MONTGOMERY, Ala. (CNS) — On the property of St. Jude’s Church, just outside Montgomery, marchers nearing the end of the civil rights march from Selma in 1965 heard a concert and slept on the athletic fields.
Fifty years later, the parish commemorated its role in the march’s end with an evening Mass March 24, the night before ceremonies culminated at the state Capitol.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, in a statement at the end of Mass, urged those in the congregation to “use the energy of this anniversary to finish the work of healing divisions that remain and ending the cycles of violence that grip too many of our communities.”
“With firm faith and trust in a gracious and loving God, we must march on,” said the archbishop, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
He noted that just being on the property of this parish near where the historic march ended, participants cannot help but be “flooded with vivid memories.”
“We must never forget the images associated with this historic march. They are pictures of men and women standing as still as stone against a coming rush of violent resistance during the first attempt to march,” he said. “They are images of solidarity, of complete strangers coming together all along the way for a noble purpose, at times literally binding up one another’s wounds.”
He also pointed out that on the grounds of St. Jude’s parish are images of “compassionate souls creating space for rest and hospitality for the weary when many others would not take the risk.”
The archbishop, who concelebrated the Mass that evening with Mobile Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi, said that the march 50 years ago “shed needed light on the toll of racism, and, for many, put a human face on those impacted by its evils.”
He also pointed out that the “perseverance, sacrifice and peaceful witness against violence” of the marchers “marked a turning point in the national conscience and conversation.”
“Today, we honor the sacrifice of many brave and often unnamed heroes — most of deep faith, including a number of Catholics — who worked for years to ensure equal access to the benefits of democracy, benefits that include the right to vote and fully participate in the processes that safeguard the common good. Those who marched did so as part of a poignant chapter in a long struggle.”
He praised the 1965 marchers saying their sacrifices brought about real and lasting change even though more work remains in “transforming hearts and minds.”
In 1965, there were three marches, which ultimately led to the Aug. 6, 1965, passage of the federal Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.
On March 7, 1965, local civil rights activists led about 600 marchers in a peaceful procession from Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge toward Montgomery.
They risked imprisonment and injury to protest infringement of voting rights against African-Americans in Selma and the brutal murder of a demonstrator by a state trooper a month earlier. March 7 came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” as police — some on horseback — released tear gas and beat some of the marchers over the heads with truncheons.
The Rev. Martin Luther King led the second march, which took place March 9, 1965. He galvanized more than 2,000 people to participate. They included ministers, priests, nuns and rabbis around the country who answered a call to join him.
Rev. King turned the march back at the bridge, after time spent in prayer. He did so at the urging of members of Congress who wanted federal protection for the demonstrators but had not yet secured it.
A third march started from Selma March 21, 1965, with federal protection for participants. Walking between seven and 17 miles a day, and camping along the way, the marchers reached the steps of the Capitol in Montgomery March 25, 1965. The crowd grew to 25,000 on the last day.
This year, on March 25, thousands of people marched to the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery commemorating that last leg of the 1965 march.
The daughters of Rev. King, the slain civil rights leader, and the late George Wallace, four-time governor of Alabama who came to embody resistance to the civil rights movement, were scheduled to address marchers during the afternoon.
Bernice King planned to read the “How Long, Not Long” speech her father gave 50 years ago and Peggy Wallace Kennedy was scheduled to talk about her father who initially opposed civil rights but later apologized.
According to The Associated Press, marchers at the Capitol waved signs reading “The March Continues” and “Don’t Let the Dream Die.”