Fifty Years Later: Reflections from a Selma Marcher

July 1, 2014Rabbi Marc Saperstein

My first active involvement in the civil rights movement was on March 25, 1965: the final day of the five-day march from Selma to Montgomery, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I was then a third-year undergraduate at Harvard, and had recently been elected as president of the Harvard-Radcliff Hillel Society. Earlier in the week, I was contacted by someone at the United Ministry office, saying that clergy and student leaders from all the religious denominations at Harvard and at several other Boston area universities would by flying to Alabama on a chartered plane overnight, and that they would like me to represent Harvard Hillel. Needless to say, I was thrilled to go. Landing after the overnight flight, we were brought to a church yard in the African-American outskirts of segregated Montgomery, where we stood up to our ankles in pink Alabama mud for several hours as the increasingly large crowd was getting organized. Finally we began to march, six abreast. During the first half-hour or so, we saw only African-Americans on the sidewalks. Their faces were beaming with joy at the realization that so many Americans, mostly whites, had come to show support for the right to demonstrate peacefully in the streets of our nation.

At one point, we saw organizers of the march holding up signs that said “Keep Smiling.”  Very soon I understood why. We turned a corner, and suddenly we were in the white part of the city, and the looks on the faces of the crowds were totally different from what we had seen until then: frozen looks of hatred and contempt. I remember thinking that I had left the realm of the living and entered the realm of the dead. Now at every corner there were federalized Alabama National Guardsmen and FBI agents to ensure our safety. We tried to “keep smiling,” but it was difficult.

Finally we reached the Montgomery Statehouse, and it was time for the speeches. As usual, there was an over-abundance of fine speakers. The final address was given by Dr. King, with his characteristically inspirational eloquence.

It was a temporary triumph, but a long road lay ahead. Back in Boston, we learned that Governor George Wallace had refused to accept a petition from the civil rights leadership, and that Viola Liuzzo, a Michigan housewife who had come as a volunteer and was driving demonstrators back home, was shot and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

My second experience occurred during the summer of 1966, immediately following my graduation from Harvard College. The Dean of the College, John Munro, had established a program whereby recent Harvard grads in English and Math would teach their subjects to Birmingham African American students who were preparing to enter Miles College the following September. My field was English literature; I taught two two-hour classes, each with ten students, five days a week, working to improve their reading and writing skills, with brief writing assignments every day. They were grouped based on performance on a standardized test; I had one group of excellent students, while the other was composed of high school graduates who could barely write a single sentence without serious errors in spelling and grammar.

The Birmingham church bombing had occurred less than three years earlier; some of my students knew children who had been killed.

The temperature was consistently in the 90s, and there was no air conditioning, but I never sensed a lapse of attention. The students were like sponges, soaking up new nourishment. In many ways, it was the most rewarding experience I have ever had in 37 years of college teaching.

One Shabbat, I went to services at the Reform Synagogue in a totally different part of the city. The rabbi knew my father and welcomed me, but when I told him what I was doing, he became considerably more cold. He was the only rabbi who signed the letter from six local clergy that produced King’s immortal “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

One day I was standing on the porch of our dormitory watching a group of Miles College students in the middle of the small campus practicing hitting golf balls with clubs. I remember thinking, "What an expression of optimism this is. Do they really think that they will ever be able to use this skill on golf courses in the South?" Decades later, when Tiger Woods was winning national championships, I thought back to that moment and realized that their optimism was justified.

The following year, I was studying at the University of Cambridge. Several of the students wrote to me, and I of course wrote back, describing my experience. One of them responded, “That sounds like a wonderful place to study. Do they allow colored students there?” I recall how staggered I was that a former student of mine would have to ask such a question, and I responded, Of course Cambridge does, and Harvard does, and the day will come when there will be no place in the world that refuses to take students on the basis of race. I guess that optimism was also justified.

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