Marchers carrying a large banner lead the way in a parade in March 1965 in Harlem, New York. (Photo: William Lovelace/Getty Images)

What My White Grandpa Had to Say About Marching in Selma

Looking back at the historic march—just weeks after it happened.
Mar 7, 2015· 13 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The other weekend, my 91-year-old grandfather sent me a very short email with a very long attachment: a three-page, single-spaced letter he, then the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, California, wrote to its congregants in March 1965. Earlier that month, he had gone to Selma, Alabama, to participate in the Freedom Movement. His note to me? "I thought you might be interested. Love, Grandfather George."

George Wilson’s six children—five boys and my mom—were, for the most part, children of the ’60s. Growing up in Palo Alto, they were on the suburban outskirts of the counterculture movement. My mom’s friends kept copies of Mao’s Little Red Book, she picked up a life-long guru, and my uncle Danny was and is a tie-dyed-in-the-wool hippie. But in many ways, my grandfather was and remains more a product of the ’60s, politically speaking, than any of his children. A student of Reinhold Niebuhr at seminary, and still what we would today consider a young man (although very bald) in his early 40s, he was on the front lines of the protest movements of the time and place: He sat with Cesar Chavez during his hunger strike. He sat, far more glamorously, onstage with Joan Baez at a protest or sit-in of some sort. Under his pastor’s collar, he was perhaps more radical than any of his children.

Pastor George Wilson and son, circa 1967. (Photo: Courtesy the
Wilson Family)

He was in Selma, too, an experience he conveyed to his congregation—which included a number of early Silicon Valley titans, their family names now synonymous with desktop computers and data processing chips—in terms that are as fresh and relevant today as they were in 1965. When our copy editor gave the letter a first pass, before this note was written, it wasn’t immediately apparent to her that it was composed 50 years ago and not five days. And while it is beautifully written, its resonance has as much to do with the echoes of Selma felt in today’s protest movements—fighting for voting rights, fighting for black lives—as with the prose itself.

“Nobody seemed too young or too old,” he wrote of the scene inside the barricade in Selma, where old no-name ministers sang, famous preachers orated, and Dick Gregory “excoriated” my grandfather’s “white clerical skin” with his humor.

“And after a while nobody seemed too black or too white or too Protestant or too Catholic or too Jewish, or too anything,” he continued. “You were there, and whether you turned out to be a finger or a hand, a leg or an arm, you were part of the body and you belonged.”

•••

Fourth Sunday in Lent—March 28, 1965
First Lesson: Romans 12:1–21
Second Lesson: Luke 7:36–50
A Report on Selma

I cannot think of a passage in the Bible that more accurately describes what it was like to participate in the Freedom Movement in Selma, Alabama, than this lesson from Romans. In a way more powerful than anything I have yet experienced, I felt Saint Paul's appeal to live the life in Christ directed toward me. ''I appeal to you therefore brethren"—you white-collared preacher from the North who have preached a dozen times on this text—“by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world''—you who have conformed so well and so easily—"but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."

The appeal came to a great variety of people, to young and old, to black and white, to clergy and laity, to Southerner and Northerner, to Protestant, Catholic, and Jew, to humanist and atheist, to all who found themselves inside that ghetto in Selma, Alabama, and in a profound way also to many outside that ghetto. Saint Paul's appeal calls for the transforming of our lives, for worship that has to do with the offering of our bodies and minds. He calls for the use and enjoyment of gifts, to realize that the marvel of their variety and difference is to complement the body of Christ rather than fracture a community of men. He speaks of overcoming evil with good, of turning not away from either sorrow or joy, pain or healing. I could not say that I am so remarkably different for having been to Selma. I have a great capacity for not being transformed, for not being renewed in mind and heart. And yet, I saw transforming and renewing there and felt its pull and appeal like I have never felt before. For that reason and because you sent me to Selma as your representative (for which I shall always be thankful), I want to try to explain what happened to me and thousands of others, I believe, who also went there.

First of all, in going to Selma, l discovered what it was like to be in a minority, to feel in your very bones that you are an alien easily marked by anyone. As soon as I walked into the terminal in Atlanta, I felt that having a dog collar on or not, I could have been spotted in a second as an outlander. The irony of this struck me because all of my roots are in the South, most of my relatives still live in the South, I had been stationed in Atlanta during World War II, and I had lived in the South myself about five years of my life. I am well informed enough to know that there are vast numbers of white people in the South who are strongly in favor of rectifying and ending the terrible injustices that are carried on against Negroes in the South and North alike. I know that there are Southern cities that have done more than many Northern cities toward this end. And yet to be or to feel oneself for the first time in a minority is to face the painful, agonizing fact that short of open demonstration of another person's love and acceptance of you, you cannot be sure that attitude toward you is not one of hate and disregard. Therefore every strange—odd for me to say this—white face in the South became the face of a possible enemy, one who if I were in distress I could not be sure would offer help. And yet more oddly, the face of every Negro became the face of one whom I felt I could trust before the face of any unknown white person. When this happens to you everything is changed. You catch yourself looking at faces, almost seeking out the hatred you suspect is there. You find yourself preoccupied with what you would do if the car you were driving in broke down, if suddenly you got sick, if you were attacked and screamed for help. All of this comes sweeping over you, no doubt much of it misconceived and unlikely, but it is still very real because you have heard and know what has happened to some people who are white and the incomparable more that has happened to Negro after Negro after Negro for 350 years.

