Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” King’s non-violent campaign for civil rights had made Selma ground zero in the fight to gain voting rights for Blacks. That significant moment in history--that haunting Bloody Sunday--made Father Maurice Ouellet and John Lewis life-long advocates of social justice and outspoken critics of racism.
Deeply troubled Black Catholics of Selma filled Saint Elizabeth’s Church the morning of March 7, 1965. Their hearts were heavy because Jimmie Lee Jackson had died as a result of injuries he sustained at the hands of authorities in nearby Marion, Alabama. Jackson had been part of a dangerous freedom march. The march was more dangerous than most because it took place at nighttime.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference rarely staged marches at night. Too many things could happen. Too many things could not be seen. The group had hardly stepped away from the church before they were stopped by the local police chief and state troopers. The marchers were instructed to turn around. As one of the marchers knelt and began praying suddenly the streetlights went out.
As if on cue, the police and troopers began beating the marchers while a crowd of white onlookers leaped on the press, spraying the TV camera lenses with paint and assaulting the reporters. It was mayhem. The marchers broke ranks and tried fleeing back through the darkness to the church. There was screaming and blood on the pavement from head wounds. Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was a twenty-six-year-old Army veteran, ran with his grandfather to a nearby café but state troopers followed them in and shot him in the stomach. While he managed to stagger from the building, he collapsed in the street and was left there for a half hour before local police picked him up and brought him to the county infirmary. Late that night he was transferred to Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma.
Jackson was in such critical shape that he couldn’t even speak when he was brought to “Good Sam”. While the Black nurses and the Sisters of St. Joseph tried to save his life, he was too far gone.
Whatever words Father Ouellet spoke that Sunday at Mass were certainly inadequate to respond to the shattered hopes, fears, anguish and anxiety of the Black congregation inside Saint Elizabeth’s Church. An awful silence of uncertainly weighed heavily upon everyone as Mass ended and folks started to leave the church to go home and face their fear of more violence, more beatings, more lynching’s.
But the uncertainty and eerie silence gave way to sirens of every kind blaring throughout Selma on that historic Lord’s Day in 1965. Something terrible was happening at the Edmund Pettus Bridge where state and local police tear gassed and billy-clubbed 600 marchers who were determined that Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death and the beatings in Marion would not be in vain.
Because the archbishop of Alabama prevented the Edmundites and the local group of Sisters of St. Joseph from marching and demonstrating, they tended to the injured at Good Samaritan Hospital and rallied the support of others from around the country. In Good Samaritan Hospital Ouellet encountered Etta Perkins, a Black nurse tending to the wounded. Maurice remembered her screaming, “Father, they’re going to kill us all!” While Etta’s son, James, would one day become Selma’s first Black mayor, there was little sign of racial harmony on that Bloody Sunday in March 1965.
The Edmundites and the Sisters faced intimidation and death threats from the white community in general and the Ku Klux Klan in particular. The Edmundite residence in Selma still has bullet holes in the front windows and on the front door of our Edmundite residence some bigot had hung a sign: “The K-K-K is watching you!” The Edmundites left up the sign but these words were added: “Keep on watching, because we’re staying!”
On Bloody Sunday many white doctors refused to come to help the injured because Good Samaritan was known as the Negro hospital. The Sisters of St. Joseph carried a very heavy load that day as they tended to people strewn in the corridors, in the hospital’s cafeteria, literally everywhere.
Maurice described a 15-year-old girl lying on the floor. Blood was coming out of her head and she wasn’t moving. When he picked her up, she opened her eyes and focused her eyes on his and said, “Oh, Father, I hurt.”
Among the many injured on Bloody Sunday was the quiet young student, John Lewis. He led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. John received a deep head wound that evidenced his courage, conviction and commitment to the cause.
Lewis didn’t say anything and it wasn’t clear whether he was even conscious. He had been beaten so many times that when he did get beaten, he would just go quiet, which was his way of going into his mode of nonviolence. John dreamed of being allowed to vote and of being elected to Congress.
John Lewis’ dream became a reality--Congressman Lewis from Georgia. Martin Luther King had a dream. Jimmie Lee Jackson had a dream. Maurice Ouellet had a dream. John Lewis had a dream. What’s your dream?