Originally published in National Catholic Reporter
March 24, 1965
By NCR Editorial Staff
Even In The pluperfect North, not everybody is happy about the role played by clergy and religious in the Selma demonstrations. Diocesan papers across the country are getting indignant letters protesting their participation. In the chancery office at Kansas City, Mo., the device that receives and records telephone messages during off hours was jammed with verbal protests after the week end of the great Selma demonstration.
Most of these criticisms were so obviously racist and unchristian that they could be easily disregarded. They were similar to the postcard message received by one of the priests, which concluded with a prayer that he would “end up in hell with President Kennedy and the Rev. Reeb.”
For the Sisters, though, there was another kind of criticism. Many people apparently don’t believe that Sisters should be mixed up in things like this, that it isn’t proper for them.
Why sisters? That is their question.
There are many answers.
The most poignant was probably that expressed many times to Sisters by Negroes in Selma; “Sister, if you had been here last Sunday (when demonstrators were gassed and beaten) we wouldn’t have been hurt.”
The appeal from Church leaders asking for the Sisters’ help stressed most heavily the role of the Sisters as peacemakers. Violence on the part of troopers and posse men, they said, would be unlikely with Sisters among the demonstrators. This proved to be true.
On Friday afternoon, when Martin Luther King’s leaders were in court at Montgomery, the Sisters also helped to calm restless student demonstrators agitating for action. Three of the Sisters were among those who talked to the group and helped ease the tension.
Statistics give another answer.
There are in the county in which Selma is located more than 15,000 Negroes of voting age – and only 600 of them registered. Of an eligible 14,400 whites there are 9,600 registered voters. In the neighboring counties of Wilcox and Lowndes, with populations that are about 75 per cent Negro, there is not one Negro registered.
In the face of such patent injustice, why not Sisters? They are Christians, committed to carry out the Lord’s command to love their neighbor. They are Americans aware that the denial of civic rights to any citizen is a threat to the rights of every citizen. Finally, they are human persons and therefore concerned about human needs and human dignity. Why not Sisters?
Ralph McGill in the Atlanta Constitution quoted a Selma resident: “We are ashamed. Some of our people wept when the Roman Catholic nuns came, serene, determined- secure in their faith. Never have I seen such witnessing for Christian principles.”
McGill’s own comment was “Presence of the Roman Catholic nuns in the Selma demonstrations against brutality and discrimination was a spectacle which inspired the committed and shamed the timorous.”
The Sisters helped the Negro people of Selma – and probably many of the white people there. They also helped the cause of justice everywhere.
They did something admittedly dangerous, difficult and unselfish. They did it because they are Sisters, called and consecrated to a service of love.
Too many good persons tend to think of the Sisters as delicate, sacred dolls to be carefully guarded and protected from the dirt and danger of the world. Too few see them as deeply human, Christian persons involved in the life of our world – bringing with them beauty and peace.
We all should be grateful for our Sisters at Selma.
Click here (or the Archives button above) for a list of all five Selma-related articles from 1965.