Letter from campus: The priest at Selma

When the marchers advanced on the courthouse in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965, they were confronted by police and state troopers. The marchers walked arm-in-arm, singing “We Shall Overcome.” They knew that protesters in a previous march had been hammered by law enforcement authorities using billy clubs and tear gas. One person had been beaten to death and many others seriously injured.

This band of activists was intent on a peaceful protest but determined to help Southern blacks gain voting rights still deprived them despite the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Act.

At the head of line was a Holy Cross priest. Notre Dame’s 14th president. The man who in 1952 had turned the presidency over to Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC.

Father John J. Cavanaugh, CSC, was 66 on this day in Selma when his path was blocked by a public safety officer who reportedly said he could not believe a man of God would march without a permit. “We may talk cross while excited,” Cavanaugh replied, “but we ask you to pray for us, that you may see our cause.”

“I cannot understand this violence, sir,” said J. Wilson Baker, Selma’s director of public safety, to which Cavanaugh responded, “We don’t look for violence. We believe in justice for all. We ask the blessings of God, of the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost on all of you.”

This retelling came across my desk in March, the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches, a watershed in American history recaptured by the film Selma. An account of these events, written by Sister Judith Mary, S.L., was published March 24, 1965, in the National Catholic Reporter and reprinted in the paper’s Global Sisters Report on March 13, 2015.

The narrative was especially poignant because the anniversary sadly coincided with violent protests throughout the country, eruptions of simmering racial hostilities that still divide America. And Cavanaugh’s presence was, to me, a surprising footnote.

Father Hesburgh’s role in the civil rights movement is much celebrated and that iconic photo of him and Martin Luther King now hangs in the Smithsonian. But Cavanaugh was in Selma, on the front lines.

“As the march began,” Cavanaugh told The Scholastic two weeks later, “we were again warned that if tear gas should be used, we were to drop to the ground on our faces, covering the backs of our heads with our hands. Yet things proceeded quietly. We marched six abreast toward the edge of the Negro section. There we were met by the police, most of whom seemed as nervous as we were. I found myself talking to a man I assumed to be the mayor of Selma. He asked very calmly that the marchers disperse, saying that he hoped no violence would be necessary. I replied that I hoped none would be, for, like it or not, the eyes of the world were focusing on the problems of Selma.”

Baker, the public safety officer, threatened to arrest the marchers, then “ordered all the press people and photographers out of the area,” recalled Sister Judith Mary. “A wave of fear swept through those of us in the front line for we felt that now Baker would set the troopers on us and this time there would be no pictures. Not one of us moved. Then we began singing and Baker turned his back on us and so did the troopers.”

The protesters remained for an hour or so, singing hymns and praying, then dispersed. Several days later, on a third attempt, 25,000 marchers — with federal help — finally made the 54-mile walk from Selma to Montgomery, the state’s capital.

Cavanaugh later explained that he had gone to Selma simply because “the true essence of Christianity is helping one’s neighbor.”

In 1966, J. Wilson Baker — caught between his support of peaceful protest and his duties as the director of public safety — ran for sheriff and defeated the incumbent, Jim Clark, a leader of the violent Bloody Sunday attacks on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Baker’s election was attributed to the 9,000 African Americans added to the rolls after the Selma marches.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.

Originally published by Kerry Temple ’74 at magazine.nd.edu on July 06, 2015.