Selma lives

BY BEN MARKS | MARCH 06, 2015 5:00 AM

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Fifty years ago Saturday,  March 7, 1965, around 600 civil-rights marchers headed out of Selma, Alabama, with the intent of reaching the state capital, Montgomery.

However, as depicted in the recent Oscar winning film Selma, the marchers never reached their destination.

Instead, as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the protesters were met by state troopers who charged into the crowd with horses, beat them with nightsticks, and fired tear gas at them.

Many protesters were hospitalized, and the day became known as Bloody Sunday.

The national broadcast of the attacks helped launch one of the most important series of marches in the civil-rights movement, affecting not only the South but northern states such as Iowa as well. As a 21-year-old undergraduate at Yale, Shelton Stromquist — a University of Iowa professor emeritus of history — recalls spending that Sunday night huddled around a television with other activists, watching as the evening news broadcast the attack.

Horrified at what they saw, he remembers the group gathering enough money for several plane tickets.

“We saw the news Sunday night, we were on a plane Monday morning, we arrived early afternoon in Selma, and we were in [Brown Chapel] Monday night,” he said.

During the protests, Brown Chapel — now a historic landmark — served as the offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the African American civil-rights group founded in part by Martin Luther King Jr.

In Selma, Stromquist joined hundreds of other protesters who had arrived from around the nation with the determination to march to Montgomery.

On the next morning, March 9, 1965, King led around 2,000 people out of Selma and onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

On the bridge, although not close to the front, Stromquist said he was far enough up he could see the line of state troopers once again blocking their path.

Instead of attempting to pass the troopers however, the marchers knelt down. Stromquist said the crowd knelt like a wave, and it became an atmosphere of prayer.

Eventually, King signaled that the protesters should return to Selma, because of a court order in place prohibiting the march from going forward until the marchers received federal protection.

Unbeknown to the protesters, King and the other leaders had planned it as a symbolic march until the order was lifted.

King asked people to stay until the legal issues were sorted out, but it was unrealistic for Stromquist to wait that long, and he returned to Yale two days later.

At Brown Chapel after the second march, Stromquist met 16-year-old Ola Mae Waller.

“She for me exemplified the kids who were in many ways the backbone for the local movement,” he said.

Although they met only briefly 50 years ago, and had not spoken in that time, The Daily Iowan spoke with Waller, now Waller-Willams, who was delighted at being reconnected with Stromquist.

When she was young, Waller-Williams said, she was a student who loved learning and math and could quote lines from her favorite Shakespeare plays, Othello and Hamlet. Nevertheless, she said, skipping school was something she believed she had to do.

In 1963, Waller-Williams began to sneak off to rallies at the age of 14, forbidden by her grandfather from going because of her age, but she continued to be active in the daily protests until her high school graduation in 1966.

Now 67, with a soft Southern accent and quick laugh, she recounts her memories of the events she calls “one of the most amazing times of my life.”

Although she said highlights included meeting new people from across the nation and being introduced to calculus, there were low points as well, such as seeing her brother get beaten by police and then the two of them being thrown in jail for a week.

Despite skipping school, she said, the teachers actually helped to organize the children.

“The children would gather together and the teachers would give us instructions in secrecy of how to get to [Brown Chapel],” she said. “But then the police started catching us and bringing us back to school. So we were told in secrecy by the teachers to go by the railroad tracks. Then the police came on horses.”

Nevertheless, the children persisted, and despite her age, the reason Waller-Williams said she and others did it was because no one else could.

“The parents were afraid to march, the teachers were afraid to march — so the children began to march,” she said.

The restraining order was eventually removed and on March 21, King and approximately 3,200 marchers set off again. On March 25, King successfully led 25,000 people to the Montgomery State Capitol, and five months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.

Despite the victories of the Civil Rights Era, many see similarities between the struggles of the past, and the present.

President Barack Obama will travel to on Saturday to Selma with thousands of others after being there just eight years prior for his first presidential campaign.

As executive director of KoNec Diversity and Cultural Awareness Program, every year, Henri Harper takes around 40 students from Iowa City to civil-rights areas such as Selma as a way to help them understand how the past affects the present.

“We can’t move forward as individuals if we don’t understand our past,” Harper said. “And until we start having an honest conversation about [race], we can’t deal with the past or the future, because we’re living in a maze of denial that we have these issues.”

Marian Coleman, the former equity director for the Iowa City School District who marched in the 1960s, said many issues she saw when she first moved to Iowa City in 1968, such as housing discrimination, lack of minority leadership, and learning deficits and gaps in schools, remain the same.

“When I sit down and look at what we are hoping to accomplish, I see so many things I saw in the ’60s that are still on the list of things that need to be dealt with,” she said.

Harper also said he sees similarities between then and now.

“People are still angry. People are angrier today than they were then, because we keep hearing all the time that things have changed,” he said.

The Daily Iowan masthead was changed to reflect the one used in 1965.

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