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Reflections on Selma: What Quakers Were Saying in 1965

Selma movie poster

Theatrical release poster for Selma (distributed by Paramount Pictures).

2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches—events that are depicted in the recent film Selma (in theaters now). We wondered what Quakers were saying during that turbulent time in the mid-1960s, so I searched the Friends Journal archives. I’ve listed excerpts from the most relevant articles published during those years below, chronologically with the issue dates as headers.

Background

Selma is a 2014 historical film directed by Ava DuVernay and based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by James Bevel, Hosea Williams, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lewis. These marches led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark achievement of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. It is one of eight films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2014. Update 2/23/15: The film did not win Best Picture, but was also nominated for and won Best Original Song for “Glory” as written and performed by John Legend and Common, with additional writing credit to Che Smith.

New life is given to the events depicted in the film; emotional scenes portray the struggles and bravery of the movement with grace and honesty. Martin Luther King Jr.‘s leadership in the courageous campaign to secure equal voting rights is largely defined by intentional tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience. Yet violence erupts during the first march on March 7 when Alabama State Troopers attack the 600 unarmed civil rights demonstrators; the result is mass chaos and injuries, giving rise to the day’s nickname “Bloody Sunday.” Two days later, a second march took place with more people joining the cause, including clergy and other sympathizers. Later that night, a white group beat and murdered a white activist: James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston who was working for the American Friends Service Committee at the time. Reeb died of head injuries two days later in the hospital; he was 38 years old. The violence of “Bloody Sunday” and of Reeb’s death received much attention from the rest of the country, leading to greater sympathy for and support of the Civil Rights Movement.

selma-bridge

A scene from Selma (2014) when marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. (copyright Paramount Pictures)

June 1, 1964

The Civil Rights Revolution

Nine months before the marches, the words of John de J. Pemberton Jr. (1919–1990) appeared in the June 1, 1964 issue of Friends Journal—words that remarked on the progression of civil rights issues over the last 20 years (since the end of WWII), both in terms of response from all three branches of government and in the context of reaching the conscience and the consciousness of the nation’s citizens. Pemberton’s bio states he was at the time a member of the Durham (N.C.) Meeting and the national executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. The piece, titled “The Civil Rights Revolution”, was “a condensation of a talk he gave in March [1964] at the New York celebration of the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s twentieth anniversary.”

John Pemberton

John de J. Pemberton (American Civil Liberties Union)

In his talk, Pemberton notes a lack of urgency from the legislative and executive branches to remedy civil rights grievances, causing “a new urgency [to overtake] the Negro’s cause”: unemployment, as a measured consequence of discrimination, “has hit the Negro with at least double the effect it has had on the total population.” He also cites a growing gap between average Negro and average white incomes, increased concentration of Negro populations in the restricted ghettoes of northern cities, and larger numbers of Negroes attending segregated schools. Pemberton then recaps civil rights actions, makes a prediction (foreshadowing the voting rights marches), and reminds the reader that the function of the Civil Rights Movement is to disturb.

So the civil rights movement has had to address itself to a still larger forum. Beginning with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, continuing through the lunch-counter sit-ins, the freedom rides, and the more recent mass demonstrations, it will culminate, I believe, in yet larger movements of protest addressed to the broad arena of public opinion. It demands that the grievances of discrimination be seen and understood by all of the people, and it presses home the urgency of the need for remedies. There is a disturbing quality about these concerted efforts; they are less comfortably accommodated than the orderly litigation that dominated the civil rights movement’s earlier years. But we must remember that their function is to disturb, to make a whole nation uncomfortable, for the civil rights movement has rightly assumed that total redress will not be attained until the whole nation becomes acutely conscious of the patterns of prejudice that pervade its life and of the justice of our Negroes’ claims for redress.

Pemberton goes on to comment on the importance of remembering past successful social movements of change (citing the labor movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the prohibition movement, the populist movement, the abolition movement, and the movement for independence) and to proclaim civil rights issues as “among the great issues of our times,” stating “There is an urgency about the resolution of these issues above and beyond even the intrinsic merit of equality.” He ends with a bold statement calling on the entire nation.

Civil rights issues cannot be resolved by officials alone; only a total commitment of the conscience of an entire people to fulfillment now of the promises of 1776 will do it. Only with such commitment can official action be wholly effective, and only with the concurrence of unofficial action can the deprivations of prejudice be significantly eradicated.

