Sister Rosemary Flanigan will never forget kneeling down in her habit in the dusty Alabama dirt to pray, just three days after a group of young black protesters had been beaten bloody during a 1965 march for voting rights in Selma, Ala.
Before that bloody spring Sunday incident led national news broadcasts, she knew very little about how ugly the fight for civil rights had become.
So when a fellow Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet asked her to join a contingent of Catholic priests and five other Missouri nuns, among others, on a flight to Selma, she accepted. The next morning Flanigan left St. Louis, where she taught philosophy at Fontbonne College. She recalls gathering in Selma with hundreds of people of all hues and religions inside Brown Chapel AME Church.
“I remember thinking racism is dead in the United States. You couldn’t get this many different people together if it weren’t dead,” Flanigan says.
Later that afternoon she was on the front line of marchers facing a barricade of Alabama State police, jeering white residents and the mayor of Selma, who refused to let the marchers pass.
They walked a few blocks and could go no farther, Flanigan recalls. Instead, the nuns and priests talked to the swarming media and explained why they were there. An Associated Press photo of the nuns standing out in front made it into papers across the country.
“We were only there one day. But after that, people came from all over the country and soaked Selma,” says Flanigan, now 87, retired and living in Kansas City. That photo of the sisters out front represented the country’s moral outrage over the racial violence in Selma.
Weeks later, with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. leading the way, protesters including several other nuns in full habits marched 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery for equal voting rights. And in August, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.
Flanigan says she had no idea when she stood on Selma soil that day that she would play some role, even peripheral, in making history.
“For me it wasn’t life-changing, but it was deepening,” Flanigan says.
“When you think about it, we human beings are formed by relationships, and relationships make the richness of our humanness,” she says. “Civil rights has opened us up to the opportunity for richness. It was such an exercise in justice, but we do still have a long way to go.”