GUEST BLOG: Jim Putnam shares Reflections on Alabama Pilgrimage II

Dear Friends and Family,

We started Friday with a bus ride from Birmingham to Selma to visit the scene of the March 1965 marches over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the town to which Jonathan Daniels returned that summer to work on voter registration and integration.

The bridge is well worth a visit.  Selma spreads east and west along either side of US Route 80 on the northern bank of the Alabama River west of the state capitol of Montgomery. The river is wide and beautiful here.  Walking from the urbanized town side up to the bridge you look across the peaceful, wide river to the undeveloped green of the southern bank.  I was immediately struck by the contrast between the peaceful tranquility and the ugly violence of that “Bloody Sunday” in 1965.

The roadway rises on both north and south approaches to give the bridge its high 150' elevation above the river.  Walking the bridge toward Montgomery from town involves walking up this ramp, across the span then down. Because of its elevation, you can’t see what is on either end of the bridge until you are well across.  This feature accentuated confrontation between marchers and police because they couldn’t see each other until they were in close proximity and the marchers were hemmed in by the bridge structure when the police pushed them back.

In the good interpretation center in town near the bridge there is a display showing a picture of Sheriff Clark and a case with three billy-clubs used by state police and possemen to beat the marchers back.

After visiting the bridge we gathered for lunch at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.  This was the church that Jon attended in Selma.  It was a whites only church prior to that summer.  Jon worked with sympathetic church leaders to change the policy. After a difficult process it was integrated and Jon was able to attend with members of the black West family with whom he was living in Selma.  Rev. Jack Alvey greeted us, gave us a tour of the beautiful chancel and led us to their common room where tables were set for lunch.The main feature of our time there was hearing from three parishioners who remember Jon’s time in Selma plus a local historian. 

The first to speak was Judge Miller Childers who was a young lawyer and vestry member in 1965.  He was holding a copy Outside Agitator, the recent book about Jon’s time in Selma which he recommended.  He and a cousin were on the Vestry at St. Paul’s when Jon urged them to open the church to African Americans.  At first they were the only votes in favor but after several weeks they won by one vote; however, the largest donor left the church.  

Judge Childers told the story of having to use a back door of the courthouse because the front was blocked by demonstrators.  He described the role of Judge Hare who was a prominent citizen and arch segregationist who directed Sheriff Clark to use violence against the protestors.  When Jon expressed the desire to do voter registration in Lowndes County he cautioned him about the danger but Jon was determined to go.  

The other speakers each shared their direct experiences with Jon in 1965.  We all realized that it won’t be many years before all those who knew Jon when he was here in 1965 will have passed away and we will have lost their direct experience of those times.

Next we returned to our bus and headed down US 80 toward Montgomery.  This is the route taken in 1965.  We stopped briefly at the good Voting Rights Interpretation Center about half way where we all wished we had more time.

After checking into our hotel in Montgomery we attended a lecture by Morris Dees, Co-founder and Chief Trial Counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Founded in 1971, the Center has taken on some of the most intractable civil liberties cases over the last 45+ years.  In addition to racial discrimination which is far from eliminated he described examples of the way prejudice against minorities of all kinds is perpetuating inequality and injustice.

You can watch Morris Dees talk on line at: https://vimeo.com/136412403  it is well worth the time and gives a first had account of the continuing problems faced by marginalized people today.

Tomorrow we go to Hanyneville where Jon was murdered,

Jim