1960s Activism

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UMD Students and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Marches

 

Selma march  
Over 3,000 people marched arrived in Selma on March 25, 1965. (Photo by Matt Herron, Take Stock Images)  

Several UMD students joined the Selma March in 1965 to support constitutional voting rights for black Americans. The 54-mile March from Selma to Montgomery took place between March 21 and March 25, led by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists including Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, James Orange, and Diane Nash.

Many of the participants were from UMD, traveling alone or in groups. One group, Orlis Fossum, Kenner Christiansen, Deanna Johnson, and Darlene "Elizabeth" Jesse (formerly Darlene Keeler), along with one of UMD's campus ministers Brooks Anderson, left Duluth on March 19, 1965. (Read their reflections below). They weren't originally going to Alabama. They first traveled to Jackson, Mississippi. They brought a cash donation from UMD for the Mississippi civil rights movement, and their intentions were to work on projects including school desegregation and voter registration. When they arrived in Jackson, they met Charles Evers, president of the Mississippi branch of the NAACP, who encouraged the group to join the marchers in Selma instead.

The group traveled with a large truck filled with donations of food, educational materials, and other items. UMD students donated some of the food as did Duluth's Temple Israel and Duluth citizens. The donations went to communities in Jackson and Holmes County, Mississippi.

The students were able to march and finish Thursday, March 25 along with over 3,000 others at the capitol steps in Montgomery.

After the trip, the group members recounted their experiences in a UMD Statesmen story. Five months after the March, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with Martin Luther King Jr. at his side.

Statesman Article  
Download PDF of the April 2, 1965 Statesman.  

Darlene "Elizabeth" Jesse (formerly Darlene Keeler) '65
Reflections on One of the Most Significant Events of My Life.
In the late 50s, I first became aware of racism while I watching the televised accounts of the angry mobs of whites jeering the African-American students who were trying to integrate public high schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was not until I was a student at UMD and served on the Human Relations Council that I had an aha moment while listening to John Griffin, author of Black Like Me, present at UMD. He relayed his experiences in the American south as a white man who dyed his skin to appear as an African American. His speech had a profound influence on me, and I became more aware of the evils of racism and felt compelled to do something. That night, after his presentation, I was introduced to Reverend Brooks Anderson, one of the university chaplains, who was driving to Mississippi with four students to support the civil rights efforts of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). UMD students and faculty had collected food and money to be delivered to Charles Evers, the brother of slain civil rights worker, Medgar Evers. Brooks and the students were escorting drivers of the tractor trailer truck filled with canned goods and food and taking the check to Charles Evers. I immediately asked if I could join them.

When we arrived in Selma, I had my first experience of being in a crowd with more blacks than whites. But unlike racism that African-Americans experienced from whites, we were warmly welcomed by the black residents of Selma and the other marchers. I recall feeling the power of Dr. King’s speech while standing in front of the Brown Chapel of the A.M.E. Church in Selma.

During the march, I never felt afraid, even when white people called us derogatory names and offered threats from the side of the road. But, I was young and the Alabama National Guard had been nationalized by President Johnson to protect us. Instead of fear, I felt exhilarated by the strength and power of the march. We walked arm in arm singing the words, We shall overcome, Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me, and Before I'd be a slave I'll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free. The songs, new friendships, and our voices joined together to protest that African-American did not have full rights to vote and were discriminated against at every level.

Thousands of us held hands and sang when we reached the Alabama state capitol prior to the speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. Listening to Dr. King at the Chapel and at the end of the march was an incredible experience. Through this experience, I learned the power of speaking up and uniting. Our voices were heard. We made a difference.

At signing of the Voting Rights Act on August 6, President Lyndon Johnson said, "With the outrage of Selma still fresh, we enacted one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom. The Voting Rights Act will ensure Negroes the right to vote."

The following summer, July 1965, I joined with 22 white students from the University of Minnesota and traveled to Fort Valley, Georgia, to promote voter registration, education, and community benefit projects. Our project was called the Summer Community Organization and Political Education (SCOPE) Project of the (SCLC). I shared a room with a another student in the home of Ms. Edna Rumph, who worked as a housekeeper at Fort Valley College. The four children who lived with her picked peaches in the fields from dawn to dusk. They returned with coins they received for payment at the end of the day tied up in a red bandanna (about 20 cents an hour).

Orlis Fossum '65
Recollections on the Trip to Selma
I was invited to join the small group driving down from Duluth to Jackson, Miss., on behalf of the city of Duluth to present food and money collected from locals in Duluth to present to the local black community of Jackson. As I was on the Religious Council of UMD, I was asked to join the group. I believe that we were six people in Brooks Anderson's car driving down U.S. 61 during the Spring recess of UMD in April 1965. When we arrived in Jackson, we went to the office of Charles Evers, (brother of slain Medgar Evers) to present the check and the food arriving by semi.

I recall that we stayed in private homes in the black section of Jackson. Coming from Minnesota, I was struck by all the little houses resting on bricks and blocks. None of them would have survived Minnesota winters! I don't remember feeling any concern, although we certainly noticed that there were no white people in that section of town. I recall that I stayed in the home of an elderly lady. I still recall how similar this lady was to my grandmother in her manner, her welcome, and her hospitality.

We were asked by Charles Evers to accompany him to Selma for the upcoming march. We held a group meeting to discuss whether we should join this group, as we were all in the same car, and needed to have group agreement. This was after the Sunday (now called Bloody Sunday) some weeks prior which was so repressive and which captured so much news coverage. I'm not sure we made the political connections between the first march with the physical violence and the march we were encouraged to join. I drove the car in which Charles Evers was sitting in the back seat from Jackson all the way to Selma. I remember all the state troupers located along the route and how frightened I was for our three car convoy. We knew it would be very bad for the group if an official stopped us because he determined that we were speeding or driving erratically. I can almost still see Charles Evers waving at all the state troupers along the road.

We did manage to get to Selma and Brooks parked his blue station wagon directly across from Brown Memorial Church. Three of us slept in the back of the car with state trooper cars on either side. We could see some of the leaders on the steps of the church before the march began, but could not hear what was being said to the masses of people waiting for direction.

Brooks Anderson
How the Trip Changed Me
The hardest part was to experience the hatred and ugliness that we only knew as a distant abstraction. In a small way ,we felt the fear that Black Americans lived with constantly. We learned to see a police car as an object of fear. They were not there to protect us, but to protect a way of life, and we were a threat to that way of life.

The best part of our experience was the warm acceptance by the black people we met. I expected there would be resentment that we went there to stir up a hornets nest and then return home. Instead, we were treated like heroes. It was embarrassing and humbling. To a great degree, the civil rights movement was sung. Music powered the movement.

Another plus was to accidentally have the privilege of being a part of an important moment of history.

I met Viola Liuzo, a white homemaker from Detroit, the day before she was murdered. I had lent my car to march officials. When it was being returned to me, I asked if we could give her a ride from the Montgomery Improvement Association to where she was staying. En route, I got to hear a bit of her life story and the work she was doing in Montgomery.

How did this trip change me? In 2000, I wrote an extended letter to my grandchildren from a federal prison where I was serving a three-month sentence for actions to close the School of Americas at Fort Benning. The point of the writing was to try help them understand why I was there. The Selma march experience emerged as a major factor in directing my life toward peace and justice activism.

There was power in the civil rights movement, both the ugliness and the level of hatred it confronted, and the level of commitment needed to bring about change.

Written by Cheryl Reitan, February, 2015.

UMD News Articles | News Releases
Cheryl Reitan, creitan@d.umn.edu


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