Oct 1962 1963 July 1964 Jan-Feb 1965 Mar 1965 Aug 1965 Dec 1965
Vatican Council II starts Alabama Voting Rights Campaign starts U.S. Civil Rights Act is signed into law Black voters in Selma appear at Dallas County courthouse for registration "Bloody Sunday"
Religious leaders come  to Selma
Selma to Montgomery march
U.S. Voting Rights Act passes Vatican Council II


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Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change

The name of Selma, Alabama is linked with two images in the American mythology of race. 

March 7, 1965

Black citizens of Dallas County, Alabama beaten and trampled by state troopers at the foot of the Edmund Pettus bridge as they begin their march from Selma to the state capital.

March 21, 1965

The same citizens streaming across the bridge, finally on their way to Montgomery.

The images bookend an uplifting tale of two weeks in which the blight of racial segregation was overcome by Black and white Americans working together.  The truth is that change was slow to come to Selma.  Many forces swirled and eddied for years, like the Alabama river, slowly eroding the status quo.
As one of the South's major munition and supply centers during the Civil War, Selma was hit hard by defeat. Yet it was Selma and Dallas County that sent Alabama's first elected African-American representative to U.S. Congress. 
In the 1950's, almost half the population of Selma was Black, but it was perhaps the state's most inflexibly segregationist city.  Few blacks could register to vote, and none could serve on juries or seek employment in law enforcement and other public services. They certainly couldn't run for office.  As a result, the community had little or no access to public services.  At the same time, the Black community was becoming educated at a rapid rate and "sensitive to the limitations that segregation imposed upon them." (Thornton)

One organization quite important in this process was the Fathers of St. Edmund.

The Catholic Church in Selma

The Catholic presence in Selma dates back to 1862.  In fact, the Queen of Peace was built with stones from the old Confederate Arsenal.  The original parish attracted few Blacks, however, and the Jesuits who ran the parish eventually recruited the Sisters of Mercy to start up an all-white school.

The Fathers of St. Edmund established St. Elizabeth school for Black children in 1940 and invited the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester to teach there.  Working with the sisters, they turned the rundown Good Samaritan into a two-story, 32-bed hospital.  A nursing program and a nursing home for the community were soon added.

In 1947, the Edmundites founded the Don Bosco Boys' Club, a recreational facility for black youth which also offered scholarships to Catholic colleges.  

It was this affiliation that assisted me in my conversion to Catholicism

John Crear, retired administrator
Good Samaritan Hospital, Selma


Through the ministry of the Edmundite fathers and the SSJR sisters, the Catholic Church appeared to be in competition with the Baptists and Presbyterians for Black souls. Taking up the challenge, the Reformed Presbyterian Church established the Ralph Bunche Club offering the possibility of spirited competition.  Eventually Selma had two private colleges and a credit union serving a well-educated Black middle class which included physicians and business people.  

Segregation & Paternalism

Selma's has always been a genteel and nuanced racism...Why burn a cross when you can foreclose a mortgage?

Alston Fitts, historian
Fathers of St. Edmund, Selma

On Water Avenue by Edmund Pettus Bridge, near the scene of "Bloody Sunday," was the Dallas County headquarters of the White Citizens' Council.  The ideology of this organization was that Blacks were inferior and had to be kept in their place.  "Uppity" Blacks found themselves jobless, Black professionals developed credit, insurance, or license problems, and all Blacks who tried to register to vote were placed on a blacklist.  The Citizens' Council believed, above all, in white unity and used their personal network to keep in line progressive whites among the local merchants and media.  Due to the stranglehold of this organization, the economy of Selma was grinding to a halt by the 1960s.

 The new Mayor Joe Smitherman opens the new Good Samaritan Hospital watched by Hospital Administrator Sister Michael Ann.

Young Joe Smitherman was elected mayor in 1964 with a pledge to "get Selma moving again" by attracting new industry to the town.  As city council member, he had advocated paving roads in the Black part of town.  He had also defeated the longtime incumbent who was supported by the Citizens' Council.  

