Remembering Selma

As part of the 60th anniversary of the event, the film Selma chronicled the 1965 march for voting rights led by Martin Luther King, Jr. among others. While the film is an artistic representation of the event, there were many who were actually on the ground at that time who still remember the events vividly. Dr. Richard Eslinger (STH S.T.B. 1965, GRE Ph.D. 1970) was one such person. He graciously shared his account with us, and it sheds a great deal of light on a very prophetic time:

What I recall is that after Bloody Sunday and MLK, Jr.’s appeal for clergy and seminarians to come to Selma in solidarity and support, I called an informal meeting of the BUST Student Council and we met on either Monday or Tuesday (I was student government president in ’64-’65).  We agreed to various aspects of the arrangement and, yes, you were in the lead with travel arrangements.  (I do recall our dealings with Greyhound, a rather anxious bunch of folks!)  What was hugely gratifying was the response,…we filled those two buses by that Friday.  I don’t recall who was “Bus Captain of # 2 bus, but I was up front in #1.SelmaHeschelMarch

One of the most unforgettable aspects of that week of preparation was my conversation with “The Dean.”  I had made an appointment with Muelder to inform him of our plans–not sure, but I think that was on Wednesday.  Dorothy Lord allowed me in to the Dean’s office at the appointed time and I gave him a brief version of our plans and the duration of our journey south.  Walter paused–I guess I was expecting some kind of “attaboy”–and he asked me a question:  “Have you made arrangements with your professors for the work you will miss?”  I mumbled something about how we would all make those academic arrangements before leaving for Selma.  My many reflections on that meeting have left me with two thoughts:  On one hand, Walter Muelder would have been keenly disappointed if his students were not responding to King’s urging.  On the other hand, he was Dean and was not about to let anything, even such a trip, to excuse our less than total commitment to our academic priorities at BUST.

On the trip down, I recall the hospitality of Clark College in Atlanta as they opened their men’s dorm to us for a brief rest and wondrous showers.  Then, before heading off west to Selma, we were invited to that chicken dinner at Paschals restaurant.  Back on the buses–in days before the Interstate between Atlanta and Montgomery–I recall talking to the driver as we sped along that two-lane, not even pausing when we bounced over a railroad crossing.  We arrived in Montgomery about 4:30 a.m. and the driver told me, “You all might want to just remain here on the bus.”  We did, in that humid, very tense early dawn.  (I thought we were as exposed and vulnerable as we could get during that pause in the trip.  Come to find out, Greyhound was scurrying to find the drivers who would take us over to Selma.)

When we got to Selma, things started happening fast.  Deposited at Brown Chapel A.M.E. (where we would bunk), we were told to remain in the downstairs hall for training in non-violent resistance.  The march that we joined (either Monday or Tuesday) was down to the courthouse.  We were told that this was to be a silent march–no talking or other noise–and we would be marching four abreast, “With our women on the inside and men on each side.”  I will never forget the sound of those hundreds of feet as we marched along to our destination.  Marching with me was a girl of about twelve, her head still wrapped with white bandage from the beating she received on the Pettus Bridge the week before.  (I had a sudden realization earlier this week about the current age of this marcher.  She would be about sixty-two!  But in my memory, she has remained that incredibly courageous girl of twelve, head held high, wearing her bandages as a sign of absolute commitment to her cause.)  On my left, though, was an Alabama State Trooper car following us slowly.  I looked at the troopers–my maternal grandfather and two cousins back in Maryland were all state police–and the back seat officer was beating his riot stick on the B pillar of the car, leering at me.  One other memory is indelible related to that first march for us.  About half way through the speeches on the courthouse steps, we all heard a noise behind us that sounded for the world like the hoof beats of mounted state troopers.  We turned, but what was approaching was a standard variety Deep South downpour, the advancing rim of the big raindrops pounding on the street!  When we returned after the march, we went straight to First Baptist Church and joined in the most ecstatic celebration I have ever experienced.  The freedom songs resounded from the church and the congregation was charged with the Holy Spirit.

In retrospect after fifty years, our Selma trip has become woven in with all the other aspects of the BUST “curriculum.”  It was “very meet, right, and our bounden duty” to accept Dr. King’s plea. We had covenanted to be there with those seeking justice, we had concurred on non-violent resistance, and we were even willing to be sacrificed to the cause.  It was that important.