Bob Adelman recalls the fear the men, women and children felt as they marched in their Sunday best from Selma to Montgomery 50 years ago, a five-day, 54-mile quest to seek equal voting rights in a land of segregated lunch counters and bus seats.
Adelman, a photographer who chronicled the Civil Rights era, said it began to rain as the thousands made their way to the outskirts of Montgomery, the Alabama capital where a black woman named Rosa Parks had refused to surrender her seat to a white man a few years earlier. As the marchers approached Montgomery, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. began to sing, changing the lyrics to “We Shall Overcome” to “We Have Overcome.”
“It was probably the greatest display of the people’s right to protest that I’ve ever participated in,” said Adelman, who lives in Miami Beach.
As the country prepares for the King holiday on Monday — he would have turned 86 on Jan. 15 — many will witness those events in Alabama through the new film, Selma, starring David Oyelowo as King. Some South Floridians, however, took part in those battles or recalled watching on television the unfolding of a seminal moment in American history.
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The roots of the Selma-to-Montgomery march were sowed by the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old church deacon who was shot by a state trooper at a protest in Marion, Alabama, on the night of Feb. 18, 1965. Jackson was trying to protect his mother from the trooper’s nightstick. He died eight days later.
Outraged by Jackson’s death, John Lewis, then a leader with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, attempted to march with their followers from Selma to Montgomery on March 7. But as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge heading out of Selma, they faced a police blockade and were ordered to disperse. When they didn’t, state troopers and local law enforcement clubbed the marchers with nightsticks and gassed them with tear gas. The brutality became known as “Bloody Sunday.’’
Two days later, King, Lewis, Williams and Andrew Young led thousands to the Pettus Bridge but stopped, prayed and returned to Selma without crossing it.
After U.S. District Judge Frank Minis Johnson approved the march and enjoined Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s state troopers and local law enforcement from harrassing the marchers, 25,000 people set out to Montgomery on March 25, 1965. This time, they crossed the Pettus Bridge without incident and walked through the small towns of Alabama along U.S. Route 80, then known as Jefferson Davis Highway, named for the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Adelman said the mood of the marchers was upbeat. There were some disagreements in strategy — the younger members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had wanted to cross the Pettus Bridge on March 9, two days after Bloody Sunday, but King and SCLC leaders insisted they return to Selma and not provoke another police attack. They waited until the court order to march again.
One of the people called into service was former Florida Gov. LeRoy Collins, a Democrat who served from 1955-61. President Lyndon Johnson asked Collins to go to Selma after the events of “Bloody Sunday” were played out on the nightly news. Collins was working in Washington for the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, an agency created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
David Pearson, a longtime political publicist who now lives in Coral Gables, was the assistant director for public affairs at the agency. He recalled how he came into work one morning and Collins, who was the agency’s director, called him into the office.
“He told me the president wants me to go to Selma to see what I can do to keep the peace down there,” Pearson said.
Collins’ daughter, Jane Aurell, who lives in Tallahassee, said the family supported him.
“We knew that he was doing something the president asked him to do and he thought about it and wanted to do it,” Aurell said.
On March 9, Collins marched with King and the others to the Pettus Bridge, not crossing it. He then marched with the 25,000 a few weeks later.
When Collins ran for U.S. Senate in 1968, photos of him from the march, walking between King and Young, surfaced during the campaign. He lost to Republican Ed Gurney.
Aurell said she knew her father was satisfied with his decision.
“He would never have undone what he did,” she said.
For Earl Davis, 75, the Selma movie hit close to home as he witnessed and almost lost his life in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The bombing killed four young girls who were waiting for church services to begin. The Ku Klux Klan carried out the attack, which claimed the lives of Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, who were 14, and Denise McNair, who was 11.
Davis, who served as the head of multicultural programs for Miami-Dade Schools and was a part of team that helped integrate Miami schools in the 1970s, was an assistant music minister at the church and a high school music teacher in nearby Leeds, Alabama. He said he was in a Sunday school class when suddenly a loud bang shook the church. While most of the men in the room hit the ground, he jumped out of his chair, narrowly avoiding being hit by a chandelier that dropped where he was sitting.
Davis went home to call his mother in Louisiana and then returned to the church. As rescue workers surveyed the rubble in the church’s basement, they couldn’t find anything until they moved a charred, rubble-covered couch. There, they found the remains of the four girls.
