Recalling the civil rights struggle

Published 11:54 pm Saturday, January 16, 2010

Even though Father Maurice Oulette must pause for a moment to recall names and dates from his experiences with the civil rights movement in Selma more than 40 years ago, the recollections of his experiences flow from his mind without difficulty.

“Those were the hardest five years of my life, but those are the most precious,” Father Oulette said.

On his second assigned visit to Selma, a period that lasted from 1960 to 1965, Father Oulette joined the fight for voter registration for African-Americans here.

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The only Caucasian priest in the Selma area supporting this movement, Father Oulette found himself falsely accused of plotting against the Caucasian community, threatened by Ku Klux Klan members and witness to a plethora of violent acts throughout the community.

“There are so many stories up in my head,” Father Oulette said. “I can’t contain them all.

Asking people to vote,

In 1963, Father Oulette’s friend Bernard Lafayette came to Selma to talk with church leaders about assisting in a voter registration program to help African-American men and women register to vote.

John Doar, the assistant to the U.S. Attorney General, another one of Oulette’s friends, began putting together groups of people who had been denied the right to vote.

“At that time I was involved through the Catholic Church we have here,” Father Oulette said. “John Doar was bringing some of these people to go before the federal judge.”

Father Oulette had been working to encourage African-Americans to get out and register to vote. But these efforts had to work around Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, known as one of the strongest resistors.

“He was brought to court because there were accusations against him that he was preventing people from voting,” Father Oulette said. “That was when the physical things happened—people getting clubbed and pushed around.”

Mr. Doar asked Father Oulette to be a witness in the case, but as things became worse in Selma, Mr. Doar then said perhaps it would be better for Father Oulette to not testify. The priest said no, he would still be testifying.

“I’ve asked people to vote, and now you’re asking me to tell them not to vote,” Father Oulette said. “I’ve worked on this and supported it.”

‘I have a flock’

Mr. Lafayette asked Father Oulette to attend town meetings to encourage people to vote. The first meeting Father Oulette attended, minister L.L. Anderson led at Tabernacle Baptist Church. KKK members bombarded the meeting.

“We heard this group coming roaring in from trucks,” Father Oulette said. “They ordered us to leave. Nobody got hurt, no one got hit, but everyone was tense.”

At the next meeting, John Lewis, the president of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, was set to be the speaker, but he was unable to attend.

Father Oulette was asked to give the talk, and he agreed.

“I know I remember I started with that I had gotten a note from the KKK and it said that ‘The Klan is looking at you,’” Father Oulette said.

He explained he was going to support the voting issue regardless if the KKK liked it or not.

“As a priest, I’m a shepherd,” Father Oulette said. “I have a flock. I have to stand up for those who are not allowed to be citizens and I intended to contribute to be a part of the voter registration program.”

After supporting the more than 100 children who marched down Broad Street in 1963, the mayor called Father Oulette to a meeting at 11 p.m. one night because Father Oulette was accused of contacting SNCC in Atlanta and aiding the African-American community in gather people and firearms to overthrow the Caucasians of Selma.

The mayor asked him to leave town. One of the men who sat in the back corner chimed in that they should just shoot Father Oulette. One of the only times Father Oulette had ever lost his temper was in response to this suggestion.

“I said, ‘ok, but the guy that you appoint to shoot me better get me,’” Father Oulette said. “‘If he doesn’t, I’ll get him.’”

The meeting promptly adjourned after the priest’s outburst, and he remained in Selma.

Meeting Dr. King, Jr.

“The first time I met him, I really respected him,” Father Oulette said. “I loved him for what he did.”

Their impromptu meeting happened when Father Oulette stopped by a friend’s house to drop off a package. Dr. King happened to be at this house for the evening.

“We talked briefly and then I went on my way.”

When Dr. King spoke soon after their meeting, Father Oulette was astounded by Dr. King’s speech.

“At the end of the thing, I just listened to him and it moved me like I’d never been moved before.”

Life, people think of him, love Selma

Born in Vermont, Father Oulette grew up with eight brothers and sisters. His parents had moved to the U.S. from Canada, and his mother only spoke French. He attended Edmundite schooling and serving as an altar boy, he chose to become an Edmundite.

Teaching French in Vermont and Texas, and working other jobs the Edmundite organization assigned to him, Father Oulette spent many of his years teaching students more than just French.

Father Richard Myhalyk was one of Father Oulette’s students at St. Michael’s College in Vermont in the early 1970s.

“He is a wonderful training person,” Father Myhalyk said. “His values came out loud and clear.”

One of the most prevalent values was to stand up for things in which you believe. In class, Father Oulette would use concrete examples to support his stories about manners to work with and help communities. Many of his examples were of his time spent in Selma.

“In his own way, he tried to do what he could for the black community in Selma,” Father Myhalyk said.

After retiring, Father Oulette moved to Florida, but felt it was not home. He moved back to Selma and currently lives at Park Place Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

“I can’t explain it,” Father Oulette said. “It’s like falling in love. I fell in love with the people of Selma and it’s still there. I didn’t spend that much time here, but I think I did some good things here. Those five years were the best years of my life.”