From the NCR Archives: On the line in Selma with a Sister-demonstrator

This article appears in the Selma and Archives feature series.

Originally published in National Catholic Reporter
March 24, 1965

On the line in Selma with a Sister-demonstrator

By Sister Judith Mary, Sisters of Loretto

SPRING WAS coming to Alabama last week end. Blooming redbud stood out in wooded areas where Spanish moss bearded the trees. Fresh grass grew convincingly around patches of puddle red soil and beyond the slick asphalt of the highway from Montgomery to Selma. It was raining, but even so I could see frightened-looking cabins being supported by clotheslines doubly burdened with a huge washing, as though the occupants of the homes felt that the weather had the one alternative of getting drier, and so, therefore, did the clothes. The rain was a bit colder than a spring rain, though, and the wind more biting than a March wind. Nevertheless, it seemed as though spring, having once begun, was not about to turn back.

For the 100th time that day I wondered about what I was doing. The entrance hymn for the Mass of ember Friday in Lent, the Mass which our group had celebrated together at 4 o’clock that morning, spoke of trusting God. He would bring us out of distress. Were we going to witness God’s hand in Selma? I was convinced I should go. I expected nothing. I wondered.

I wondered at the Kansas City airport when we had our first encounter with the photographers and at the St. Louis airport as we read the nation’s reactions to the death of the Rev. Mr. Reeb. I wondered at Atlanta when we were joined by more priests and Sisters, and four knapsack-carrying ministers from Connecticut. I wondered as we flew through clouds over Alabama, and when I glimpsed a long red country road and thought of To Kill a Mockingbird.

At the Montgomery airport we were greeted by two chauffeurs from St. Elizabeth’s. There wasn’t enough room in the two Volkswagen buses for our entire group, so the Sisters were hurried on to Selma, while the priests and ministers waited for a third bus on its way in.

SELMA ITSELF was too like other small towns to make an impression. We were greeted by a huge billboard: “Welcome to Selma: 100% human interest.” We saw the bridge, the café. Our destination at present was the Good Samaritan hospital, a Negro hospital run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, of Rochester, Minn.

We were greeted warmly by the hospital administrator, Sister Michael Ann, and the vice-administrator, John Wright. They offered us the “Southern hospitality” that was somewhat lacking in the stares and comments of the people at the Montgomery airport and along the Selma streets.

I asked some of the Negro staff what they thought of the demonstrations. All were in favor, and one commented that the Negro community had been planning the step for over a year.

After a quick lunch, during which the hospital Sisters filled us in on the realities of the previous Sunday (over 100 injured, the uncomplaining bravery of the wounded), we started out for the “project”. We had been told to go in groups of two or three, lest we be picked up for “marching without a license.” The demonstration area was about four blocks from the hospital, and as we picked our way over in the rain, a white woman shouted abusively at us from her car, and four state trooper cars roared past us, spraying mud.

The demonstration area was a two-block length of street. Trooper cars blocked the street at the corner. The First Presbyterian Church stood about 50 yards from the troopers, the Brown chapel was conspicuous in the middle of the area, a line of singing people closed the other end of the section.  This was the project. Neat, two-story apartments lined about three-fourths of the street, and I was amazed at the spectacle of a Negro building project in such a small town.

WE HAD BEEN told to look for “Father Hurley” and take directions from him. Some Sisters had been asked by SNCC to lead a march through the troopers earlier in the day, and it was imperative that we avoid being “used”. We found Father Hurley, a tall Jesuit from Fordham, who had been working closely with Father Ouelett, pastor of St. Elizabeth’s.  Father took us to the front line. I found myself facing three rows of trooper’s cars, six deep. Each car held four troopers. Directly in front of our singing, friendly line, which was sheltered from the rain by a makeshift plastic tent, Baker, the director of public safety, sat in the car. This was the enemy.

The crowd at the line was composed of teenagers, young adults, and old folks. There were priests and ministers in the group. A small boy stood next to a rather tall, eccentric-looking minister. Both were singing. We stood in the wet street, singing, exchanging comments and witticisms, watching. The cameramen jumped forward at the sight of nuns and spent the next hour till supper feeding their cameras with the black and white novelty.

At one point the clergy were sent for and Elder Greer, supposedly a spokesman for King, told us there would be some action taken within the hour. I gladly went back to the front line, still naively unaware of the depth and seriousness of the movement. I looked long and hard at the troopers, convinced they wouldn’t hit a Sister and waited for the word to move. Within the hour another spokesman for King arrived and said there would be no action until King himself gave word. King, he said, was coming “soon”.

