Fitts calls life in Selma a blessing

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 24, 2004

Alston Fitts has devoted most of his adult life to being chief communicator for Edmundite Missions and sees Selma as a great blessing in his life.

His title is director of information for the Edmundites but his responsibilities extend far beyond, including a major role in ongoing fundraising for the Roman Catholic mission that has been in place in Selma for more than 65 years.

The New-England-based Society of St. Edmund, a Catholic order of fathers and brothers, responded to a papal appeal in 1937 to establish a ministry in the deep South on behalf of African-Americans.

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“The Edmundite Missions always wanted to work at the margins with limited resources to do the best we could with whatever we had to help those most in need,” said Fitts.

Over the years the Missions has expanded and changed in response to the needs of its constituency and Fitts has been present for many of the developments.

Specifically Catholic institutions and services targeted for poor blacks have been replaced by a broader, more ecumenical thrust aimed at the poor without regard to color and in partnership with others engaged in similar work, frequently using funds from governmental sources.

Fitts, a native of Tuscaloosa, began his work with the Edmundites in January 1977, having completed his education, including a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama, a master’s from Harvard and aPh.D. from the University of Chicago – all in the field of English. His Ph.D. work focused on Shakespeare.

“My basic job at Edmundite Missions is to inform people about the work of the Missions and solicit support. I’m engaged in both public relations and fundraising,” he said.

Fitts provides general oversight for the Missions’ publications and writes appeals for money.

“Most of our financial supporters (for Edmundite Missions) are from the West Coast, the Midwest and the Northeast, though a number of our Northeastern donors have moved to Florida,” he mused. “We also have many fine local donors,” he added.

Since 1937 the Edmundites have spread their work into the surrounding Black Belt and also New Orleans, but the center of the ministry remains in Selma, Fitts said.

Fitts has another abiding interest – history – on which he hopes to focus all of his energies at some time in the future when present duties are laid aside.

He has lectured widely, written a comprehensive history of Selma – “Selma, Queen City of the Black Belt” – released in 1989 in time for the celebration in 1990 of the 25th anniversary of the voting rights legislation and the 170th anniversary of the founding of Selma. Most recently he has authored a booklet on Selma’s historic churches, which will be released in about a month.

Fitts’ first project was rediscovering a forgotten local African-American hero, Ben Turner, who served a term in the U.S. Congress 1870-72 during Reconstruction. Turner is buried in Old Live Oak Cemetery.

He’s also done research on R.B. Thomas, Alabama’s first black district judge, 1874, written articles for the newspaper, delivered learned papers to historical societies, and was involved in the renaming of the former East End Elementary School to Sophia Kingston. Kingston was a forgotten black heroine who single-handedly ran a school for African-Americans for 20 years early in the last century, according to Fitts.

Fitts has also served as the secretary of the board of The Old Depot Museum since its founding.

He is also an active member of Queen of Peace Catholic Church and of Rotary and a former co-chairman of the civic group One Selma.

Fitts believes tremendous progress has been made in recent decades.

“We have come so far from the segregation in Alabama that I grew up with. I thank God that legal segregation is a thing of the past. I was very glad that my (three) children got to grow up without that burden,” he said.

Fitts is not a subscriber to the “two worlds” – one white and one black – view of Selma. “When am I in an all-white world?” he asked rhetorically, “except when my wife (Anne) and I are home alone.” Fitts notes that his workplace is integrated as is the church to which he belongs and the principal civic organizations with which he is involved – One Selma and Rotary.

“Living in Selma has been a great blessing,” he said. “I wish I could have done more for the city than I have in return for the blessing it has been to me. I hope some day I will be able to do more,” he said.