The March to Montgomery

by Frank E. Gaebelein | Founding Headmaster

Dr. King during the historic March (PC: History.com)

The following is a piece by Dr. Gaebelein, who in March of 1965 was the co-editor of Christianity Today. Dr. Gaebelein traveled to Alabama to cover the march from Selma to Montgomery for the magazine and became so inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King that he participated in the march himself. The following was published in the magazine on April 9, 1965.


Under the bright spring skies of Sunday morning, March 21, a crowd of 8,000 stood before the twin-towered brick facade of Brown’s A.M.E. Chapel in Selma, Alabama. On the steps, an ecumenical service was in progress, the prelude to a historic fifty-mile march from Selma to the state capitol at Montgomery.

“Those of us who are Negroes don’t have much because of the system,” said Dr. Martin Luther King. “We don’t have much education and some of us don’t know how to make our nouns and verbs agree. But thank God we have our bodies, our feet, and our souls. We want to present our bodies and feet so the world will know the truth as we see it. We’ll march with great love for America, because we have a great faith in democracy.”

Shortly before one o’clock on the fifth day, the marchers, who had come from the grounds of St. Jude’s Church and Hospital in Montgomery, now numbering some 25,000, were massed before the white capitol, from the classic dome of which the state and Confederate flags were flying, the U.S. flag being on a separate staff in a corner of the grounds. It was a symbolic picture—the orderly assembly of demonstrators headed by the 300 who for fifty miles had presented their bodies and feet for the cause of freedom, and the capitol, representing the power structure of segregation. In purpose and dramatic context, it was a decisive civil rights demonstration.

At the close of a 2 1⁄2-hour program, King spoke with moving eloquence. “We stand,” he said, “with the conviction that segregation is on its deathbed in Alabama. … We’re on the move now and no burning churches will deter us.”

At four o’clock the assembly was over. A committee of twenty Alabama residents whose names had been approved by acclamation went to the capitol to present their petition, but were told that the Governor’s office was closed. On the committee was the Rev. Joseph W. Ellwanger, a white Lutheran minister from Birmingham, and a white student from the University of Alabama. Governor Wallace made a statement that the committee was unacceptable because of the character of some of its members.

The Selma-to-Montgomery march was executed with the permission of a federal judge and under the protective escort of National Guardsmen mobilized by President Johnson. It began at 12:40 Sunday, on the same street where two weeks before a group of some 500 marchers were attacked by police, an event which aroused the conscience of millions. This time they crossed the bridge spanning the muddy Alabama without incident.

It was a varied multitude—young and old, white and black, educated and uneducated, a few beatnik types, and ministers in clerical garb. As they moved out of the city, most of the crowd turned back, the federal court order having limited the core participants to 300. All but about twenty in the actual line of march were Negroes from Alabama. Precedence was given those who had faced police violence.

So the march continued. Some in the line carried American and U.N. flags. The overall spirit was cheerful; disaffection was not noticeable and the torrential rains on the third day elevated, rather than depressed, morale.

Among those in line was a one-legged young man on crutches, two nuns, a number of clergymen, and numerous women and children. During the nightly encampments much of the hard work such as setting up tents and latrines was done by fifty students from San Francisco Theological Seminary accompanied by their president, Dr. Theodore Gill.

The group developed a warm feeling of friendship and unity. Meetings were held at the campsite in the evenings, and occasional hymns added a devotional tone. A Negro Methodist minister said that the march represented the American melting pot. He saw it as an expression of concern for constitutional rights. The ultimate solution, he declared, lies in the grace of God. He recognized the historic manifestation of grace at the Cross, yet felt it was being silently proclaimed at the march.

A young engineer from Philadelphia, a graduate of Columbia University, said bluntly that he had no faith and didn’t care whether God or Christ ever existed, but that he left his wife and children to take part because of the issue of justice.

A young dropout from Queens College, New York, also professed no religious faith. “I’m here,” he said, “because I don’t like to see people stepped on.”

A member of the militant Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from Fort Collins, Colorado, declared that he wants to be “where there’s action.”

From Los Angeles came an actor-producer who said that his involvement built up until one morning he looked at his wife and children in his comfortable home and decided that he had to be in Alabama. “There comes a time,” he said, “when benefit performances are not enough.”