April 1, 1965

Editorial Comments

The April 1, 1965 issue of Friends Journal (published three weeks after the passing of Reeb) includes editorial comments on the impact of the marches and the tragedy of Reeb’s death. The excerpt here speaks to what many in the Quaker community were feeling at the time: shock, shame, and sorrow.

Sometimes it takes a shock like the tragedy of James Reeb to make many of us realize, to our shame, how inadequate is our normal capacity for identification and sharing. For months, for years—for more than a century, in fact—we have been reading and hearing about the grave indignities suffered by Negro American citizens who never have been permitted to enjoy the most fundamental of citizenship’s rights. We have felt vaguely sorry for them, but how seldom have their sufferings moved us to any significant action, even when their search for freedom has brought death!

Why must we need the murder of James Reeb to move us to action? His death (according to John Sullivan, the Service Committee’s executive secretary for New England, where Reeb was working) “stirred the consciences and the moral responsiveness of the highest officials in our land—of the clergy and church people of America, of simple Negro and white men and women who wired, prayed, marched, and wept because of his sacrifice in the human struggle that now goes on without him—but not without his spirit, his memory, and his unfailing determination that justice and right will overcome.”

Read the full piece in its original form here, beginning on page 2. Also in the April 1, 1965 issue is a statement from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) about establishing a memorial fund for James’s family and a poem dedicated to him. (Related: “Where are we 50 years later? What can we learn from Selma?” via AFSC’s Acting in Faith blog)

Under the Red and Black Star (American Friends Service Committee)

James Reeb Memorial Fund

The American Friends Service Committee has established a fund for the family of James J. Reeb, Unitarian minister who died on March 11 after a beating during a voter-registration demonstration in Selma, Alabama. The fund will also be used for the families of others who suffer in the civil-rights struggle. (Contributions may be sent to the James Reeb Fund, 160 North Fifteenth Street, Philadelphia 19102.) Similar funds have been established by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

For the past six months James Reeb had been director of the AFSC’s Metropolitan Boston Housing Program, in which he had worked with low-income groups—both Negro and white—in their efforts to overcome deprivation and discrimination in housing, education, and employment. His concern to go to Selma was described by his wife, Marie, as “not a shot in the dark, but a continuation.”

In an official statement at the time of his death the Service Committee emphasized that it does not “single out James Reeb’s sacrifice from the many made in the civil-rights struggle by Negro and white men and women—and even children—as being more significant than any other,” but that it is “moved to record the passing of a beloved colleague.…”

Colin W. Bell, executive secretary of the AFSC, and Stephen G. Cary, associate executive secretary, were in Selma during the demonstration. Together with John Sullivan, interim executive secretary of the New England AFSC office, they were with James Reeb in the hospital in Birmingham until shortly before his death.

In Memoriam: James J. Reeb

James_Reeb wiki

James Reeb (Wikimedia)

By Carl F. Wise

On Calvary
They broke the bones of his legs
And a spear made a hole in his side
That my sins might be forgiven me.

At Selma
They crushed the bones of his head
That my sins might be forgiven me

That every reservation, every reluctance
Every condescension
Every open warmth withheld
Every substituted smile of politeness
That every unwillingness
To love my neighbor as myself
Might be forgiven me.

O sharing guilt
Wash the color of thy heart
In the expiation of Selma.

May 1, 1965

Selma, Friends, and Nonviolence

One month later, in the May 1, 1965 issue, Friends Journal published a first-hand account of the events in Selma from the perspective of a white, male Friend. The article, titled “Selma, Friends, and Nonviolence,” was written by Richard K. Taylor, whose bio identifies him as a member of Abington Meeting in Jenkintown, Pa., and the executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Delaware Valley. (Taylor, now a member of Germantown Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., has been a regular FJ contributor over the years.) Taylor shares that he accompanied a group of 14 clergy and laymen who on March 9 went from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Selma, Alabama, to participate in the marches. He ends with a challenging query specifically for Friends to consider:

To be in Selma was a joy, but in my mind it also raises a question for Friends. Are the few efforts that we are now making really all that we can do to support the nonviolent movement against racism and for the beloved community? Is not God perhaps calling us—we who have spoken lo these many years about the power of nonviolence—to a much more thorough identification with the struggle for nonviolent solutions to the racial crisis?