It began to get dark, and the teenagers took over the front of the line. There was more singing, some preaching, coffee being passed. There was a tremendous sense of goodwill in the line, and even the freedom songs with references to Wallace or Lingo or Baker were not hate-filled, but only hope-filled.

After four hours of standing, the Sisters moved to Brown’s chapel, where we waited until we could find a ride to the hospital. It would not be wise to walk back in the dark, we were told.

A young Negro protestant offered to take us back. We walked a block to a street running parallel with the project. Nine of us got into the car, two on the floor, and we prayed that we wouldn’t be stopped. We weren’t stopped, and as we got out of the car at the hospital, I thanked the driver for his risk. “They have been after me for a long time, ma’am,” he said. “I’m used to it.” He added that he doubted if he could get back into the project safely that night.

Within a few minutes after arrival at the hospital we were visited by LeRoy Collins from the President’s Human Relations Committee. He greeted us cordially, made a few comments on the morning’s happenings, then headed for St. Elizabeth’s rectory for a special meeting with the priests and ministers. Somewhat disappointed at not being in on things, the Sisters sat down to cheese sandwiches and coffee. Many retired.

Frankly, our first hours in Selma had been chaotic. There seemed to be little organization and lots of leaders. We had been issued orders by four different men who claimed to be King’s contacts.

When the priests returned from the clergy meeting, a group of us from Kansas City discussed the problem of leadership. There had been contradictory orders. Much was at stake. Whom were we to follow? Unable to reach a conclusion, we agreed to get the whole Kansas City group together in the morning to make a final decision.

The chapel in the hospital was still dismantled, having been used as an emergency ward for casualties. Nevertheless, six of us met there before going to bed. Father Cole read Psalm 21 and asked God to enlighten us in making our decision.

Saturday morning we walked to St. Elizabeth’s for Mass. The rain had stopped but the day was still a gray one. St. Elizabeth’s is a small church, neat and recently remodeled. I was impressed by the natural wood statues. Their features and coloring transcended race. Before Mass, which was celebrated with full participation, Father Ouelett, the young Edmondite pastor at St. Elizabeth’s, spoke to us. During our stay I thought often of the agony of Father Ouelett, with whose people we were marching. He could help plan and organize but he could not demonstrate. Behind the scenes he was constantly acting in connection with the movement – so much so that he was called “the most unpopular man in white Selma,” and someone conjectured that he would be dead within a year.

AFTER MASS and breakfast we went back to the project. I was among the last four Sisters getting there, and we had entered by a wide street rather than go through the trooper blockade. We were greeted by some very little girls and they walked up to the line with us. “My mama said I could go if I didn’t go too near the front,” one said. I talked to a 75-year-old lady who was standing with a younger woman. She told me she had been sick all week and couldn’t join the demonstrations, so she sent food up to the front lines instead. She planned to stay all day. She had been in jail three times, she said. “But I’m not afraid. I’m 75 and all I got left is the Lord. They can’t take Him from me. They can beat me or put me in jail but they can’t take away my Lord.

Suddenly a youngster approached us and told us we were wanted at the First Presbyterian Church. We hadn’t noticed until then that we were the only Sisters in the line. We hurried to the Church and were ushered into the basement where a meeting of the clergy was being held. We arrived just in time to hear instructions concerning what to do if we were beaten; if tear gas were released; if we were arrested. The Rev. C.T. Vivian of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had arrived in Selma and miraculously the leadership problem was solved. We were to march that day.

Before we had arrived at the church, Mr. Vivian and Mr. Bevel had preached on the principles of peaceful non-violence. The group was then told of the march. The demonstration was to end in one of three ways: 1) We would get to the Selma courthouse where we would hold a short service; 2) We would be arrested; 3) We would be beaten.

Soon after our arrival at the meeting the group was divided into religions in order to choose men for the front lines and in order to get the names and addresses of the marchers in case of arrest. As I looked around our group of about 100 Catholics I saw men like Msgr. Daniel Cantwell, Father John Cavanaugh, former president of Notre Dame, John McDermott of the Chicago Catholic Interracial Council. There were about 30 Sisters, a handful of lay people (the meeting was supposedly only clergy) and many priests.

