How I got jailed over Civil Rights

How I got jailed over Civil Rights

Participants, some carrying American flags, marching in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. Source: Peter Pettus/Library of Congress

All the network coverage of President Obama's speech at the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama this week, 50 years after the brutal Bloody Sunday there, set my mind spinning back to that period in my life.

I was a junior at Emporia State (then Kansas State Teachers College) and involved in the normal range of college activities. Well, nearly normal. I was a bit more into religion and a quite a bit less into drinking then than I am now. But life was pretty normal. Then came Bloody Sunday. The images of the Alabama authorities wading into a group of people marching for voting rights made the newspapers and the few newscasts that I saw.

I had somehow inherited the presidency of a statewide denominational youth group when the president resigned. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent out the call for Northerners to come to the South for a bigger march from Selma to Montgomery, my group sent another young man and me.

Dr. King called on the folks of the North, particularly members of religious groups, to come to Alabama mostly to serve as witnesses. He believed that things that law enforcement officers might do when hardly anyone was watching would be less likely if the whole thing was well covered by the press. Northern observers meant the Northern press would be more likely to send cameras and reporters to the scene. Maybe some would also have the political power to cause an increased Department of Justice and FBI presence.

I kind of knew what I was getting into. A good friend and mentor had spent time the year before in Mississippi during the summer working on a huge voter registration drive with the Council of Federated Organizations. His stories were inspiring and scary.

I think it was March 19, 1965, when I boarded an Ozark Airline flight to Montgomery via Little Rock. It was my first flight, and I was on an old DC 3 — one of those that makes you climb up a steeply inclined aisle to your seat if I remember correctly. I found flying to be great fun back in the days of wide passenger seats, free meals and young, svelte stewardesses.

When I arrived in Montgomery, I did as I had been advised. I took a "colored" cab to the meeting point, which was at a local "colored" hotel, the Ben Moore Hotel near downtown Montgomery.

There I was supposed to meet the national president of our organization to be given the lay of the land and our part in it.

At the Ben Moore, there was no sign of the young woman we were supposed to meet. We waited around for a couple of hours and, about twilight, things began to happen and my naivete got me involved in it.

Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference was not the only organization working in Alabama at that time, but I mistakenly assumed coordination between the groups. Therefore, when one of the leaders of another group (I think it was either James Farmer or James Forman, but don't hold me to that) announced that he was leading a group to go down to the statehouse that night and protest. I figured that it was a part of the bigger plan and we were going to gauge the state's response to the larger march which would happen the next day.

Off we went, walking the several blocks to the State Capital double file. We had been given signs all of which were along the theme of "One Man, One Vote." When we arrived at the statehouse, we followed our leader around the square, still double file. Mr. Forman (or Farmer, or whoever he was) may have been prepared for the scene we encountered, but I wasn't. It seemed that every Alabama state officer from State Police to the Fish and Game wardens had been outfitted with riot helmets, batons and hostile attitudes. Not that I had any doubts that "outside agitators" were not welcome, but this array was intimidating. They formed a cordon around the capitol building.

We made three or four laps around the square before the police announced that, having done our protesting, we were expected now to disperse since we were clogging traffic. I was unable to see any way in which we were blocking the flow of either foot or vehicular traffic. In fact, the cordon of big beefy officers was far more obstructive than we were. Nevertheless we were ordered to disperse or to be arrested.

Our leader stepped out of the picket parade and walked along the line telling us to keep marching, offer no resistance and allow ourselves to be arrested. He was going back to the Ben Moore, he said, to enlist more protesters. Apparently the plan was to fill the city jail, which, of course ,would limit the possibilities for the police the next day.

Again the leader of the police said "Disperse or be arrested." We didn't, so we were. Full of trepidation, we were hauled off to the city jail.

I'll finish the story next week. By the way, for the benefit of the state legislature, I am an adjunct instructor at Butler Community College.