Remembering Selma from those who were there

Pettus bw

Remembering Selma
Honoring Sister Antona Ebo and Rabbi Bernard Lipnick z”l

Selma, 1965

Note: these events have become legend. I have chosen to write them in epic form, because they seem to me epic events, mythic. They happened, for many of us, in our life times.

It seems to me these events have earned this form. James Stone Goodman

Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965
Selma, Alabama

A peak in the civil rights movement
The March in Selma
the right to vote
taken to the television set

For everyone to see
Six hundred civil rights marchers
Heading to state capitol in Montgomery
They came only six blocks to the Edmund Pettus Bridge

There 500 state and local lawmen
Billy clubs tear gas
Driven back into Selma

Trampled by horses
Marchers seen bloodied and beaten
Around the world
The call went out to join the struggle

A second march Tuesday March 9th
King led White and Black supporters
To the Edmund Pettus Bridge
Prayed and suddenly — turned around

Civil rights leaders sought court protection
For a third full-scale march
From Selma to Montgomery
King called out for clergy support

President Johnson called
the Alabama National Guard
into federal service
regular Army attachments too

Wednesday, March 10, 1965
Departing for Selma, Alabama

A group of 54 ministers, rabbis, priests, nuns in habits, laypersons
Left for fabled Selma Alabama
On two chartered planes
From St. Louis

The Archbishop of St. Louis
Joseph Elmer Ritter
Heard the cry from King
After the events of Bloody Sunday

From St. Louis the largest group
Responds immediately
After Martin Luther King’s call
For clergy support

We support Negroes’ voter registration drive
We walk in sympathy
We plan to march from Selma to the capital
At Montgomery

Three rabbis
Rabbi Bernard Lipnick
Rabbi Lawrence Siegel
Rabbi Abraham Perlberg

Six nuns in habits
Two Sisters of St. Joseph
Two Sisters of Loretto
Two Sisters of St. Mary’s Infirmary [now Franciscan Sisters of Mary]

Including Sister Mary Antona Ebo
Raised Betty Ebo
In Bloomington

A picture appeared in the newspapers
Wednesday, March 10, 1965
The rabbis and nuns boarding a plane
Ozark Airlines charter

Rabbis holding brown sacs
With their kosher

Rabbi Lipnick: No one told the nuns
That kosher food had been prepared for us
The Sisters in Selma also made me a meal
I was the best fed rabbi in Alabama that day

I saw the face of violence close up

Halted by troopers with Confederate flags
On their helmets
There was danger

Rabbi Lipnick: We went to Selma because
Blacks were pushing for voter registration
They put every obstacle
To Black voter registration

They flew onto a dirt landing field
Civil Rights workers picked them up in cars
Driven by renegade priests forbidden
By Archbishop Toolen of Mobile – Birmingham to participate

Taken first to a small Catholic Church
Sister Ebo: Then we walked to Brown AME Chapel
We cut through the yards of the projects

A little Black girl came running up to me
Gave me a hug
There was no greater affirmation for me that day
Than a hug from that child

At Brown Chapel
We were ushered into the Sanctuary
They sat me in the pastor’s chair
The other Sisters on both sides of me

The rest of the clergy
And several laymen
Behind us
In what would have been the choir loft

The Service itself
Was a grounding in non-violence
I knew the songs
And their significance

Throughout it all
Was an affirmation
A trusting in God
Then the question came up

Do we honor non-violence?
That was the question
Martin was not present that day
I never met him

Or do they resist?
There were two schools of thought
An older and a younger element
They decided to honor what they were told

Obey the law
Don’t push through the barricades
What if they beat them?
If attacked they agreed to shield the nuns

Rabbi Lipnick: Sister Ebo was my nun
But it never came to that

In Brown’s Chapel people everywhere
In the aisles on the windowsills

Sister Ebo: There were young people
Sitting in the front, bandaged, beaten from Sunday
Would we push through?
Or would we stand down?

People began to murmur

They brought the nuns
They brought the nuns

The Sisters given the place of honor

Singing the Baptist hymns
A minister asked her name
The chapel filled
With spontaneous applause

Reverend Anderson
Started the service
This is the first time in my life
I have ever seen a Negro nun

He told the crowd Sister Ebo had come to Selma
With a message for Sheriff Jim Clark
Mayor Smitherman Bull Connor
And Governor George Wallace:

You don’t have to be white
To be good and holy
We want to introduce
Sister Mary Antona

Sister Ebo had not prepared anything to say
Sister Ebo: Oh mister please be quiet
In St. Louis they told me not to say anything
This is the South

She began speaking the microphone went out
You can’t hear her turn it up!
A young Black minister of the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference Andy Young stood up and said

If you want to hear
What she has to say
Be quiet.


