Wednesday, April 27


Tom Von Fischer

As I walked through the front door of Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be one of the thousands who gathered in this place during the days of March of 1965.  The nightly mass meetings had set the stage.  And Brown Chapel became the starting point for the holy trinity of Civil Rights marches: 600 marchers on Bloody Sunday on March 7th ... 2,500 onTurnaround Tuesday on March 9th ... and 8,000 who started the March to Montgomery on March 16th.

Outside Brown Chapel, reading the tributes to those who had marched for freedom

Outside Brown Chapel, reading the tributes to those who had marched for freedom

Our group of Civil Rights Movement pilgrims gathered in the sanctuary of this historic place to hear the stories of two women - Joyce O'Neal and Diane Howard Harris - veterans of the Movement ... eyewitnesses ... participants ... Foot Soldiers.

Joyce spoke first.  Being members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the leadership of Brown Chapel had to respect the counsel of their bishop, who asked them to keep their doors closed, feared that hosting mass meetings would put the congregation, its people and facilities, at considerable risk.  Middle class African Americans had the most to lose, hence tended to be the most hesitant to fully engage with the Movement.

But with a sparkle in her eye, Joyce told us how the Bishop eventually changed his mind. "One day he said: "Open the doors!"  And with her face beaming, Joyce looked at us and said: "The rest is history!"

Open the doors!  Three simple, but powerful words that - for this pilgrim - summarize this day well.

Open the doors ... for the Spirit to do a new thing.  Old ways need to die ... freedom is coming ... "ain't gonna let nobody turn me 'round."

Open the doors ... release the fears that hold you back ... that keep you from boldly stepping into the paths yet unknown.

Open the doors ... to watch the children and the women become the unsung heros of the Movement.

The day's itinerary also opened doors to the following conversations and highlights:

  • A visit with the Gee's Bend quilters, a rural women's cooperative.  We marveled at their artistry, not only in quilt-making, but also as they treated us to their gospel singing.   
  • Visiting the home and home church of Coretta Scott King, coincidentally on the 89th anniversary of her birth. 
  • In Marion, AL we listened to the powerful stories of two more women veterans of the Movement: Willie Nell Avery and Mattie Akins.  Mattie broke into tears describing the bloody beatings she witnessed on a regular basis.  But she told us they'd be right back the next day - keepin' on keepin' on registering folks to vote.
  • Taking their inspiration from Old Testament Joshua, Mattie and Willie and others in Marion regularly marched seven times around the Perry County Courthouse, singing and praying that the walls of segregation and hatred would come tumblin' down.  Thanks to their persistence and being emboldened by the Spirit, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted.
Perry County Courthouse

Perry County Courthouse

  • A visit to Jimmie Lee Jackson's grave put an exclamation point on our day.  Read the gruesome story of his murder here, including how it opened the door for the March to Montgomery.