The Reverend C.T. Vivian, one of the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in talking about this said in a kindly but very blunt way, "Every morning when I get up I say to myself, ‘What do I have to do this day to survive?’" To be in such a minority is to face the specter of danger in almost every moment. Therefore to be in a minority and to trust is exceedingly difficult. Never again will I wonder why so many Negroes find it so difficult to trust me, good intentioned though I may be.

But there is another side to being a minority or rather, to being in a ghetto. What I am about to say does not for a moment justify the horrors that majorities have perpetrated against minorities through the bloody history of mankind; it does not sanctify the terrible limitations put on those who must by oppression live in ghettos. Rather what I am about to say testifies to the wonder of the human spirit and the glory of the Holy Spirit. Inside the barricade in Selma, Alabama, you felt like your life (so clearly in jeopardy as on the road from Montgomery to Selma) was given back to you, ''good measure pressed down, over-flowing." Never have I seen a community of people so filled with hope and confidence and joy. The place sang and rang, and though you knew you were still the same old clay, you also knew—you could feel it—that the breath of the Holy Spirit was firing that clay. To be in such a community is to get caught by love, maneuvered to the point where there is no real escape except to begin to love yourself. As I was flying from Atlanta to Montgomery, I sat next to a rather young matron from Boston who worked for the NAACP. She scared the daylights out of me. She kept asking me, "Do you know what you are getting into?" In reaction against my fear, I told myself she was exaggerating. She wasn't. But she did fail to tell the other side: The threat of your life being harmed is more than matched by the experience of your life being healed and renewed, which you discover when you enter that community and begin to march.

A second reality that hit me in an exhilarating yet humiliating way when I entered this movement is the variety and use of gifts that the community possesses. A young man half your age orients you to the facts of life in Alabama with the calm authority of a battle-hardened general. An old Negro preacher tells you how you ought to sing "Amazing Grace." A befuddled, flustered schoolteacher, in an idiom you would think was dead and gone, talks not about the virtue of old-time religion but about the unsung glories of Negro teenage children, their faith and courage, in the South today, and for all his inarticulateness, his message sings its way into your heart. Dick Gregory, his caustic humor excoriating your white clerical skin, then turning around and preaching a sermon that makes you humble but more proud to be what you are than you have ever been before. And children are all over the place as though they belonged. Nobody was making programs for them; nobody was entertaining them anymore than anybody else—and everybody found himself entertained. They were with it and in it, up and over their heads, sorting food, taking bewildered, lightheaded clergy to Negro homes, marching and singing and if old enough, driving people back and forth between Selma and Montgomery night and day. Nobody seemed too young or too old. And after a while nobody seemed too black or too white or too Protestant or too Catholic or too Jewish, or too anything. You were there, and whether you turned out to be a finger or a hand, a leg or an arm, you were part of the body and you belonged. The most humorous illustration of this variety of gifts and their acceptability in the community came for me when the collection was being taken in a four-hour long meeting—not I or anyone I could see seemed bored for a minute in all that time. The offering was received in the typical Southern Negro style, a preacher up there urging the people to give big and the big gifts and donors coming forward and people clapping and shouting like something great was going on instead of some modern form of self-flagellation. One thousand dollars from this diocese, $1,000 from this Presbytery, $200 from a group of Catholic priests in Texas, $500 from the students of the University of Illinois, $300 from some society of rabbis, and so on until finally a man came down from the packed balcony and said, "Here is $75 from a group of atheists."

A line of policemen on duty during a black voting rights march in March 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo: William Lovelace/Getty Images)

Brown Memorial Church rocked on its rickety foundations with laughter, and the Negro minister, without the slightest hesitation, his face beaming, shouted, "Are there anymore atheists in the house?" What was obvious was that it was not only or principally the money of the atheists that was acceptable, but the self-styled atheists themselves were acceptable. In a community where gifts are offered and recognized, there is the freedom to be what you are.

The dress of people reflected the recognition and enjoyment of gifts. Jewish skull caps were worn by many, obviously as a sign of respect and love for Jewish brethren who had identified themselves so courageously with this cause. I saw such caps on an old Negro minister, a Roman Catholic priest, and a young man whom, I am afraid, many of us too quickly would stigmatize as a "beatnik." Blue overalls topped by clerical collars were another eye stopper. These external habits of people and their odd confluence spoke clearly of the confluence of our humanity surging through the ancient boundaries of color, office, wealth, and creed. Someone has commented that Selma was the greatest ecumenical conference that has ever been held. As Frank Abernathy put it, "We may be black, we may be white, we may be Protestant, Catholic, and Jew, we may be something else besides, but we are all God's children."