The city's Black leadership was behind Smitherman. 

Where race relations were concerned, Smitherman's was a risky highwire act.  He appointed a segregationist to the post of city attorney. At the same time, he engaged Black leaders in dialogue.  When he created the office of Public Safety Director to supervise the city police and fire departments, he said his goal was to "assure the courteous and fair treatment of all persons regardless of race, creed, or color." 

Smitherman's appointee to the new post, Wilson Baker, was a charter member of the White Citizens' Council who had evolved into an expert in modern methods of law enforcement.  In the matter of civil unrest, he wanted to be proactive, to take the "iron fist in the velvet glove" approach. (Fitts) 
The large Dallas County posse of Citizens' Council faithful, on the other hand, was led by Sheriff Jim Clark, an ardent segregationist of the "knock their fool heads off" style of law enforcement.  (Fitts)  Clark's allies were the chief of the Alabama state troopers, and Judge Hare of the Alabama District Court in Selma. "Segregation may be defined as a way of life," Judge Hare said, "which has been worked out through the centuries in the South whereby two highly divergent races of people may live in the same community in peace and mutual advancement..."

U.S. District Judge Daniel Thomas also added fuel to the fire by delaying the civil rights cases that came to him.  Along with Wilson Baker and other progressive whites, he saw that racial integration was inevitable.  They just wanted Selma to go there in her own time and "with dignity."  So, in spite of skirmishes over strategy and jurisdiction, these men were held together by their distaste for "outside intervention."

For two years, the workers of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had kept the pressure on the board of registrars by organizing daily appearances of black voters at the county courthouse.  At the same time, the sisters of St. Joseph ran a voter education program to circumvent the county's discriminatory use of the "literacy test." Then the Dallas County Voters' League invited Rev. Martin Luther King to draw nationwide attention to their cause.  King's Southern Christian Leadership Council was their answer to the White Citizens' Council and  helped implement the black boycott of white businesses.  In 1965, the strategies of nonviolent civil disobedience allowed Blacks to set the agenda--for two glorious weeks in March, they were in charge.

On March 8, 1965, Rev. Martin Luther King's appeal on behalf of Selma's black citizens made the issue a moral one.  Men and women religious would see a moral struggle as part of their responsibility.  Even the Pope issued a decree regarding the equality of races in the eyes of his church.

Until then, Edmundite Father Maurice Ouellet had been the only white person who had spoken out in support of Black Selmians.  For many of them, the outpouring of support from white America was a novel and invigorating experience. 

40 Years Later... 

"There have been a lot of changes in Selma, but there's been no change.  If you are Black and living in a George Washington Carver home, life is much the same."

Reverend Rembert
Pastor, Brown Chapel


Following the events of March 1965, Mayor Smitherman continued to meet with a Black delegation headed by Reverend Frederick Reese of the Dallas County Voters' League, but by then, both Black and white unity were crumbling. The economic toll of the black boycott of white businesses was visible.  Soon, a Jewish businessman and a few moderate whites broke rank.  By April, the city and the county rejected the White Citizens' Council and took a vow to abide by the Civil Rights Act.  It was an appeal to outside industries to help the shattered economy.

There were splits in the Black community too.  In the mayoral race, Rev. Reese supported the progressive white incumbent over Black opponent Rev. Louis Anderson of Selma's Tabernacle Baptist church. 

In the four years that separated the municipal elections of 1964 and 1968, the number of registered voters had doubled, but even with a 20 times increase in their own numbers, the blacks were less than half the voting population.  The vote was divided along racial lines.  As a champion of "orderly progress," Smitherman continued at the helm of affairs.


October, 2000

After eight consecutive terms in office, Mayor Smitherman lost to James Perkins Jr.  It was Perkins' third run for the mayoral office.


sources: Dividing Lines by J. Mills Thornton (2002)
Black in Selma by J. L. Chestnut & Julia Cass (1990)


2007 Hartfilms    -   Updated 06/05/2013