Julian Bond, tour group visit Selma

Published 6:36 pm Wednesday, March 4, 2009

NAACP chairman Julian Bond’s classroom on Wednesday was less conventional — blood red carpet, stained glass windows, husky wood and old walls with history seeping from their pores — than the professor’s usual one at the University of Virginia.

The pupils at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church were a group of 25 people on a civil rights tour of the South, visiting Atlanta, Birmingham, Tuskegee, Montgomery, Gee’s Bend and Selma. The University of Virginia has sponsored the trip for three years.

Bond came to Selma for the first time in 1963 when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee arrived in this city by the Alabama River. In the beginning, according to James Forman, SNCC did not support the Selma-to-Montgomery march because of the possibility of police brutality, the drain on resources and SNCC’s frustration with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

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Once SNCC realized the march would occur without Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the organization mobilized to protect the lives of those who would march. Silas Norman, SNCC’s Alabama project director and Stokely Carmichael, who would one day become SNCC chairman, chartered a plan to get quickly from Mississippi to Selma. Because SNCC organizers had only recently heard King would not attend the march, none of SNCC’s people were able to arrive to participate. Those who came brought two-way radios and other protective equipment.

Most of the people with Bond Wednesday had no direct connection to the civil rights movement in Selma or elsewhere in the South, although they were teenagers or adults in the mid-1960s. They were unaware of what happened behind the scenes in Selma and how various civil rights organizations — SNCC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Congress of Racial Equality — worked separately and together.

“Because of their age all of them lived through it,” Bond said. “But almost none of them participated. And I think some of them feel badly about that. ‘Why did I miss this? What happened to me?’ Some of them may have done something in their hometown, but heard about Selma, heard about Birmingham or saw it on TV. They want to see it.”

Longtime Brown Chapel member Richie Jean Jackson spoke while a group separated by age, race, nationality and a few feet of space hung on every word.

She spoke passionately of memories of bomb threats and the church that overflowed with people hungry for freedom.

“This building has been used. I wish I had another word, but used it was,” Jackson said as she stood in front of the pulpit of Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church. “All the mass meetings and all the people who came to Selma came to Brown Chapel.”

The Rev. George McClain of Fort Wayne, Ind., pulled out a photo that showed him as a gangly young man with glasses a few feet away from John Lewis and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as they led a procession across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

His hair is now tinted with more silver, and the frames of his spectacles are smaller. But McClain climbed into the windowsill of the church with every bit of enthusiasm as he did 44 years ago. It was from that perch in 1965 that McClain, then a recent graduate of a Methodist theological seminary, watched mass meetings after he and a black companion answered King’s call for religious leaders to come to Selma.

“The whole experience turned my life around,” McClain said.

It was that way for several people. Even recent history has provided moments that people can call milestones in their lives.

The Rev. James E. Jackson, Brown Chapel’s pastor, stood on the church’s front steps and recalled President Barack Obama’s speech from the pulpit two years ago with as much pride as reliving his best sermon.

Although people came to Brown Chapel, they also came to the home of Dr. Sullivan Jackson and wife Richie Jean. Their house was safe haven, planning office and bed and breakfast for King and other civil rights workers.

More changes than Richie Jean imagined have taken place, but work remains.

“We got a piece more to go,” she said. “We’ve got hearts in people, not just in Selma, but all around this area who’ve not accepted we all bleed the same blood.”