April 1, 1966

Selma Still Has Problems

One year after the marches, Friends Journal published an update of sorts on the progress of the black population living in Selma: “Selma Still Has Problems” by Margaret L. D. Hatch appeared in the April 1, 1966 issue, describing the bleak reality of black unemployment due to persistent racial discrimination. Yet Hatch’s report also offers a glimmer of hope from a newly organized Selma branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Then, on April 28, 1965, a branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom was organized in Selma, fifty years to the day after the League’s initial meeting at The Hague. Since the Selma group, like all branches of the WILPF, is committed to working for peace and freedom on all fronts, its members took a good look around and decided to put their weight behind some project to help their townspeople to help themselves. From the Southern Christian Leadership Conference they obtained figures (compiled by the Dallas County Chamber of Commerce) showing that 85 percent of Negro families in the county earned less than $3,000 per year and that 50 percent of all Negroes heading families earned less than $1000 per year.

There were six times as many poor Negroes as poor whites in Dallas County. In general, these were the unskilled. They needed training for decent jobs. But where were the jobs, and who would do the training? (In factories now operating in Selma, the tendency is to exclude Negro women who may have had from six to twelve weeks of training in favor of white women with little or no training.)

By this time, the injunction had been lifted, and groups of Negroes could meet in public once more. So the WILPF members met and decided to help resurrect the idea for a sewing center. They found an unused concrete structure on a corner lot in the Negro section of Selma and commenced negotiations for its purchase. But the growing list of unemployed caused them to rethink their project in larger terms. Instead of a sewing center, why not have a garment factory?

Amelia Boynton (www.ameliaboynton.org)

Amelia Boynton (www​.ameliaboynton​.org)

Hatch’s piece goes on to chronicle the various challenges and obstacles encountered by the members of WILPF in the process of getting the new garment factory off the ground, including fundraising setbacks, building issues, lack of professional and legal help, and turned down applications for loans from Selma banks. Much of these efforts are credited in the article to the “indomitable” Amelia Boynton, a prominent leader in the Civil Rights Movement in Selma at the time and a key figure in the march that became known as Bloody Sunday. The article closes with optimism and a quote from Mrs. Boynton: “I feel almost like David, who slew Goliath. Once, obstacles were so great it seemed impossible to overcome them. Things are looking brighter.”

March 1990

James Reeb: Civil Rights Martyr

Twenty-five years later, Reeb’s life is remembered and honored in an article titled “James Reeb: Civil Rights Martyr” by Homer A. Jack. Published in the March 1990 issue of Friends Journal , the piece opens by calling the white activist “a catalyst for visible racial progress in the 1960s” and ends by asking a question many were wondering then and still wonder today:

A sketch of James J. Reeb by Lyrl C. Ahern appears in the March 1990 issue of Friends Journal.

A sketch of James J. Reeb by Lyrl C. Ahern appears in the March 1990 issue of Friends Journal.

Immediately after Reeb’s death, his friends tried to answer the recurring question: why the public focuses on the white martyr, Reeb, when black martyrs have been neglected for centuries? At the time, Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black man killed in Marion, Alabama, never received the recognition given Reeb. Racism, ironically, is one explanation. Reeb was white, yet he identified with the black poor, as well as trying—with great difficulty—to prod his fellow whites, including white clergy.

In September 1962, James Reeb said that “we must all be surprised from time to time by those who have suffered from the greatest inequities bringing forth a faith and an energy into life for which one can find no reasonable explanation.”

 

The author bio for Jack reveals the tragic fact that he, a fellow Unitarian Universalist clergyman, “was the person who told James Reeb that he was badly needed in Selma.”

Jimmie Lee Jackson (Wikimedia)

Jimmie Lee Jackson (Wikimedia)

 

Jimmie Lee Jackson, mentioned in the above quote, “was a civil rights activist in Marion, Alabama, and a deacon in the Baptist church. On February 18, 1965, he was beaten by troopers and shot by Alabama State Trooper James Bonard Fowler while participating in a peaceful voting rights march in his city. Jackson was unarmed; he died several days later in the hospital. His death inspired the Selma to Montgomery marches in March 1965.”

 

 

Throughout the years, Friends Journal has been covering the complexities of the intersection of race, faith, and activism, and we continue to cover these issues today. Follow along with us in 2015, our 60th year in print.

Gail Whiffen Coyle is associate editor of Friends Journal.


Posted in: From the Archives, Online Features

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