SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage

SMU Civil Rights Pilgrimage

March 4, 2015

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DALLAS (SMU) – When 50 SMU students boarded a chartered bus and van on March 6 bound for Selma, Ala., they followed the legacy of 50 other SMU undergraduate and Perkins School of Theology students who rode through the night to meet Martin Luther King Jr. and hundreds of civil rights marchers in Montgomery, Ala., on March 25, 1965.

One group of current students is enrolled in a unique political science class, which this year is completing SMU’s 11th eight-day Civil Rights Pilgrimage to civil rights landmarks across the South. Students are taking part in a series of activities and events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” attacks on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march and the subsequent passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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"This experience transforms students regarding their faith, career plans and awareness of the plight of others," says Betty McHone, SMU assistant chaplain and one of the founders of the pilgrimage.

The other students are traveling with SMU's Office of Multicultural Affairs on a Student Senate-supported trip to the five-day Selma commemoration.

Retired SMU English professor Ken Shields, who traveled with the University's students to Selma in 1965, saw the students off when they depart from the Dallas campus Friday.  When the SMU group arrives in Selma, Rev. Jack Singleton – an SMU Perkins School of Theology student who also traveled to Alabama for the 1965 march  – will be waiting for them.

SMU-to-Selma: 1965

There were three voting rights marches scheduled from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. in 1965.  The first ended in horrific violence March 7 when state troopers and a county posse attacked approximately 600 marchers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the way out of Selma, headed toward the state capital of Montgomery.  That incident became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Singleton and nine other Perkins School of Theology students answered Martin Luther King Jr.'s call on clergy nationwide to join him in completing the rescheduled march on March 9.  But King turned that group around just after crossing the bridge, waiting on federal court-ordered protection for the successful march that thousands would make March 21-25. That interrupted march is known as “Turnaround Tuesday,” but Singleton had no way of knowing he would not meet with the violence that stopped the first marchers.

"I was terrified," Singleton says, as he remembers the march.  "Two blocks out of the ghetto we moved up into ranks of four abreast and held hands tightly. The runners along the sides of the column worked to move women and children to the inside and the shouts from the bystanders grew and grew. As we were walking across the bridge, we could see that the head of the march had been blocked…nearly three-quarters of a mile away. The prayer service and freedom rally ended our planned march and we turned and walked away with a dignity which had not been allowed two days before."

The Perkins students called in reports to fellow students in Dallas, who taped them then shared the tapes with local radio stations. When Singleton returned to Dallas, he was fired from his job as youth pastor at a suburban church because of his activism.

On the SMU campus, students collected money to support the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, attended a Perkins Chapel memorial service for Rev. James Reeb, a Boston pastor murdered in Selma after the interrupted March 9 march, and participated in campus and Dallas protest marches. Letters to the editor in The Daily Campus both supported and condemned student participation in the Civil Rights movement.

SMU students joined the third (and ultimately successful) Selma-to-Montgomery march after Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram to Perkins students Loy Williams and Joe Lovelady urging them to bring everyone they could. Overnight nearly $1,700 was raised to charter a bus and pay for traveling expenses to Selma for students traveling by bus and car. Fifty SMU students and faculty members traveled overnight to join the marchers in Montgomery March 25.

SMU faculty member with a sign "Students and Faculty of SMU"
An SMU faculty member with a sign "Students and Faculty of SMU." (Photo by then-SMU Perkins student Loy Williams. Click image to see his photos from that historic event 50 years ago.)

Perkins Theology student Williams had not told his parents he was treasurer of SMU’s Selma travel fund and did not tell them he was making the dangerous journey to Alabama to participate in the protest. However, he asked his sister, Ruth, an SMU undergraduate, to stay home. 

"I didn't want to take the chance my parents would lose both of us," he said.

The SMU protestors joined a staging area in Montgomery, where they were serenaded by folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary as they waited to join the marchers.

"We didn't know what would happen when we reached the Capitol," Williams says. "We were singing the Civil Rights song, 'I Am Not Afraid,' but, yes, I was afraid."

Williams snapped photographs when he reached the Alabama state capitol, capturing Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking to the crowd from a flatbed sound truck. When the speeches ended peacefully, the SMU marchers re-boarded the bus to return to Dallas, opening box lunches ordered in advance from the bus company. But their lunches delivered an ugly message: The cardboard boxes were filled with garbage.

As students listened to pocket-sized transistor radios on the bus, they learned of the Klu Klux Klan murder of civil rights activist, Viola Liuzzo, as she drove marchers back to Selma.

"We were on high alert until we crossed the Alabama state line," Williams says.

Retired English Professor Shields, a civil rights activist before he joined the SMU faculty in 1961, knew joining the Selma protest was "not a light-hearted adventure."

"We were doing something right, but we underestimated the danger."

As the marchers entered the Montgomery business district, workers leaned from office windows and shouted at the protesters. A businessman stepped from a doorway and swung a fist at Shields, but missed.

"I had never experienced that rage," he says. A 13-year-old African-American girl, still bandaged from the March 7 march, linked arms with Shields as they continued marching toward the Capitol.

"How can you sing?" he asked. She looked at him and smiled, "Because Dr. King told me to."

SMU to Selma: 2015

Travelers with SMU's 2015 Civil Rights Pilgrimage are journeying back in time on a spring break, eight-day bus journey to meet those who participated in and witnessed the struggle for civil rights. They will walk across Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge with 40,000 others to mark the 50th commemoration of Bloody Sunday and will visit Dexter Ave. Baptist Church, joining for dinner those who knew Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They will visit the Jackson, Miss. home of murdered NAACP activist Medgar Evers, whose bloodstains can still be seen on the driveway where he was murdered. Turning toward Oxford, Miss., pilgrims will remember murdered civil rights workers Andy Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner and the experiences of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. Finally, in Memphis, they will visit the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.

"Leading this pilgrimage has been the highlight of my professional life," said trip leader Ray Jordan, a pastor and professor who first completed the trip as a student. "It's been incredible to see the faces of students, often with tears in their eyes, as they come to fully appreciate the great sacrifices of those who were a part of the Movement. This trip has lead many of them to commit their lives to social justice."

Along the way pilgrims will meet with journalists, attorneys, former marchers and those who shared their homes with freedom riders and other civil rights workers.

"The experience joins the intellect and emotions," says Dennis Simon, professor of political science and trip leader.  "The pilgrims see Brown Chapel, touch the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and listen to the foot soldiers of the movement  -- the ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary things."

The travelers from SMU's Multicultural Affairs Office will frame their experiences in Selma and Birmingham from March 6-9, joining the other students in Selma.

The first Civil Rights Pilgrimage was organized in 2004 by SMU's Chaplain's Office, part of SMU's Office of Student Affairs, as a spring break trip. In 2008, the pilgrimage became part of the political science class created by Dennis Simon, professor of political science. Now a joint collaboration, the class is a requirement for undergraduate human rights majors and also offered to graduate students in the Master of Liberal Studies program. Former SMU civil rights pilgrims have created scholarships to enable others to follow in their footsteps.

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