Monday, March 16, 2015

Selma Alabama, 1965, According to The Rev Robert Leonard Powers

"Basement in Selma" Franklin McMahon (1965) - illustration for Look Magazine [RLP standing at center]

I traveled to Selma Alabama this past weekend to meet my two older sisters Sarah and Rachel, to witness the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. We went, because in 1965 our father, Robert L Powers, answered Martin Luther Kings' call for white clergy members to joined the black protestors in a march to Montgomery. I've posted about my father in the pasthe was an ordained Episcopalian Priest, although by the time I was born he was no longer wearing the collar, and was instead practicing psychology. My father passed away two years ago, and my sisters and I went to memorialize him. I have been thinking about what I might say about our time in Selma, about my father, about race, equality, and voting rights in America (no small beer in that list). But yesterday my brother-in-law reminded me that five years ago I asked my father to email me an account, in his own words, of his time in Selma. It took me only a few seconds to find after being reminded of it. The comedy (which I think my dad would have appreciated) is that my sisters and I spent our weekend together struggling to remember what we could of our fathers visit: when did he arrive? how long did he stay? who did he meet and see? The discovery of his email is exciting for me, but I wanted to share it as a reminder to those who have not been to Selma, this is a jubilee year, just because you missed being there when President Obama spoke (my sisters and I did too - we made our plans well in advance of Obama and arrived to late to see the President), does not mean you have missed taking part. Even if you father or mother wasn't in Selma 50 years ago, it is never too late to answer King's call. I am very happy my sisters and I did. What follows is my father's unedited email, sent to me on March 12th, 2010.
My sisters Sarah, Rachel and I crossing The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama, March 8th, 2015

Hi John – Sorry I missed your call the other day. Here is what I (unevenly) remember (in outline) about my trip to Selma:

Pettus Bridge police “massacre” was on a Sunday. At home, in Chicago, TV was full of it, for us, and for everyone to see. Disgusting men on horseback riding down on unarmed, elderly and children, and beating them with the kind of extra long billy sticks they used to terrify (never mind injure and disable) a crowd into a kind of stampede. (As I later learned people were then herded like cattle back to the black enclave in which three brick churches and an array of brick public housing marked their separation from the larger city. They crowded into one of the churches, and the police threw lighted firecrackers in through the open windows to heighten the sense of defenselessness and terror. I was also told that older women who fell in the melee had their skirts pulled up, and lighted cigarettes pressed against their buttocks.)

Monday evening after dark -- reported but not filmed for TV: a young Unitarian divinity student, who was active in efforts to achieve black voter registration, was cornered and beaten to death by white thugs armed with baseball bats. They crushed his skull and left him to die. I don’t know whether any of them was ever apprehended or brought to trial for this cowardly atrocity.  “Father, forgive; they know not what they do.”

Tuesday: I went next door to (Father) Bob Taylor’s house (then the Director of St. Leonard’s ministries to prisoners and parolees) to talk with him and his wife Carvel and to make a case for our going to Selma in round collars to defy the thuggish effort to intimidate any assertion of holiness in support of justice (to paraphrase the way I saw it). They readily agreed. Bob had been with the other clergy (black and white) on the so-called “Prayer Pilgrimage” by Greyhound Bus from New Orleans to Detroit, where the Episcopal Church triennial meeting was to be held. He was arrested, with the others, and put in jail for “disturbing the peace” for sitting together at a soda fountain counter and asking to be served. (This was a few years before Selma. I was Priest-in-Charge of the Episcopal Church Center in the Loop, and president of the local chapter of the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity. This was not so much a “power” base as a PR platform which I was able to use. I had a letter printed in the TRIBUNE, in which I asked, “What kind of ‘peace’ is it that can be disturbed by a small group in clerical collars wanting to be served at a bus-stop lunch-counter?” Georgie-Ann Geyer interviewed me for a piece she was writing for the Trib on the whole struggle, and called me back to read what she had written so that I could correct whatever she had gotten wrong. I had tremendous respect for her ever after.

Tuesday (cont’d): I reported back to Vaso, who was then 5½ or 6 months pregnant with Rachel. We were living on a very marginal income while I was studying in the U of Chicago Divinity School, where I subsequently took the Master’s degree. Vaso, who shared my sense of outrage and urgency over the way things were going down in Selma, agreed that we should borrow the money to cover the cost of air travel, etc., a mighty brave position for a pregnant lady who would be left with very little if I had been knocked down and killed or disabled in Selma. I have never forgotten the sense of solidarity, mutual support and admiration, and marital fidelity we enjoyed in that moment, undiminished by our subsequent shortcomings. I still cherish the memory of it. I was 35 years old, and nowhere in terms of career or accomplishment that I could see as a foundation to build on. We walked by Faith and not by sight, which, it may be hard for people to believe, can be exhilarating and liberating.

Wednesday:  We flew to Selma, along with hundreds of other clergy of all denominations, religious sisters, and others. Someone in the “Leadership” had managed to arrange housing for us. I stayed in the apartment of an elderly black woman who had been on the Pettus bridge with her 9-year-old grand-daughter. The woman had vacated to double-up with someone else, and left the child to keep house and look after us (or me, for I can’t remember where Bob and Carvel stayed). I reproach myself, 45 years later, for not knowing or remembering the names of my caretakers. The child was marked by the incomprehensible scale of the horror, and would not venture out of doors. She swept and cooked and silently did what was required, but did not speak to me, at least not a word that I can remember.

