Sisters of Selma: Bearing
Witness for Change
The name of Selma,
Alabama is linked with two
images in the American mythology of race.
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.
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.
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."
One organization quite important in this
process was the Fathers of St. Edmund.
The Catholic Church
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
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.
Selma's has always been a genteel
and nuanced racism...Why burn a cross when you can foreclose a
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
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
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
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
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"
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
"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.
wanted Selma to go there in her own time and "with dignity."
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."
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
There were splits in the Black
community too. In the mayoral race, Rev. Reese supported the progressive
over Black opponent Rev. Louis Anderson of Selma's Tabernacle Baptist
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.
was divided along racial lines. As a champion of "orderly
progress," Smitherman continued at the helm of affairs.
consecutive terms in office, Mayor Smitherman lost
to James Perkins Jr. It was Perkins' third run for the mayoral
sources: Dividing Lines by J. Mills Thornton (2002)
Black in Selma by J. L. Chestnut & Julia Cass (1990)