“They had us lining up down the street in front of the church and on and on and on”
A long-running committee meeting is usually not the auspicious beginning of a pivotal journey. But in Beloit, on the night of March 8, 1965, the Religious Life Committee met, and their session ran late. They were gathered at the home of Andy Clark, Beloit’s dean of the chapel, ostensibly to meet with the Rev. Gibson Winter, the college’s Porter Lecturer and professor at the University of Chicago’s Theological Seminary, but their focus kept shifting to the previous afternoon’s march for voting rights in Selma, Ala.
While Winter was called away to the phone, the students discussed what they knew, what they’d seen, and the rumors they’d heard about what is now called “Bloody Sunday.”
John Lewis, the head of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had his skull broken by Alabama state troopers, someone said. The air was thick with smoke and tear gas.
The state troopers and sheriff’s deputies beat the marchers indiscriminately, another person said.
Finally, someone mentioned one last detail. Martin Luther King put out a call last night to religious people of all denominations: ‘Come to Selma, march to Montgomery with us for justice.’
When Winter returned a few minutes later, he announced that 100 University of Chicago theological students would be answering King’s call. Barbara Bye’66 turned to her friend John Skelton’67 and said, “John, I want to go to Selma, Alabama. Do you want to go?”
Skelton needed only a moment to reply.
He said “yes,” and from that moment on, Bye knew she was going. “All I needed was one other person to say ‘yes’,” she said during an oral history she recorded and sent to the college in 1995.
Across Beloit’s campus, as seeds of a trip began to take hold at Clark’s house, Daniel Wood’65 (at right), a self-described “pre-Hippie, post-Beatnik” was wandering around campus, fuming about the scenes he’d seen on television the previous day. Wood was part of a group he identifies as “a vanguard of things to come, people who wore sandals and grew their hair long.” He was only two months away from graduating, but by no means was he afflicted with senioritis. Wood remained one of the college’s best-known activists until he graduated.
Wood credits philosophy professor Scott Crom with building an environment where socially conscious students and activists could thrive. Crom held weekly hootenannies where “we’d all sing songs about freedom, peace, and love,” Wood says. “Scott sat at the center of the awakening of those of us who went to the Peace Corps or fought for civil rights.”
A mass mobilization, led by Clark, Crom, and students, included “passing the hat” across campus. The effort brought in enough money to buy eight plane tickets to Atlanta—the city that Martin Luther King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was advising out-of-state allies to fly into.
Rather than draw straws to select the travelers, students who wanted to head south drew cigarettes in Andy Clark’s parlor “with non-filters going,” as the Round Table put it.
The eight students were all white, but from relatively diverse backgrounds. Only one woman, Barbara Bye, drew an unfiltered cigarette. Among the group were various majors, class years, Christian denominations, students involved in Greek life, and students who despised it. One was a Peace Corps veteran before ever setting foot on Beloit’s campus.
Clark refused to let students younger than 21 go without permission from their parents. Bye’s mother told her she was proud of her and said, “I wish I could go.” When Bye responded, “I might go to jail,” her mother replied, “I wish I could go to jail.” Tom Marks’ parents were on vacation in the Bahamas. He left messages at their hotel and finally told Andy Clark that his parents had said it was “fine.” Marks (at right) maintains that while Clark seemed skeptical, he took him at his word.
Soon the eight were bound for Chicago’s O’Hare airport with only the clothes on their backs. In John McCall’s case, that meant his dining hall work shirt.
At the beginning of March in 1965, Selma, Ala., was one of many Southern towns that openly denied its black citizens the right to vote. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was designed to desegregate lunch counters, not the polling place. Throughout the winter of 1965, Selma had been the hub of activism surrounding an end to so-called “literacy tests” administered by local polling places. That momentum spread to the smaller counties and towns surrounding Selma. The killing of Deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson at the hands of Alabama state troopers in Marion, Ala., in February of that year, inspired the Rev. James Bevel of the SCLC to call for a 50-mile march from Selma to the state capital at Montgomery.
The first attempt resulted in Bloody Sunday. The following day, it was far from clear that Bloody Sunday and the ensuing weeks would bring forward the Voting Rights Act, the first federal oversight of state election laws since Reconstruction, and arguably the most important piece of civil rights legislation in the 20th century.
It can be difficult to sift through the popular history of the 1960s, when everything between 1960 and 1969 tends to be generalized. This ignores the sheer amount of change that was taking place in hearts and minds, not only between 1960 and 1965, but also between 1965 and 1966, and 1966 and 1967. “The whole American world dramatically shifted between 1965 and 1968,” Wood says. “Everything changed.”