Wednesday night: Jam-packed church full of the whole gamut of civil-rights characters, mixed with the common people of the place. I was squeezed in next to an older black man, about my height, with the giant, broken hands of a laborer, with whom I held hands in the cross-breasted custom used when singing “We Shall Overcome.” It was a holy communion, and I feel moved in the depths now as I tell you about this protected white cleric with smooth and scholarly palms, connected to that brave and basic working man, whose vestments were bib overalls and denim. My brother, my further self, unsurrendered to the evil.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday: The days blur. Your question was whether I was “with” Dr. King in Selma. Not yet. As I recall he did not come until Monday or Tuesday.
Everybody else did. I met Walter Ruether, the UAW hero. Archbishop Iakovos (who had baptized your older sister, Sarah, another story) appeared on the altar-platform of the church for one of the rallies of song and inspirational witness. The crossed arms was tricky for him, as he propped his Archiepiscopal Staff in a bobbling arrangement between his elbows, back and forth. He was grinning, as if no liturgy he had ever known was as wild and as much fun as this one. A beautiful sight in  his tall crown and veil, and a worthy successor to the Apostles.

During the days we had many, many meetings and carefully-programmed marches through the enclave to the police barricade blocking access to the outside world. We would sing and clap and carry on in the face of unsmiling, and doubtlessly unhappy, cops brought in from every sheriff’s department and state troopers barracks in Alabama. We would also spread out, left and right from the barricades along the bank of a ravine of some depth, like a moat but grassy and without water. Police spread themselves out along the facing bank. TV cameras stayed clustered at the barricade, of course, which added to our risk. I once saw a rather young religious sister, who must have been trained for the event by playing touch-football, dash down the bank on our side and up the other to where she had spotted an opening in the police line. Following her apparent training and previous practice at the game, she was “running for daylight” as they say. The cop at the top of the bank on the other side was playing by his own more brutal rules, and greeted her with his baton held at either end, horizontally, striking her with a powerful blow across her shoulder and breast. She fell in a disarray of wimple and habit and crucifix and beads, acting out the sacrifice they symbolized. Although she was clearly very sorely hurt, she picked herself up and limped back down through the declivity, now our personal “vale of tears” and up to our line, where she was gathered in by several other sisters. I remember thinking what a shame it was that the TV cameras were not on the spot to record the spectacle, which would have been shown everywhere on Sunday, and prompted every wavering Irish Catholic in Boston and elsewhere to enlist in the struggle.

Sunday: The Leadership negotiated for us to go out in small groups to attend services in the local churches. We walked past the usual denominational division of Methodist, Baptist, etc. on our way to the Episcopal parish church.  Big men with grim and forbidding glares stood on the front steps of all of them as we passed on our way to meet our own group of tough protectors of the sacred precincts, big men in suits, perhaps members of the Vestry. Not allowed to come in, we knelt on the pavement outside for prayers, where the news photographers did their work, spreading the image of us far and wide. The BuffaloNY (my birth place) COURIER-EXPRESS ran a shot of us, on, I think, its front page. I have a copy framed on my wall, recording my 15 seconds of fame. Carvel wore a wide-brimmed hat she had managed to pack among her things: “I’m from Virginia,” she said. “I know how to go to church in the South!”

What I remember most about the church visit, however, was the presence of a local lady, elegant and ramrod straight, a member of that parish, accompanied by what appeared to be her professionally-dressed son. She took on the men with crossed arms and let them know that, if we were forbidden to enter, then she would stand outside with us. Courage! I wish I knew her name; I bless her memory and give thanks for her witness. We would return to the comforts of our homes in the North; she would stay to bear whatever slings and arrows her racist community might hurl (or, might not dare to; she was a person of some obvious status and distinction). The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, it was said, in the time of the ancient persecutions. The spirit of the courageous faithful is the Church’s continuing inspiration. When I struggle to maintain my ragged fidelity, to the amusement perhaps and the non-comprehension of many, even among those who love me, it is to her and the whole “blessed company of all faithful people” that I am committed, and from whom I will not, God helping me, turn away.

There is so much more to talk about and to tell, but most is blurred into a mélange of recollection. Yes, Dr. King came and inspired us in a massive rally in front of the City Hall. I found myself standing next to Harvey Cox, a friend and classmate at Yale who went on to be an outstanding theologian. “Hi Harvey,” I murmured. “Hi Bob,” he replied. Then we were separated in the fluidity of the masses around us. A lovely moment, a precursor of the Apocalypse, perhaps.

So, yes, I was “with” Dr. King in Selma, along with a great assembly that was beyond numbering, and that represented the Eucharistic invocation and joining together with “Angels and Archangels and all the Company of Heaven” to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts! The whole earth is filled with his Glory.”

I am a proud father to have a son who wanted to know about this, and who encouraged me to make this record.

Love is the Lord of Heaven and Earth, and I love you.


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