About this time every year, I pull out the clips of my father’s coverage of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1965. I do it to remember this milestone in American history but also because I am proud of my father for being there.
Nothing in my celebration of my father’s clips is meant to diminish the courage and conviction and struggle of the people he went to Selma to report on — the civil rights leaders, the students, the church people and other Americans who came from around the country after “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965, to stand against racism and hate and violence — to stand for freedom. But I am proud of my father’s reporting and his efforts to understand and portray the thinking in Selma in 1965 — the ” segregationists” as well as the black and white demonstrators. And today I am also taking note of the license given to him by the San Francisco Chronicle — freedom to report and write in a remarkably candid style.
His reporting for the Chronicle makes me think of blood, bones and faith: the old poison of racism, its prevalence in 1965 after at least 100 years of political struggle and, when you think about it, its all-too-common continuation today; and the courage and hope of the demonstrators. I have to ask if the hate and hope of 1965 resonate as sharply now as they did in my father’s reporting back then. Neither I nor my father indict all of Selma, (where I, in fact, had relatives, who were good people). Selma became a symbol. “We’re trying to point up Selma as a symbol of the injustices that exist across the land,” the Rev. Don Schilling, a Presbyterian pastor in Marin City, Calif., told my father.
My father went to Selma for the third and conclusive march that came two Sundays after “Bloody Sunday.” For the Chronicle and daily front-page stories, he accompanied the marchers on the five-day walk from Selma to the Capitol in Montgomery, where he reported on the conclusion of the third march:
“More than 25,000 American Negroes and their white friends from all over the nation and the world stood before the Capitol of Alabama yesterday and shouted with all their might:
In a story headlined “The badges of courage in Selma,” there is a remarkable interview with a 19-year-old Selma high school junior, an African-American who had witnessed Bloody Sunday but kept coming back for the continuing demonstrations.
“We keep coming back because we got tot make it clear to the nation, as a Negro in Selma, we are not free,” he said.
In “The shock of Alabama,” my father talked to segregationists, black demonstrators and white supporters about the legacy of racism in the ante-bellum South.
“The only person I saw in Alabama during the the past two weeks who were ready to accept blame were the white men who had rushed to Selma last week in the heart of the struggle to cast their lot with the Negro.
“Almost every one of them would admit quickly that they came to Selma out of guilt …
“I am ashamed — ashamed for myself and for the church — that we have not been here sooner,” said Monsignor David Cantwell of the Catholic Interracial Council of Chicago.
And throughout these stories, are the hateful, bigoted words of Alabama troopers and what then were called “segregationists,” rednecks as well as “burghers.” The quotes still make me wince.
Strangely, this was a San Francisco Chronicle era when newspaper critics, particularly from academia, were attacking the paper for being shallow and insincere.
Please understand in these 1965 reports the use of the language of the time. And forgive the incorrect acronym in one story for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
For the record, here are the headlines on my father’s stories from Selma in 1965: “A Singing Heard in Selma’s Mud,” “Two Voices — Both White,” “The Badges of Courage in Selma,” “A Day of Change in Selma,” “Selma Near the Boiling Point,” “54-Mile Walk for Freedom,” “The Road to Equality,” “14 Miles More Along the Freedom Road,” “Through the Mud to Montgomery,” “Marchers in Sight of Goal,” “The Shock of Alabama,” “King Calls for Alabama Boycott.”