For perspective, only a few weeks before Bloody Sunday, President Lyndon B. Johnson was preparing a massive escalation of the war in Vietnam, and Northern cities remained oblivious to their own issues of racial and legislative discrimination. The Supreme Court case that would end anti-miscegenation laws in the United States was still two years away from being decided.
This was the America in which John Beckley’67, Barbara Bye’66, Shelton Huettig’66, Thomas Marks’68, John McCall’68, John Moats’67, John Skelton’67 (at right), and Daniel Wood’65 set off for Selma. This place of injustice in America would also become the site of the country’s great victory of non-violent action. The Beloiters would cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but their journey to Montgomery would be stopped by a legal maneuver. The Beloiters left behind, however, would complete a 50-mile sympathy march to the state capital of Wisconsin. Nevertheless, the students who went to Selma managed to be part of one of the definitive civil rights marches of the 1960s, armed only with, as Wood put it, “the naiveté of youth.”
On the plane, a minister seated just in front of Barbara Bye (at right) asked her if she had any reservations about heading south.
“I totally believe in what we’re here to do,” she told him. “It is so right, it is so correct. The rest of America needs to see this so boldly: a mass march to end segregation that has been part of this country for its history,’” she told him.
“I was still 20 at the time,” she recalls. “I sensed he was sort of keeping tabs on me, checking in to make sure I was going to be all right.”
Landing in Atlanta, the planeload of people, mostly ministers, was bused to the headquarters of the SCLC, King’s organization. In Atlanta, Tom Marks finally got a hold of his parents. “I told them I was in Atlanta and going to Selma, Alabama, and my father got on the phone and told me to get back to Beloit and my classes,” Marks says.
In Atlanta, after several rounds of prayer and songs, the eight wound up on buses bound for Selma.
On McCall’s bus, SCLC staffers passed out cartons of Lucky Strike cigarettes. Having just won a date with history courtesy of an unfiltered cigarette, McCall (at right) took a carton and embarked on a 50-year relationship with nicotine.
While McCall was becoming acquainted with tobacco, Wood made the acquaintance of James Reeb, a young minister from Boston. “Reeb and I talked about the Red Sox,” Wood says. “And then we talked about politics. We thought about who might be a better president than Lyndon Johnson. We were two Bostonians,” he says, “two Kennedy fans who weren’t quite sure what to make of this Southern, jowly figure suddenly buying into civil rights.”
The group arrived in Selma for “what history refers to as the second march,” McCall says.
The energy of the place captivated their imaginations. Bye recalls that her bus driver got lost. “He was supposed to drop us off at the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the origin point of the great march that was to take place,” she says, “but he didn’t know where that church was.”
The black residents of Selma walking along the street proudly gave the driver directions. “It felt as if something had been building in this town,” Bye recalls. “The center of attention of the country was focused on their town.”
That energy was already at risk by the time the Beloiters and thousands of others arrived on Tuesday. In the wee hours of the morning, emissaries from the U.S. Department of Justice brought word to King that a federal judge had declared an injunction against a march to Montgomery.
“Never in all his civil disobedience had King defied one [an injunction], in part because the federal courts remained the hope and refuge of the civil rights movement,” wrote Taylor Branch, in At Canaan’s Edge. “The Justice Department would be obliged to defend and carry out an order to jail him for contempt, which inevitably would divide the administration and poison chances for voting rights legislation.”
At that moment, it was impossible for any of the Beloit students to know or appreciate the vexing level of strategy playing out behind the scenes, among the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and SCLC leaders, federal officials and observers in Selma, state officials such as Governor George Wallace, and state troopers.
Just after 2 p.m. on that Tuesday, Martin Luther King emerged from Brown Chapel AME Church to address the crowd. He did not know if they were staying within the city limits or marching to Montgomery. He only knew for sure that they would be setting off.
SNCC organizers had been at work all morning, dealing with the logistical chaos posed by so many people. Bye recalls, “When it came to our turn to join the ranks, they had us four abreast. We were all linking arms, our elbows interlocked. And they had us lining up down the street in front of the church, and on and on and on.”
The crowd was so vast that no one recalled being able to see the end of it. They marched from Brown Chapel, through Selma’s main black neighborhood, and eventually downtown, where some of Selma’s whites were waiting with jeers and rocks. When the marchers reached the foot of the bridge, a U.S. Marshal presented King with notice that he would be violating the court order. Even on the bridge, the ultimate destination was unclear to the marchers. “We can look into the valley and see the barricade of troopers across the dual highway,” Wood wrote in the Round Table. “There are four alternatives: We are allowed to march to Montgomery, we are turned back into Selma, we try to break through the troopers standing arms akimbo and three-deep, we sit down on Highway 80,” he wrote.
