Professor Recounts Historic Impact of Selma Marches in MLK Lecture
In March 1965, citizens across America sat fixed in front of their television sets watching the violent events unfolding in Selma, Ala., where African-Americans, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights activists, were marching for equal voting rights.
At a time when African-Americans were challenging the status quo of segregation in the Deep South, six nuns from Saint Louis, “The Sisters of Selma,” travelled to Selma to protest the prevailing Jim Crow laws — and in doing so, the Catholic Church and the sisters were transformed.
What did they help change? How were they changed by the experience?
These questions and others were explored by Dr. Terence A. McGoldrick, Providence College assistant professor of theology, during the first MLK Lecture in the Center for Catholic and Dominican Studies (CCDS).
McGoldrick, who spoke on “Selma: The Turning Point for the Catholic Church’s Support of MLK,” was introduced by Elena Yee, director of the Balfour Office for Multicultural Activities (BOMA). BOMA, the CCDS, and the Department of Theology sponsored the lecture.
McGoldrick opened his remarks by conveying the political, cultural, and religious zeitgeist of the South in the 1960s, 100 years after the Civil War.
“Catholic hospitals treated both blacks and whites, but still would not give black blood to whites, or white blood to blacks,” said McGoldrick. “During Mass, blacks sat separately and could receive Communion, but had to wait until the white parishioners had received theirs first.”
On March 7, 1965, more than 500 activists joined to protest Alabama’s unfair voting rights laws by marching from Selma to Montgomery. When they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, they were met with clubs and tear gas. Three were killed, hundreds were injured, and the historic day will forever be remembered as “Bloody Sunday.”
Immediately after “Bloody Sunday,” Dr. King travelled to Selma and issued a call for clergy and citizens from across the country to join him in a second march for the right to vote.
Shocked by the television images and news accounts of “Bloody Sunday,” thousands of citizens, including the “Sisters of Selma,” responded to Dr. King’s call to non-violent action and flew to Alabama.
They were sponsored by the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice and by individuals like Cardinal Ritter of Saint Louis. Witnesses estimate that 15 percent of the protesters were Catholic nuns and clergy.
The archbishop of Mobile-Birmingham, Thomas Toolen, was wary of outside demonstrators flocking to Selma and forbade the clergy and followers in his diocese from participating in the marches. Even so, some obeyed and joined the protests, and gave lodging to their fellow religious who had come to Selma to march.
Ironically, McGoldrick pointed out, in 1964, Archbishop Toolen ended racial segregation in Catholic schools throughout Alabama and denounced the culturally-biased literacy test required for African-American voter registration.
“Although Toolen agreed that blacks were equal and had earned the right to vote, he viewed the protestors and Dr. King as outside ‘rabble rousers’ who did more harm than good and preferred a measured approach to gain blacks civil rights,” said McGoldrick.
McGoldrick introduced the second half of his presentation by playing a video of Dr. King’s fiery, defiant speech to the politicians and residents of Selma after “Bloody Sunday,” and one of “Selma Sister” Rosemary Flanagan, recounting her memories of the protest marches that followed.
As the world watched, the protesters, now swollen to more than 2,500 (under the protection of federalized National Guard troops), finally achieved their goal, walking for three straight days to reach Montgomery. The participation of Dr. King, along with hundreds of Catholics in the historic march, helped raise awareness of the difficulty faced by African-American voters in the South and played a large role in getting the Federal Voting Rights Act passed later that year.
“The Selma demonstrations caused many Catholic priests, nuns, and laypeople to increase their efforts on behalf of racial justice,” said McGoldrick.
“When challenged by the Second Vatican Council to answer the question ‘What does it mean to be a Catholic in the modern world?’, the ‘Sisters of Selma’ followed the dictates of their hearts and consciences, and the Church and the country are better for it,” concluded McGoldrick.
— John Larson
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