The Rev. Robert G. Long was there as a representative of his synod and of the Presbytery of Chicago, Richard Jackman, a leader in a New York labor union local, called himself a “Presbyterian socialist” and saw the marchers as an “elect group.” Lee G. David, general secretary of the National Baptist Deacons Convention of America, asserted that all segments of the country were represented.

A number of theological conservatives participated in the march. Among them were several Christian Reformed ministers, including the Rev. Gordon D. Negen of the Manhattan Christian Reformed Church of Harlem; the Rev. Raymond Opperwall of Ridgewood, New Jersey; and the Rev. James A. Bonnema of South Windsor, Connecticut. These men viewed participation as an expression of their Calvinist heritage.

Another evangelical and Calvinist was James White, a Negro middler at Westminster Theological Seminary. For him the march was an essential part of his theological outlook. Still another evangelical marcher was Bruce Crapuchette, a student at Fuller Theological Seminary, who came with a letter from Dr. David Hubbard, Fuller president.

From Seattle came the minister of music and the minister to students at the strongly evangelical University Presbyterian Church where Dr. Robert Munger is pastor. Both men said they gained “great respect for King’s leadership.”

Present also were Missouri Synod Lutherans and representatives of the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church. Their placard read: “Lutherans care because Christ cares.”

Among Pentecostal participants was Dr. J. Harry Fought, pastor of Danforth Gospel Temple in Toronto. Fought, executive secretary of the newly formed Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, said he was present to let people know that the evangelical conscience is sensitive to the issue of human dignity.

The extent of evangelical involvement is believed to have been without precedent in the current civil rights movement. Never before have conservative Protestants identified themselves so demonstratively with the Negro struggle for liberty.

The unifying factor in the midst of the theological and social diversity was clearly the constitutional issue—protest against abridgement of the right to vote and peaceable assembly to petition the government for redress of grievances.

The motivation and convictions of the marchers are one side of the event. The other side is the conviction and emotion felt by many people in the South. Just as the police brutality stirred worldwide emotion, so judge Frank Johnson’s court order and President Lyndon Johnson’s speech before Congress greatly consolidated support of Alabama Governor George Wallace, whom large numbers of citizens consider a man of integrity and principle.

Yet Alabama Attorney General Richmond M. Flowers differs with Wallace on a number of points, including the Communist issue. Flowers has said that there is “no evidence of Communism in the civil rights movement.”

According to much Southern opinion, the march has set back the cause of racial relations and intensified bitterness. Alabama and the Deep South are seen as victims of gross injustice through biased reporting. There is also widespread public concern about reports of flagrant immorality among certain demonstrators.

Ministers in Alabama almost unanimously deplored the participation in the demonstrations of their fellow clergymen from outside the state. A leading Selma pastor, told by a visiting minister friend, “I feel relaxed and at peace after this demonstration,” replied, “Yes, but I have to live with the tension here.” Some contend that it takes at least as much moral courage for a pastor in the Deep South to maintain a moderate position as it does for his brother in the North to speak out.

Underneath the anxiety, there is genuine concern on the part of devoted Southern ministers and others for the constitutional questions. There is also abhorrence of police brutality and a realization that the paternalistic system of the South must ultimately go. A continuing spiritual concern is the bitterness which finds expression, for example, in yellow cars with blacklettered slogans, “I hate n*****-lovers,” “Tough luck, Reeb,” and in six nine bombs set to go off in Birmingham. On quite another level was the barring from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Selma of a group of white Episcopal clergymen accompanied by a Negro colleague, this despite the rule added last fall to the canons of the Episcopal Church stating that no one shall be denied fellowship or administration of the sacraments by reason of nationality, color, or ethnic origin. Most shocking was the murder by a sniper of Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a Detroit civil rights worker and the mother of five children, who was driving back to Selma with a Negro boy.

The Alabama countryside through which the march passed is beginning to show the bright promise of spring. And the human condition is likewise capable of renewal. The march was a memorable witness to justice and human dignity. Through it, constitutional rights have been reaffirmed and Alabama and the nation have again been confronted. for all the world to see, with the inescapable responsibility for consistent application to Negroes of the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution. Great problems remain, but a new page of history has been turned.


One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s