Kansas City participants recall Selma, Ala., civil rights marches

Martin Luther King (third from right) led marchers across the Alabama River on the first of a five day, 50 mile march to the state Capitol at Montgomery, Ala., on March 21, 1965.
Martin Luther King (third from right) led marchers across the Alabama River on the first of a five day, 50 mile march to the state Capitol at Montgomery, Ala., on March 21, 1965. The Associated Press file photo

Near the end of the 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, one walker wondered whether he would ever make it to the Alabama Capitol to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver a speech supporting voters rights.

Then a woman on the side of the highway gave him a stack of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and a plastic jug of red Kool-Aid.

He took a sandwich and a drink, then passed the rest on. A familiar phrase flashed through his head, said Tex Sample, at the time a Boston-based church association executive who today is a retired Kansas City theology professor.

“This is my body broken for you, and this is my blood shed for you” — the refrain used during the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion. The words sustained him, Sample said, as he continued on.

The nourishment and King’s sermon-like speech 50 years ago, Sample said recently, remain “the most powerful Eucharist experience I’ve ever had.”

Monday, as the nation observes Martin Luther King Jr. Day, many who went to Selma — including those who worked or grew up in Kansas City — believe the journey to equal rights continues to prove long and difficult, but also transformative and self-renewing.

In 1965, King and others launched a voting rights campaign in Selma. Despite repeated efforts by African-Americans to register, only 2 percent were on the state’s voting rolls. The marches, which have been dramatized in the recently released film “Selma,” drew attention to the discriminatory voting practices in many Southern states.

The first protest, on March 7, came in response to the shooting death of a 26-year-old African-American church deacon. Marchers planned to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and on to Montgomery.

The march turned into a melee. State troopers and sheriff’s deputies confronted marchers, swinging billy clubs and deploying tear gas. Many of the approximately 600 marchers were injured during what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

King issued a call to clergy across the country, asking them to come to Selma for a second march days later. President Lyndon Johnson urged King to delay it until he could secure federal protection. But the protests continued. Hundreds of priests, nuns, ministers and rabbis joined the ranks.

A final march, which began in Selma, enjoyed federal protection. About 25,000 marchers heard King deliver one of his most famous addresses on March 25 in Montgomery.

The Selma marches have been credited with contributing to the national momentum that resulted in the August 1965 signing of the Voting Rights Act. But today the Kansas City participants confess to conflicted feelings.

Some are dismayed with more recent actions, such as the 2013 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act. But others point to a vastly changed American society where many of the goals — such as a federal voting rights law — long have been a reality.

All are proud to have been in Selma.

Therese Stawowy, who grew up in Kansas City, Kan., and who entered the Sisters of Loretto religious order in 1952, was teaching African-American children in St. Louis in 1965. When she learned that St. Louis area priests planned to go to Selma, she wanted to go, too.

The families of the midtown St. Louis children she taught, Stawowy believed, deserved to be represented.

Archdiocesan authorities approved but asked that women from other religious orders be included. Soon Sister Roberta Schmidt, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet who also taught in St. Louis, received a call from the head of the archdiocese’s human rights commission.

“He said, ‘It’s time that the church became visible to give witness to the rights of every human being,’” Schmidt said.

She knocked on the nearby door of Sister Rosemary Flanigan. Both were from Kansas City.

The nuns joined about 50 others from St. Louis who flew to Alabama. Local organizers soon guided the nuns to a prominent place near the front of the column of that day’s march. Clad in their matching black-and-white habits, they made a striking visual impact.

Mindful of the violence that had occurred days before, organizers took care to place the nuns in the middle of the column, with men on either side.

“They were very protective of us,” Schmidt said.

After returning to St. Louis, Schmidt, Flanigan and Stawowy received a mixed reception. The switchboard at the Catholic college where Schmidt and Flanigan taught lit up.

“We were told that most of the calls were positive, but there were others from callers saying, ‘Those women should have stayed home and in the chapel where they belonged,’” Schmidt said.

Others accused them of discrediting their religious communities. “No I will not call you ‘Sister,’” read one letter to Stawowy, “because you disgraced and drug that precious and supposedly holy robe through the dirt and filth leading a mob…”

Days later, a Kansas City contingent arrived in Selma. It included Sister Barbara Moore, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, then working as a nurse supervisor at old St. Joseph Hospital in midtown Kansas City.

In Selma, Moore and other Kansas City volunteers received instruction in nonviolent protests.

“It was disciplined, and people took it seriously,” Moore said. “People were being killed and terribly beat up.”

The dangers were genuine. Al O’Laughlin, then a priest serving at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Kansas City, noticed how local organizers had posted groups of monitors to protect marchers. That week, the Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, died after being beaten while walking from a Selma restaurant with two other ministers.

“They always told us, ‘Don’t go out after dark, just stay with the group,’” O’Laughlin said.

Two of O’Laughlin’s fellow priests went out on their own anyway.

“A car tried to run them down,” O’Laughlin said. “The local guys gave them a lecture after that.”

In Washington, President Lyndon Johnson delivered a March 15 address to Congress in support of a voting rights act. Congress ultimately approved the legislation, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices, and Johnson signed it that August.

Today, several of those who marched in Alabama believed the protests played a crucial role in dramatizing the need for such a law.

“Never before had nuns marched in something so public,” said Flanigan, now a library volunteer at St. Teresa’s Academy. “The cause was just, so glaringly just.”

Schmidt, now retired and living in Florida, said members of her religious order remain committed to social justice, participating in the peace rallies that followed the shooting death of Ferguson, Mo., resident Michael Brown last year.

“We are still there in support of justice and human rights, but perhaps we were not always identified as such, because now we wear the dress of the day,” she said.

Sample, who grew up in Mississippi, is dismayed at the recent Supreme Court removal of a portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, allowing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. He also has little patience for those who say the social actions like those in Selma made no long-term impact.

“Just go to Mississippi and compare the swelter of oppression that I knew in the 1940s and 1950s and go there now. Look at the integration, the public accommodations, the role of the black community in politics and government.

“I am not saying that everything is fine; we have still a lot of work to do — but it is a night-and-day difference.”

The Rev. Kenneth Ray of Kansas City, a Baptist minister who traveled to Selma, worked at Southwestern Bell as a custodian in 1965. Ray considers his own steady series of promotions at the company — from custodian to supply coordinator to salesman to personnel manager — as tangible evidence of the country’s change after the Selma marches.

“I saw the changes in my own life,” Ray said.

Moore, a founding member of the National Black Sisters Conference, intends to return to Selma in March for 50th anniversary observances.

“It’s an ongoing struggle,” she said. “In my opinion, people are attempting to turn back voting rights and human rights as well. So it’s important to celebrate on the anniversary.”

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

To reach Glenn E. Rice, call 816-234-4341 or send email to grice@kcstar.com.

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