“Normally I would be down there in the basement and wouldn’t go to Sunday school,” Davis said. “I would sit on the couch down there and set up the music and sort out the folders for the choir.”
He said he was so upset after the bombing that he couldn’t bear to attend the girls’ funerals even though he was asked to sing a solo. Three of the suspects in the bombing — Robert Chambliss, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry — were sentenced to life in prison many years later. (The first trial didn’t take place until 1977, 14 years after the bombing.) Chambliss and Cherry later died in prison.
Shortly thereafter, Davis moved to Los Angeles, where he encountered the Watts race riots of 1965. Davis said the bombing has stuck with him all these years later.
“You learn to try to just keep moving and keep going,” Davis said. “That was just something that you wondered where was the end, when was this going to stop?”
Brad Brown, a former NAACP executive board member in the Cape Cod, Massachusetts, chapter who now lives near Richmond Heights, remembers watching the march from his Massachusetts office. He had wanted to go, but his family had safety concerns, especially since he had marched on Washington to hear King’s “I Have A Dream’’ speech two years earlier.
So he sat by the phone in Cape Cod, while other members from his chapter marched, just in case something happened. He said Selma triggered memories of the efforts to secure voting rights for people of color.
“The movie caught the spirit and the courage of local people who had to live there; they couldn’t just show up for one day and then leave,” Brown said.
Davis said he sees parallels in the recent protests over police shootings of unarmed black men and the events depicted in Selma. The movie has helped his children and grandchildren understand his experiences.
“With all this happening, they feel the connection to the struggle that we had,’’ he said. “They’re asking some of the same questions that we asked.”
Shirley Johnson, an educator and former vice president of the Miami-Dade NAACP, said that although it’s painful to see young people today protesting, she’s encouraged by their dedication and commitment to speaking up.
“It was not necessarily the way that we did it, but it was the same cry that we’re not going to sit by and let you not listen to us,” Johnson said.
Johnson attended King’s March on Washington in 1963 as a 17-year-old, trekking by bus from Jackson, Mississippi, with her father and her 14-year-old sister Verna. After the march, Johnson dedicated herself to following in King’s example. In fact, Johnson, her daughter, Ebony, her grandson, Jayson, and a family friend named Francis attended the 50th anniversary commemorating the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 2013.
“I think of all those people who were mentors to me and how they stuck with us until changes were made,” Johnson said. “Where are the people pushing the next generation?”
Sherika Shaw, 26, is a part of that next generation. She serves as the Dream Defenders’ South Florida regional coordinator. She’s encouraged by how social media has helped spread the news about recent protests in major cities and small towns.
“I think the amazing thing that’s going on now is that I’m just one of many people doing this for multiple causes, whether that’s LGBT rights, against police brutality or even for immigration reform,” Shaw said.
Shaw was one of the main organizers of the protest that shut down a portion of Interstate-195 during Art Basel last December. She likens today’s movement to the Selma march, which ultimately led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“Through the marches we’ve gained a lot of new members and those members are doing work that’s leading to tangible changes,” Shaw said.
Johnson, who plans to see Selma with her family on Monday, said she remains hopeful despite recent racial tensions. She is hopeful she will see a world like the one she first heard King speak about more than 50 years ago from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
“My hope is we can truly become one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” Johnson said.
Open and closed on MLK Day
Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Here’s a list of what’s open and closed for the holiday:
Federal offices: Closed.
State offices: Closed.
Miami-Dade and Broward county offices: Closed.
Miami-Dade and Broward courts: Closed.
Public schools: Closed.
Post offices: Closed.
Stock markets: Closed.
Banks: Most are closed. Check with your bank for schedule.
Miami-Dade and Broward libraries: Closed.
Tri-Rail: Regular schedule.
Miami-Dade and Broward transit: Regular service for both counties.
Miami-Dade garbage collection: No collection.
Broward garbage collection: Regularly scheduled pick-up service.
FIU MLK Parade: The annual parade celebrates the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., 8 a.m.-1 p.m., starting at the intersection of Northwest 54th Street and 10th Avenue, in Miami. Free. 305-919-5817.
FIU MLK Evening with Engineers: Join Florida International University’s College of Engineering and featured speaker Ebony Daniels Sanon for an evening of discussion centered around King’s life and legacy; 6-8 p.m., Florida International University College of Engineering and Computing, 10555 W. Flagler St., West Miami-Dade. Free. 305-348-0548, cec.fiu.edu.