Continue reading along with John:
I spotted my pastor friend, Rev. H.W. Washington who was representing the NAACP group in the Ventura County area. He was pastor of Oxnard’s Trinity Baptist Church. He was a man of deep Christian conviction for civil rights and an inspiration to me during the time of my indecision and consequently my decision to participate.
During our pre-Selma planning period, I wanted to save the plane fare money and suggested that we drive our car to Montgomery, Alabama. But Rev. Washington advised against our driving by saying, “Brother Skelly, you, a white man, and me, a black man, will not make it through the South without us being killed.”
We were now in the march behind thousands of marchers walking to the sweet and nostalgic sounds of the hymn, “We Shall Overcome Someday.” During those precious moments I was being raised from my insensitive life and inaction towards racial justice into a resurrection experience.
Ahead of us, and with us, were priests, nuns, rabbis, ministers, and persons from all walks of life and of all religious persuasions.
It was orderly and safe on that final day of the Selma March. Federalized Law Enforcement Officers stood guard at every street corner protecting the marchers from hecklers and possible violence from an unsympathetic crowd.
I was addressed as, “You nigger lover.” These words cut through my heart as I knew what was behind these caustic jeers festering hate and discrimination. I wanted to lash back with anger. But I kept quiet and walked with a gait of anxious fulfillment.
As we walked through black neighborhoods, scores of people who at one time were frightened citizens joined the march. They now felt secure in this moment of jubilee. The march swelled up to 10 black people to every white participant.
An elderly black women with white hair left her humble porch, came to me, placed her wrinkled hand into my arm, looked up and said to me, “God bless you, son. Thank you for coming.” I was filled with an overflowing cup of blessings.
The marchers ahead of us turned into the business district of Montgomery, and to the right was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. And before us was the shining dome of the Alabama State Capitol Building. The imagery of the moment had Biblical proportions. All-American people were being led out of bondage and being freed to breath in the pure air of a promised land of equal civil rights for all people.
Thousands pressed toward the stage set up on the Capitol steps as federalized officers cordoned off the entrance. A list of voting rights demands were addressed by the March leaders as Gov. George Wallace hovered over his territory in an armed helicopter.
My pastor companion, Rev. Washington, had broken away from the march to find a phone booth while I tried to find a cold drink. A white store owner rudely turned me away, but a black lady in her store poured us a cup of cold lemonade for us. Refreshed, I found Pastor Washington, who was speaking on a pay phone with Lew McAfee, a reporter for the Oxnard Press-Courier. Rev. Washington gestured toward me and invited me to also speak with McAfee.
I was overwhelmed by the experience and said what I had felt at the time. McAfee wrote, “As he watched the passing throng, Skelly said he could not keep from being reminded of President Kennedy’s famous ‘I am a Berliner’ quotation during his visit to the former German capital. ‘Today, I am a Negro,’ the Port Hueneme minister said, ‘because God shows no partiality for color. He has created all men free.’”
I was soon to see that headline, “Today I am a Negro,” when I returned home.
Before Dr. King dismissed the crowd, he addressed us with his a passionate interpretation of the five-day, 54-mile march from Selma, Alabama, where Negroes had been campaigning for voting rights.
He said, “There was never a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of embattled Negroes.” King then gave God’s Benediction and asked us to go home peacefully and carry the message of today with you.
The thousands began dispersing. I was anxious to get out of there, especially since I was confronted by an armed National Guard soldier when I unknowingly attempted to walk up a forbidden street looking for a cup of water. The guardsman cautioned me saying, “You can’t go this way!”
I moved forward a bit as I asked, “Which way can I go?”
The soldier responded with his M-1 Rifle pointed toward my chest, “Not this way, sir, this area is cordoned off.”
I then remembered the voice of my advisors, “Do not ever talk back.” I made a “military about face,” and with haste walked to the pre-arranged bus stop for a lift to the airport. Hundreds were there waiting for the few buses hired to deliver the marchers to the safety of their airplanes to return home.
The federalized troops were being dismissed having “protected” the crowd. It was getting dark and the sounds of exhilaration of the marchers now turned to a more somber moment.
The march was over. The leaders admonished us to allow women and children on the buses first. As one bus left and another arrived, we stampeded toward the doors, filling the bus to standing room only in seconds. It was 6 p.m. when I finally got on a bus to go to the airport. It was easy getting on the plane. We had no luggage for our flight home from Montgomery, but we had our cameras full and rolls of film to be developed.
There was a sense of peace and awe as we settled into our airplane seats. We were hungry and thirsty, and on our stopover in Dallas, Dennis Hopper got off the plane and brought back our favorite meal, pizzas.
The final part:
Click here for John’s story — 50 Years Since Selma: The Dream Marches On