Civil Rights History

Edmundite Missions and the Struggle for Racial Justice in Selma

Over forty years ago—March 7, 1965—Selma, AL attracted national attention because of the clash between state troopers and voting rights demonstrators at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Edmundite Missionaries had been working in Selma for 28 years before the events that led up to the Selma-to-Montgomery March and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

KKK Warns Catholic Missions

Segregationists had looked on the Edmundite Missions with suspicion, even though the priests and brothers did not preach Civil Rights or agitate against racial injustice. But in the context of the Jim Crow segregated South, even something as simple as calling blacks “Mister” and “Missus” seemed radical to many local whites.

The re-enactment of the march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge has become an annual event. Above is the 1975 re-enactment, in which Mrs. Coretta Scott King (in white topcoat) and Father James Robinson, S.S.E., joined with many of the original marchers in crossing the bridge saluting the Civil Rights movement.

Thus Edmundite Missionaries woke up one morning in 1950 to find signs posted on the Chapel, the Missions House and the Good Samaritan Hospital, all warning “THE K-K-K IS LOOKING AT YOU!”

Mission Associates Dr. Isabel Dumont and Joan Mulder took the notice in stride. They simply wrote at the bottom of the side, “Keep Looking!!” and went on about their business of tending the sick.

Leaders of Their Own

In a 1940 newsletter, Father Frank Casey lamented that Blacks had been taught to look to the white race for their leaders. “Hence, in promoting devotion to Blessed Martin de Porres, we ... teach all who come under our influence that their own race is fully capable of producing great men.!”

When Selma Blacks began producing leaders of their own, the Missions refused to join local whites in “black-listing” them. During the 1950s , Edwin Moss, the Missions’ Production Manager, became involved in a legal case questioning the exclusion of blacks from Dallas County juries. Local officials asked Missions Director Father Eymard Galligan to fire Moss, but he refused. This freedom from economic reprisals enabled Mr. Moss to play a key role in the struggle for equal rights that led up to the dramatic events of 1965.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., meets with Father John Crowley, Director of the Edmundite Missions.

The Long Path to Peace

Like many, the Missions hoped that progress could be achieved in Selma without violence or confrontations. Father Maurice Ouellet, pastor of St. Elizabeth‘s Mission from 1961-1965, worked closely with Ed Moss to try to open lines of communication between the races. They approached the city’s elected leaders, its business community and its white ministers. Some moderate whites admitted the need for change, but were too frightened of the White Citizens Council—a white supremacy group that used violence to intimidate—to say so publicly.

After demonstrations began in late 1963, Father Ouellet spoke out openly against the brutal tactics used by County Sheriff Jim Clark. This made him very unpopular in the white community, and caused a number of threats against his life.

When Dr. King brought national attention to Selma in 1965, Missions Director Father John Crowley took out a full-page ad in the FebruarJournaly 7 Selma Times to outline “The Path to Peace in Selma.”

“We do not have simple solutions to the problems which confront the community,” he said. “We realize their complexity. However, we know from personal experience the truth of the Negro claims, and the evil effects of discrimination on his body, mind and spirit. That is why we support wholeheartedly these non-violent efforts to obtain their full rights as Americans.”

Violence broke out in nearby Marion on February 18, when a state trooper shot Jimmy Lee Jackson. Jackson was brought to Selma for treatment, since our Edmundite Good Samaritan Hospital had facilities the Marion hospital did not. Despite all our doctors could do, Jackson died on February 26. It was in response to this young demonstrator’s death that Dr. King called for a march from Selma to Montgomery.

On March 7, 1965, the brutal confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge caught the attention of the nation. Scores of wounded marchers poured into the emergency room at Good Samaritan Hospital, where doctors, nurses and Sister worked around the clock to meet the crisis.

Synethia Perkins, sister of Selma’s first black Mayor James Perkins, was born on Jan. 15, 1965, at the Edmundite’s Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma, sharing a birthday with Dr. Martin Luther King. Here Sisters of St. Joseph, Rochester–Sister Josepha holds baby Synethia as King looks on. Sister Felicitas (Mary Weaver) is in the middle and Sister Mary Paul at the far right.

Violence Breaks Out

Within a week, your Missions and Hospital were swamped not with victims, but with volunteers—white clergymen, sisters and laymen who had come to Selma to stand with Dr. King against racism. Fathers Crowley, Ouellet and the rest trained them as best they could in the time available, so that the newcomers would not make the kind of mistakes that would endanger themselves and others.

March to Montgomery

The March to Montgomery finally took place under federal protection on March 21-24. The publicity generated by the march brought on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which did more to transform Southern politics and culture than any other piece of legislation.

Father Ouellet left Selma in June of 1965, on orders from Archbishop Toolen of Mobile, who was angered by Father’s identification with the marchers and wanted a quieter response. When he said goodbye to his weeping parishioners, Father urged them to remain loyal to the Church and to their dreams. “All that we do we must do with love,” he told them. “Let there be no hatred, let there be no bitterness, and let there be no desire for any revenge.”

Reconciliation was a long time in coming, but the Missions continued to work quietly for reconciliation and racial progress. The “Selma Accords of 1972,” which brought about significant progress in the city, was negotiated in part by Assistant Missions Director Father James Robinson.

The citizens of Selma have come a long way since 1937, when Edmundite Missionaries began their work here. We are proud to have been part of their progress.