Let me not forget the humbling side of discovering the variety of gifts in such a community. This was a discovery particularly reserved for the Northern clergy. We clergy are a gifted lot: We can preach on a moment's notice; we can always give good advice to people; we are especially good at heading committees and telling other people what to do. There a great number of us discovered another gift we have: the gift of being just a body, a white body with a white collar, a body that walks when it is told to walk, waits when it is told to wait, lifts when it is told to lift. It is quite a gift, you know, just to be a body directed by someone else. Before you relegate it to a very low rank among all the gifts God has given us, you might try to see if you have it. Believe me, to discover you have this gift has its own humiliating and yet wonderful reward.

A third reality that impressed me in my short stay in Selma was, I know not how else to put it, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is somewhat shocking to be a purveyor of the Gospel and then find yourself responding to its Good News as though it were quite suddenly very good and very new to you. I think it had to do not so much with eloquence of language as the fact that what was preached had clearly to do with what God was bringing about in the streets among men. A young Negro demonstrates to you how to protect yourself in case you are clubbed and makes it graphically clear that you cannot protect yourself unless you are willing to help protect the person next to you, that to conceive of your own safety as coming before everything else is to deny finally not only the safety of your neighbor but your own as well. Then to hear someone preach, "If you would find your life, you must lose it," made a kind of sense it hadn't before. Pieces of Scripture ceased to be mere words and became a living word. "Let my people go.…" "Let justice flow down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.…" "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.…" A radical kind of evil demands a radical kind of love, and that is precisely what the Gospel is all about.

So when the Reverend James Bevel, the leader of the SCLC in Alabama, says, "We have got to teach them [the rabid segregationists] that they don't have to knock niggers over the head to be men, and we have to do that with love and compassion,” and you know what this guy and hundreds of others have gone through, you don't say, "Just a bunch of words and nice ideals.” You rather wonder like you never have before if love is not the most down-to-earth, practical reality the world has ever known, and that is why God became man in Jesus Christ. I underline my own tremulous unfaith and faith not to sound humble but rather because I think it was quite typical of many Northern white clergy who went down there, whose first reaction to being taunted was over and over to taunt back, to respond to hate with hate. I was simply amazed at how my Negro brethren did not do that, amazed by their capacity to pray for those who persecuted them, to love their enemies. At one point in the march, I was taunted in a particularly obscene manner, and the Negro man whose hand I was clutching offered to take my place on the outside of the marching column, saying, "I can take that stuff." And he could in a way I have not yet learned.

There is a lot more that could be said about Selma, Alabama, and the movement that is changing the face of Alabama, the nation, and even the world. There is a lot more that should be said, especially among us in Christ's Church, because this movement is a living judgment and a living means of Grace to the Church if we will be humble and honest enough in looking at it. What a judgment it is on our lack of humor and stuffiness, for example, and what a sign of Grace. What a judgment on our worship of and slavery to organization. We live in communities, businesses, and churches that for the most part enjoin that men are made for organizations rather than organizations being made for men. There it took two minutes to register, and thousands were fed and bedded down without any fuss and feathers because the big deal was not the food and the beds or floor space but men, the freedom and the dignity of men. What a judgment upon us is this movement when it comes to time. The Reverend Andy Young—a brilliant young Negro minister whose first parish was in Marion a few miles from Selma—was interrupted in the third point of his sermon by someone who handed him a note more or less to the effect that Janie was to call Mary. But nobody minded, least of all Young, except we propriety-ridden, time-conscious, organization-oriented Northerners. Sure there was a lot of confusion, a lot of waiting. We walked 10 miles that day, but that was a lark compared with standing for about four hours waiting to go. But somehow, and I know how and why, you did not mind. More has happened in the last few years than has happened in the last 300 years in the soul of black-and-white America. We should mark that it has not been brought about by the organization, skills, and know-how of the vast, white, university-educated American middle class but by the work of a small company of mostly black men, women, and children, many of whom, like Martin Luther King said, often get their nouns and their verbs mixed up.

But, and this is the why and the how of it all that makes the greatest judgment upon the white churches of today and that makes also the greatest sign of Grace upon us: This movement knows where it is going; it knows and we with it know why we are there. The purpose of the movement was and is clear: to give the Negro (and indeed all men) their full and rightful freedom and to give it all to them now.

Maybe the Church's purpose can never be quite so brilliantly clear and concrete as that of this movement, and maybe that is why the Church can never be fully identified as a movement. But I am not so sure. Our Lord never told us to stand still; his command always has been "Go!" Be on the march, and I will be with you. It is hard to see in Scripture that we were ever meant to sleep in anything but tents, pitched by the Grace of God by some man in a field first here and then 15 miles down the road. It is we who have put millstones around our necks and chained ourselves to our fortresses. But for all the things we think will hold us steady and fast, we are, to mix the metaphor, like rudderless and sail-less ships wallowing in heavy seas, trying to secure all the stuff in holds and on decks instead of charting a course, repairing the sails and rudder and getting under way. What do you think is our purpose as Christ's Church in Palo Alto, California, USA? The world is here and now and not some glittering or banal generality, if you will. God grant us the Grace to read the signs of the time and to pay the price of setting a course.