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The writings of author, therapist, and priest Robert Warren Cromey.

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Sunday, February 08, 2015

SELMA THE MOVIE, Personal recollection

The Selma, Alabama, March

Hundreds of clergy and lay people went to Selma, Alabama, after seeing a peaceful march beaten back with horrific cruelty by white police officers.  On March 7, 1965, the nation and world saw it happen on TV.  Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a message to the clergy of the US to come and support him and the drive for Negro voting rights.

A number of San Francisco clergy met and decided to heed the call.  I bought tickets for three of us on credit from a travel agent friend of mine. Don Ganoung, Kit Carson, Lane Barton and I, along with Cecil Williams and Lewis Durham flew to Atlanta, Georgia, changed planes for Montgomery, Alabama. We all had wives and children. It was scary but we knew we just had to go. From Montgomery we took a bus down the red dirt road to the small town of Selma.  We rode in the same van with James Reeb, who was to lose his life that night, beaten to death by white ruffians in downtown Selma after eating dinner in a restaurant.

It was like alumni day.  I met dozens of Episcopal clergy from The General Theological Seminary where I had gone to school.  Hundreds of clergy in our dark suits and clerical collars came.  We went the Brown Chapel to hear King speak.  He was fiery and passionate.  An assistant interrupted him.  He left in mid sermon saying someone had been injured.  It was James Reeb, the Unitarian minister from Boston.

Kit Carson and I were assigned to sleep at a Black family’s poor but tidy home. We slept in a double bed. When we awakened the family had gone. We noted there was no food in the house.  We walked back downtown for breakfast.  When we told people that we had walked back and forth on that lonely dirt road, we found out we were lucky not to have been ambushed, beaten or shot.

All day we stood around and chatted with friends old and new.  We awaited King’s order to march a thousand clergy and lay people to Montgomery as planned.  I sat on a bench on the side of Brown Chapel. King and Ralph Abernathy and two other men walked by on the way to church.  I stood and we had a brief conversation and a shake of the hands and they hurried into the church.

Bishop Pike came to Selma for a few hours and spoke to the assembled crowd. He had given a lecture at a nearby university. He had to leave that afternoon.

I was also a stringer for the San Francisco Examiner.  I called Lisa Hobbs, a reporter at the time, a couple of times and told her about what was going on in the town.  She took down the chronology and then said, “Tell me some of the colors you see.”  I saw green grass, brown faces smiling and afraid, some red rooftops and a black telephone in my hand. She wanted some color and pictures for her story.

That evening when it was dark, the line of March was formed.  Kit and I stood next to each other while the TV cameras lighted us. The click and flash of 35 mm’s seemed to go on and on.  The police chief came on the bullhorn and told us to disperse.  No one moved.  After fifteen minutes he came on the horn again and told us to disperse or we would be arrested.  A third time he came on and told the TV cameras to turn off their lights.  And they did.  Now a thousand people stood in the dark, facing policemen with clubs.  We knew what had happened a few days before.  I was never so frightened in my life as I was then. Kit and I clung to each other.  We waited another twenty minutes. 

Dr. King came on the speaker system and told us that the march would take place later in the week.  He had reached an agreement with the authorities and another march would take place in a few days with police protection.  This we had come for was cancelled.  I felt great relief and some disappointment.

We retraced our steps and the next day flew back to San Francisco safe and sound and excited beyond measure by the events of the last three days.

A week later another huge number of people went to Selma and did the march the entire way to Montgomery, Alabama.  After that March President Lyndon Johnson launched comprehensive civil rights legislation that assured African Americans the right to vote and invalidated all laws that discriminated against people of color.

When I returned to San Francisco, I appeared on a number of radio and TV talk shows. I was invited to a number of churches tell of our experience. It was amazing to me how little we knew of the suffering Black Americans in the South. Many did not know that black people could not vote, were prevented from working in many companies and had to live in he poorest parts of town.  They did not know that most African-Americans lived in fear of white people all the time.

Why did I go and risk my neck? I was married to Lillian and we had three young daughters. If I had been hurt or killed I would have jeopardized their future, but I was aware of the pain and sorrow white America caused African Americans.  The sharpest learning came from reading Gunnar Myrdal’s book The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy examining the terrible facts of racial discrimination.  I had read it in college. When Lillian and I took a bus trip to Hampton, Virginia in the mid-fifties, we saw drinking fountains and toilets marked for colored.  Our friend Vernon Bodien was the white chaplain to the all-Black Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia. In his home we met professors and lawyers who could not teach in white universities, had to ride in the back of the bus and were in constant fear of their lives and those of their children.

I read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I was tremendously moved and outraged that fellow Americans were treated so miserably by the white majority.  Newspapers and magazines in the 50’s began to cover the blatant discrimination in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

My upbringing in the church had made its mark.  I knew a few black clergy whom I adored.  The late Fr. Fergus Fulford, an African-American, was humorous, thoughtful and passionate about the need for black rights.  In the summers of 1951 and ‘52 I worked at Camp DeWolfe in Wading River on Long Island.  There were black youngsters whom I got to know and like.  I taught some of them to overcome their fear of the water and learn to swim.

Going to Selma just seemed like the right thing to do. I felt it important to bear physical witness that we white liberals could act as well as talk about freedom for all people.  My wife was very liberal and supported my going, though it must have been hard for her, as we had three young daughters.   There was a certain amount of danger for me.  But her support was important.

P.S. In the wonderful 2014 movie Selma the writers moved scenes around and episodes heightened dramatically. The movie did real justice to the events in Selma in 1965.


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