Column/’Sisters of Selma’ well worth a look

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 15, 2007

They came to Selma in 1965 from Rochester, N.Y.; New York City; Detroit; Wilmington, N.C.; Notre Dame; Chicago; Milwaukee; St. Louis, Mo.; Kansas City; Denver, Colo.; and San Mateo, Calif.

They were nuns – dedicated to service to God and their fellow man. And they came here with one purpose – to be witnesses for change.

Their story is told in a documentary, “Sisters of Selma,” which will air at 8 p.m. Monday on APT.

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The documentary highlights the contributions made by nuns during the Civil Rights movement.

There are interviews with local residents – including Jean T. Martin, Alston Fitts III, Mayor James Perkins Jr., Frederick D. Reese and Carl Morgan – who give their thoughts on the events.

For a newcomer to Selma like myself, watching the documentary was an eye-opening experience as to how events unfolded leading up to the march to Montgomery.

There is a lot of news footage of former Mayor Joe Smitherman, who appears to have tried to be a voice of reason during the time even though he was quite young and had just been elected to the office.

There is also footage of Sheriff Jim Clark, which does not depict him as trying to be a voice of reason at all.

It is interesting to watch as the marchers were turned back time and time again from going to the Dallas County Courthouse.

And it’s easy to see how frustration would have grown.

But the focus is on the sisters – many of whom were interviewed in 2003 for the film.

Many within the Catholic Church did not want to get involved in the struggle of African-Americans in the Deep South.

But, some from the dioceses in the cities listed above felt differently. They believed social service was their mission – from teaching to nursing the sick to helping the oppressed.

And they saw the struggle in Selma as a part of that responsibility.

The sisters took a risk in coming – bear in mind that one woman who came to help register volunteers was killed (Viola Liuzzo), as was a minister, the Rev. James Reeb.

Nevertheless, they felt strongly about their calling.

The Sisters’ presence in Selma served several purposes, according to those interviewed for the documentary.

It helped others see the Civil Rights struggle as a moral, even spiritual, battle.

In addition, they seemed to have brought a calming effect to some who protested the march, although they probably didn’t feel that as they marched by other protesters.

Their presence also seemed to strengthen those who had been in the front lines of the movement. Many, including residents of Selma, had been struggling for the right to vote for decades.

Having validation from the nuns – and therefore the Catholic church – gave some much needed support to make the last leg of the journey.

It’s certainly educational to watch the film. But, if you don’t want to watch it for the message, it’s interesting just to view Selma’s streets, buildings and landscapes from 40 years ago.

Tammy Leytham is editor of The Selma Times-Journal.