THE NAMES of those willing to march were taken. Msgr. Cantwell and Father Cavanaugh were elected as our representatives in the front line along with Sister Mary Peter, S.S.N.D., from the Chicago CIC.

Next, we gathered into area groups. Each group was to pick a “contact man” who would not march but who would take care of bail and publicity if we were arrested. This was a hard time. Finally, Father Rotert, whom we had regarded as the unofficial leader of the Kansas City group, took the job of contact upon himself. The two Maryknoll Sisters, because arrest might mean staying on indefinitely and they had a hospital to run in Kansas City, decided that they too would not march. I admired the three of them for I knew each was burning to participate.

Mr. Vivian came in to give us some further instructions. I don’t think I have ever seen such a magnificent leader. The minute he entered the room, confusion ceased and confidence was aroused. When asked what would happen if someone made a wrong move, he replied, “If you keep your integrity and a loving heart you may err, but God has a way of turning even your errors to good.” I wondered if others were coming to realize that the peaceful non-violent movement contained the essence of Christianity.

It occurred to me how much like war this demonstration business is. We referred to the troopers as the enemy. Our stay in boot camp was brief, to be sure, but we were trained. Our forces were preparing to move up and meet the opposition. The only difference in this war was that we had no weapons; we were to resist and say nothing, we were to accept all with a humble, loving heart.

Vivian spoke of the non-violence movement as being a means to recognition of the citizens in Selma. “What we do today we do not do for today only. We are working for the joy of future generations.”

It was about noon when the final details were worked out. The march was to be at 1 o’clock. We were advised to stay in the area. Some ate the lunch set out for us in the church. Some wandered up to the line again. Most of us stood in quite groups and talked.

Soon it was 1 o’clock and we returned group by group to the church basement. As I entered the church I looked toward the troopers who had begun to mobilize. Jackets, helmets, billy clubs. They, too, were moving quietly, surely.

Assembled in the basement, we waited for Vivian. Talk was little and distracting. When Vivian entered a spark of confidence ran through the group. He suggested we have our own service before we left and asked for suggestions for a reading. A young priest suggested Matthew 25, “about being imprisoned.” Before he began reading the priest added, “I thought of this not so much because we face imprisonment but because we have come here to visit those imprisoned in and by the darkness of bigotry. We march for all the imprisoned in the United States.” We listened earnestly to Christ’s words. “And the king shall say ‘For I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in, naked and you covered me, sick and you visited me; I was imprisoned and you came to me. . . I say to you, as long as you did it for one of these the least of my brethren, you did it for me!”

We were motionless. A Maryknoll Sister gave a short prayer for courage and understanding. Then, as if by unspoken unanimity, we began to hum “We Shall Overcome.” Then, joining hands, we sang fervently. This was not esprit de corps, it was not strength in numbers. This was Christian love.

FIVE ABREAST, arm locked in arm, we left the church and started up the street, still singing. I marched with a tall priest from Atlanta and McDermott. As we walked along I could see fear and compassion in the eyes of Negro onlookers. “God bless you,” some said. One turned her head away to weep. Yet we knew we weren’t heroes. Yes, we were ready to face mutilation or imprisonment but we had been there only a day, some only a few hours. These patient people, the Negroes, were the heroes.

We did not come to Selma to sprinkle holy water on the movement. We found out immediately that we came to Selma to join something we should have joined years ago. I do not think our greeting from the SCLC would have been “thank you for coming to save us,” but rather “come, get to work; it’ about time you joined us.” Indeed it was.

Still we marched. I did not think the street was so long. Everyone was quiet but the marchers who continued to sing “We Shall Overcome.” At last we reached the line. The block ahead was filled with troopers, man behind man, the enemy. Armed.

Vivian stated our purpose. We desired to go to the courthouse to hold a rededication service. The request was refused. Suddenly, the lead group turned and started another way. The troopers ran to block us. They stopped us, lining up in front of us. I was in the fourth line. Baker spoke to Father Cavanaugh, accusing the “holy man of God” of “violence.” “Ah cannot understand this violence, suh,” he said. Then Msgr. Cantwell read the statement prepared by the 10 chosen leaders of all faiths. Baker still refused the permission.

Then Baker and Vivian exchanged words, with Baker concluding that he would arrest Vivian. He began to open the trooper line to take Vivian, and the rest of us surged through saying “Arrest all of us; we are all demonstrators.” Baker closed up the hole in the line with his own body and he claimed he didn’t want to arrest anyone. He looked very tired.