On the bridge, there was finally news. A young boy with a portable radio standing near Wood, caught a dispatch from the front of the line:
“‘Dr. King has asked to be permitted to say a prayer. He and the clergy are kneeling down on the road,’ came a crackling voice over the radio,” Wood recalled in his Round Table account.
“We kneel down 30 seconds after we hear the news of the action up front,” Wood continued. “The line is that long … It continues behind us the same distance, it continues before us. The radio is silent; the prayer cannot be heard. Why don’t they have some microphones? But we wait on our knees in silence. A song, almost inaudible, begins. By the time it reaches to us, we recognize the third line of ‘We Shall Overcome.’… As if in unison we stand, singing, wondering which of the four alternatives will be made. The answer has already been made, translated into action, passed by repetition to us. We are turning back to Selma.”
There are some moments in history where retreat makes more sense than a bloodbath. Branch notes that the Alabama state troopers began to part, “daring” King and the marchers to push on towards Montgomery. But in violation of a federal court order, this option left King with no guarantee of safety for the 50-mile journey to Montgomery.
Wood’s Round Table column reflects the disappointment that came from turning around:
”And what had the sign said outside Brown’s African Church, where the march began? ‘Forward ever. Backward never.’ That had sounded like a promise when first read, as a commandment that could not be disobeyed … Yet, here we are turning our backs to the troopers. Some of them laugh. White mechanics and restaurant workers hoot and swear, while we sing another verse of ‘We Shall Overcome,’ not meaning, not hearing what we sing.”
But as they marched back, Wood began to recognize the sheer turn of events that had taken place since Bloody Sunday. “The whites shout, swear, point and laugh as loud as they can, because they are afraid … we, in our non-violent way, have overcome them. We have not allowed them to handle us the way they handled the Negroes two days before. They have been forced into non-violence by non-violence,” he wrote in his column.
But opponents of civil rights quickly returned to violent action. That evening, a posse of Alabamans attacked three white Unitarian ministers leaving an integrated restaurant. James Reeb, the Boston minister Wood met on the bus, was severely beaten and evacuated to a hospital in Birmingham.
That night, the Beloiters were put up by families living near Brown’s Chapel. Bye’s family insisted on putting her in the master bedroom, despite her protests.
She had trouble sleeping that night, in part because she realized she might die in Selma. Finally, around twilight, Bye recalls praying: “Oh, God. I don’t want to die, but if that is what is asked of me at this time, I will, but otherwise I will do everything I can to stay alive. God help me.” After that prayer, she fell asleep.
The next morning she woke and went downstairs to find everyone in the family had departed—for work and school—save the matronly grandmother, who had prepared breakfast only for Bye.
“I felt embarrassed that she’d laid out the red carpet for me, alone,” Bye says. Over the meal, her host revealed that Bye was the first white person to come into their home.
That evening, Ralph Abernathy, a King ally since the Montgomery bus boycott, called for an all-night vigil in honor of Reeb. Hundreds camped out in the sub-freezing March night. In the early hours of the morning, drifting in and out of sleep, Bye woke to a marvelous singing voice. It belonged to none other than Fannie Lou Hamer, one of Mississippi’s most important civil rights activists, and one of the movement’s best known singers. “Hamer led us for at least an hour in song,” she says.
With the Montgomery march tied up in court and Reeb’s condition unlikely to improve, the Beloiters began discussing the reality that it was time to head north.
“It began to be clear that there was not a great deal for us to be doing down there,” Bye recalls. “Our money was running out and there was no reason for us to remain a burden on the local people.”
On Thursday it rained, Reeb died, and the Beloiters flew home.
Fifty years later, views of the march and the movement have crystallized, and the parallels between then and the present are all around us.
“We are continuing to be shaped as a culture by reconciling our greatest ideals with our founding ancestors,” McCall says, “and bringing that to bear with the state of the present world.”
Wood reflects that Bloody Sunday and the killing of James Reeb dramatically pivoted public opinion and escalated change.
“By the end of that week, there was no other option for Lyndon Johnson,” Wood says. “He was forced to tell his Democratic Southern coalition that segregation was over. Period. Exclamation point. That week in Selma, there was a turn of 180 degrees.”
Last spring, when President Obama was in Selma to observe the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, he asked: “What greater form of patriotism is there than believing America is not yet finished?”
Marchers who crossed the bridge, demanding federal protection of the right to vote, believed in a better America, and in many ways created the space for today’s activists to continue to confront systematic racism and inequality in America. Whether that work is done with marches, sit-ins, or hashtags, the push for truth and equity in American life continues, like the sign posted outside Brown Chapel: Forward ever. Backward never.
Joe Engleman is the college news writer and editor.