing. My goodness, could those people move. It was like everyone felt something really big was happening in their midst. We spent the night at the Alabama State College, an all-black school behind a hedge near the capitol, as I remember.
The next morning, we were taken back to the church grounds for the beginning of the march. As I walked past a white-frame house that needed paint, someone said, “There’s Martin Luther King, Sr., sitting on the porch.” I went over, pen and notebook in hand just like the reporter I wasn’t and asked him if he was proud of his son for the work he was doing.
“I’m proud of him,” he said, “but I’m afraid for him too.”
We started marching about 10 a.m., winding our way through Montgomery’s tree lined streets. In the Black neighborhoods, school children waved to us from the windows. In the white sections of town, no one could be seen. When we got toward the business section, young white men made obscene gestures at us and said degrading things, especially to the women. A college girl from the Alabama coast walked next to me for a while. I asked her how she felt about being there.
“Concerned,” she said. “My mother doesn’t want me to be here. She’s afraid of what might happen, but I had to come. I’ll be old enough to vote next year.”
It was about high noon when we arrived at the capitol. The crowd filled the wide boulevard from curb to curb for several blacks, about 25,000 of us, it was said. I was about half a block from the front and could see clearly the green helmeted Alabama State Police lined up shoulder to shoulder facing us, armed and ready, barring the way to the steps of the gleaming white capitol building. Singers and speakers from the night before opened the program, Martin Luther King gave one of his ringing speeches in his ear-grabbing, heart-filling voice, an effort was made to deliver a petition to the governor, I believe, but I couldn’t tell how that turned out. I think the petitioners were stopped from approaching the building, but I may be wrong. People noticed a curtain behind a window on the second floor moving back and forth, and someone said, “It’s probably Governor Wallace peeking out from the dark”
And just like that, it was over. As we made our way off the street, loudspeakers warned us to be out of town before dark to prevent further violence against marchers.
Also at the march was The Rev. Dr. Ed Orenstein, pastor of the Guerneville Community Church at the time. His trip to Montgomery was paid for by Dr. John Papoff and my friend Phil Guidotti, among others along the River. In January of 1966, I became pastor of the church, so, for a time the pastor and former pastor had both been at the March to Montgomery, though we didn’t know each other then. Rev. Don Schilling, late of Sebastopol, had been registering voters in Mississippi in those days, and Rev. Francis Geddes of Santa Rosa, who died a year or so ago, had been a Freedom Rider along with John Lewis. They rode integrated buses through the south in 1961 and faced constant threats and violence. I’m sure others from Sonoma County took part in historic civil rights events. It would be interesting to get together and talk about it.
That summer, President Johnson was able to get the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through congress. It was hailed as a lasting triumph, but this seems never to be so in civil rights. The opposition is relentless. In 2013, The Supreme Court, on a 5-4 decision, gutted important provisions of the act, and, as one might expect, attacks on the voting rights of Black and Brown people quickly arose. Today, an all-out effort from the highest levels of our government is working especially hard to keep people of color from voting. There’s always another river to cross.
As John Lewis was fond of saying, “Don’t stop fighting. Never give up. Keep the faith.”
Bob Jones is the former minister of the Guerneville and Monte Rio Community Church.