Then, without any warning, Baker ordered all the press people and photographers out of the area. A wave of fear swept through those of us in the front line for we felt that now Baker would set the troopers on us and this time there would be no pictures. Not one of us moved. Then we began singing and Baker turned his back on us and so did the troopers. The danger was over.

WE STOOD for an hour or so. Negroes came to pass coffee and doughnuts. We sang hymns, prayed, waited. In the midst of the song, a man in an upper window called for silence. He announced that the President had just spoken out defending peaceful demonstration. We all cheered.

Within five minutes we received word to regroup and return to the church. At a signal we all moved and gathered again in the church basement. The teenagers congregated upstairs. With Vivian leading, an open discussion of further strategy ensued, but most of us knew that Vivian had already decided what we would do next. His psychology was unmatched. The meeting lasted for nearly 45 minutes and we were impatient, but not as impatient as the teenagers upstairs. We could hear them shouting and stamping their feet.

Suddenly – perhaps too suddenly – a decision was reached and we again poured out into the streets. We were marching again, this time ten abreast and the teenagers were joining us. We marched swiftly to the original line. Immediately behind me, a group broke off and turned to the “clergy line” or the earlier march. The troopers, unaware at first that the group had split, ran to block their progress. Then our group made an about face and started back to the church but turned off in another direction. We walked two blocks before we were stopped by Baker and a small group of troopers.  Baker advised us to “go back into the area.”  After some discussion we received word from the rear to go back to the church. We brought Baker with us as far as the street. Then we dispersed.

By now, the crowd was noisy and unruly. Selma whites had gathered beyond the troopers and were shouting at the demonstrators. Father Ouelett called the Sisters out of the crowd and told us that there were Volkswagen buses waiting to take us back to the hospital. It might be our last chance to get out.

Hating to leave, we slowly headed toward the church and the buses. The troopers let some Sisters through but stopped us, asking for “the Mother Superior.” A tall BVM Sister explained our destination and we were allowed to go.

BACK AT the hospital, we relaxed, ate, wondered. I was saying my Office outside the administrator’s office when two men emerged with Sister. “Investigators,” she said as they left. “They are trying to prove that we Sisters let Jimmy Jackson die so as to have a martyr for the movement.”

 “Will you testify in court?” I asked.  

 “I hope so, but doubt it. They don’t want anyone as verbal as I am on the stand.”

Later, the priests arrived. We found a TV and watched the news. We were going home in the morning. We met again in chapel for a short evening prayer and went to bed. I wonder how many of us slept.

Since Sunday was Father Cole’s anniversary, the Kansas City community celebrated Mass together in the hospital chapel. We were indeed a community. Five priests and nine Sisters. We had fought together, feared together, witnessed together. Now we must return to Kansas City to fight fear and witness there.

Later in the day in the Atlanta airport, I asked Governor Collins if he thought that Selma was a place for the Sisters. He said that he was very proud to know the Sisters were in Selma. Although they were conspicuous for being there, others were conspicuous for their absence. I told him that he looked very tired. “I guess I could use some sleep,” he smiled, but added, “Relatively, my expenditure of time and energy has been very little compared to what others have done.” I do not think he was speaking of us.

I prayed at Mass Sunday morning that each of us in the Kansas City community have the patience and love of the Selma Negroes. I prayed that we always act with “integrity and loving hearts.” I prayed that from now on wherever man’s rights were refused, the Sisters would be there to witness to the injustice.

When we left Selma, the sun was shining. Spring was coming to Alabama. I wondered if it would come soon to Kansas City.


To the Editor

May I bring to your attention a slight error in the excellent report on Selma by Sister Judith Mary? The Good Samaritan hospital in Selma is not run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester, Minn., (as was stated) but by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester, New York. Remember Rochester – where the violent race riots erupted last July – where the local newspapers and radio stations are currently thwarting an attempt by the Rochester Council of Churches to bring Saul Alinsky, of Chicago’s Woodlawn project to perform a similar service here – where the Catholic community has officially said in effect “Who needs Alinsky in Rochester?”

Despite the apparent apathy and indifference of some members of our community and despite the fact that no Rochester priests or nuns made the trip to Selma last week, there are many of us who wish we could have gone and who are proud to say that at least our nuns were already there!

Sister M. Joan Rowan, S.S.J.
University of Rochester
Rochester, N.Y.

Click here (or the Archives button above) for a list of all five Selma-related articles from 1965.