The room still.

My name is Sister Mary Antona I am a Negro
A Catholic nun and I am here to witness
Your rights to register to vote
Just yesterday in the city of St. Louis

I voted without having to go through what you
Are going through and on Monday morning
Just a couple of days ago I made a statement
That If I had not this habit on

I would be in your midst
Here I am
I believe this is God’s way
Of calling my bluff

Andy Young made the suggestion
Let the St. Louis nuns
Lead the way
In the street demonstration

Young: I had never been sure
Of the commitment
Of the Catholic Church
In the field of human rights

This was the first time
The nuns
Coming forward this publicly
On the matter of civil rights

From the Church
they walked downtown

Sister Ebo: I heard, put the Sisters in front
I understand the effect they were after

But it was not exactly where I wanted to be
Once we got out to the street
Mr. Collins government agent suggested
Put a man on each side of every Sister

He also suggested I take off my glasses
My first thought
We’re not down here
To play pick up sticks

The old habit had some deep pockets
I put my glasses in a notebook
In one of the pockets
Inside my habit

Rabbi Lipnick: When the march started
They asked me to speak
It was right before Pesach
I spoke about the Exodus

I tried to talk to Wilson Baker
Director of Public Safety in Selma
He’s the one who stopped
The march Baker turned his back

Baker: We are not here to negotiate
I have nothing further to say to you
Go ahead and talk to the press
I am not interested in listening to you

Rabbi Lipnick: There were white cars
Blue cars brown cars brown shirts
Blocking the street
Cops and soldiers three rows deep

The march halted less than a block
From its starting point
Marchers turned around
Orders from Selma mayor Joe Smitherman

Sister Ebo: We agreed that Sister Ernest Marie [now Sister Roberta, C.S.J.]
Would speak in the street
Reverend Anderson said the first person to speak
Will be one of our own he meant me

No, God, that’s not the way we agreed
I said about the same words
That I spoke
At Brown’s Chapel

I am here because
I am a Negro
A nun a Catholic
And because I want to bear witness

On the day they went from St. Louis to Selma
Sister Ebo led the march
Broadcasted all over the world on television
They walked a hundred yards and stopped

Three hundred state troopers and local police officers
Standing three deep
Ready to go to war
Blocked their path

Sister Ebo: I realized
If arrested
I would not be kept
With the other Sisters

Wilson Baker: there will be no march today

Mayor Smitherman cited a local ordinance
Against walking to the courthouse
Without a permit

Thirty four others spoke
Then they knelt and prayed
From there to the Good Samaritan Hospital
Met some of the wounded from Bloody Sunday

They had sandwiches and drinks
Then to the airport
By motorcade
They left Selma for St. Louis at 4:30 PM

Wednesday, March 10, 1965, 4:30 PM
Returning to St. Louis from Selma Alabama

A Unitarian minister
Attacked on Tuesday March 9
Working the march from Washington D. C.
Struggling for his life on a respirator

Died on Thursday one day after the visit
Of the St. Louis mission to Selma
Beaten on the streets of Selma
Graduate of Princeton

A Quaker working
In a Boston housing project
Reverend James J. Reeb
Thirty eight years old dead in Selma

On the evening of Monday March 15th
President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act
A joint session of Congress
He called the events in Selma “an American tragedy”

President Johnson: It’s all of us
who must overcome the crippling legacy
of bigotry and injustice.
And we – shall – overcome.

When the Sisters returned to St. Louis
Commotion at the airport

Sister Ebo: We went to several
TV stations that night

Told our story
Something special
Important about the Sisters
Who went to Selma

Sister Ebo met Mayor Smitherman once again
Twenty years later he still mayor
Smitherman escorted her
Through City Hall in Selma

Sister Ebo: I looked into his eyes
And saw he had changed
The hate was gone

This from Mayor Smitherman —

I always wondered what happened
To that little Colored lady
They dressed up
Like a nun

Sister Ebo said to him
Honey you didn’t
I was for Real?

I guess
That’s why
God sent me
Back here.

Sister Ebo
To the poet:

I never thought
That 40 years later

People would
Be talking
About the nuns
Who went to Selma.

It just seemed
The right thing to do.
God blessed us
And I’m still alive.