On March 7, 1965, forty-nine years ago yesterday, events came together in Selma, Alabama, which passed into history as "Bloody Sunday." I wrote about this event and the weeks that followed in my novel Too Much Left Unsaid. Here is the beginning of my chapter, featuring the son of my protagonist, Mattie Connors.
Aaron Connors, pastor of White Grove Presbyterian Church, believed in God and country, in equal rights for all citizens, regardless of skin color, to vote and live and work where they pleased. Aaron's congregation, on the other hand, didn't always appreciate his challenging words from the pulpit. From time to time the Board of Elders, ordained to oversee the spiritual life of the congregation, listened to complaints about Aaron's activities in promoting Negro rights.
Aaron was aware of the unrest in his congregation, but he still felt it was his responsibility to preach and act as he believed God wanted. He paid special attention to what was happening in Selma, Alabama. On Sunday, March 7, 1965, John Lewis, chairman of SNCC, and Hosea Williams from the Southern Christian Leadership Council scheduled a peaceful march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery to petition for protection of blacks who were being attacked when they tried to register to vote. Governor George Wallace vowed to halt the marchers. He called out the state troopers to stop them.
The evening of the march, Aaron and his wife Joan sat in their manse watching network television. What was shown on television shocked them. The marchers moved peacefully until Alabama state troopers assaulted them with flailing billy clubs, stampeding horses, tear gas, and bull whips. People fell and were dragged along, turning the peaceful protest bloody. By the end of the night sixteen marchers were hospitalized.
Immediately after "Bloody Sunday," as it became known, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., along with SNCC and the SCLC, issued a call to action. They asked clergy and laypeople from across the country to come to Selma for a second attempt to march to Montgomery on Tuesday, March 9. Many hundreds of people accepted the call.
Aaron did not answer that call, though he participated in a supporting rally in Detroit. The 2,500 marchers who did assemble were prevented by a court order from marching out of town, but Dr. King and Rev. Lewis held a short prayer session and led the group as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge, They then turned the marchers back in obedience to the restraining order.
Many of the younger marchers felt cheated at not being able to complete the march. White racists, disturbed seeing the northerners butting into their way of life, felt just as frustrated. Many fights broke out. Later that evening three white ministers were beaten, and one, James Reeb from Boston, died from his injuries two days later.
When Aaron heard the news of a fellow minister's death he wept. "It's unacceptable for me to watch from this far away," he muttered. With repeated coverage of the violence on his television screen, Aaron paced the floor, alternately angry and sorrowful. "Next time," he vowed when the news reported Rev. Reeb's murder, "I will be there."
In a follow-up blog this month I will continue both the historical report and my imaginary take on how this particular civil rights struggle affected my fictional characters.