Selma: 'To Come Away Changed'

By Jessica Wilbanks 3-09-2015
Marchers stopped at Edmund Pettus bridge. Image via Penn State Special Collectio
Marchers stopped at Edmund Pettus bridge. Image via Penn State Special Collection/flickr.com

The white ministers didn’t fly down to Alabama in January, when Sheriff Jim Clark clubbed Annie Lee Cooper outside of the county courthouse, nor in February when a state trooper fatally shot 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson in the stomach for trying to protect his mother after a civil rights demonstration.  

But on Bloody Sunday everything changed. At 9:30 p.m. on March 7, 1965, ABC News interrupted a broadcast to show hundreds of black men, women, and children peacefully crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge toward Montgomery and a sea of blue uniforms blocking their way. The marchers were given two minutes to disperse, and then the screen filled with the smoke of tear gas, police on horseback charging the screaming crowd, burly troopers wielding billy clubs and bullwhips, a woman’s hem rising up over her legs as a fellow marcher attempted to drag her away to safety.

Overnight the nation’s eye turned toward Selma. Rev. Martin Luther King sent a telegram to hundreds of clergy that Monday, urging them to leave their pulpits and join him in Alabama to march for justice. Some supporters, like the reporter George Leonard, packed their things immediately after watching the newscast from Selma.

“I was not aware that at the same momemt ... hundreds of these people would drop whatever they were doing,” Leonard wrote later.  

“...That some of them would leave home without changing clothes, borrow money, overdraw their checking accounts, board planes, buses, trains, cars, travel thousands of miles with no luggage, get speeding tickets, hitchhike, hire horse-drawn wagons, that these people, mostly unknown to one another, would move for a single purpose to place themselves alongside the Negroes they had watched on television.”

Selma changed the course of history by paving the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act, but its impact didn’t end there. The spirit of Selma rippled outward, forever changing those who made the long journey to Alabama — including a white minister from Washington, D.C., named Rev. Gordon Cosby.

An hour after Rev. Cosby first received a call inviting him to join 40 other Washington-area ministers on a chartered plane to Selma, they were en route to the Montgomery airport. Volunteers from the freedom movement picked them up and used the ride to Selma to give them a crash course in Alabama law.

Ten minutes into the trip, according to Cosby in his book, By Grace Transformed, the group was pulled over and questioned. Afterwards, the 16-year-old SNCC worker Theophilus Bailey instructed his companions to get rid of their pocketknives so they couldn’t be accused of having concealed weapons if they were stopped again.

When they arrived on Sylvan Street, the ministers wove through police guards and hymn-singing crowds to attend the mass meeting for the next day’s march. Brown Chapel had served as a refuge for the wounded the day before, but now hundreds of protestors filled the church, packing into the aisles, the choir loft, and three balconies. Some had begun questioning whether a commitment to nonviolence would ever produce real change. Spirits flagging, they talked of taking up arms and defending themselves against the troopers.

That changed when the first cohort of northern ministers walked through the door.

“That was one of the most exhilarating experiences that I think I've been a part of,” said civil rights activist Rev. Frederick Reese years later. “The rejuvenation that took place on the part of people who had just before questioned whether nonviolence would continue to be the method ... they felt as if they were not fighting this fight alone, there were people who were willing to come and share in it ... to me that saved nonviolence.”

By Rev. Cosby’s account, the rally continued until after midnight with more clergy pouring in from all over the country, until Cosby imagined that the frail balconies might collapse under all the movement and sound. Before the march began the next morning, the visiting ministers received a lesson in how to protect themselves from tear gas. One asked if it was acceptable to grab a billy club from a police officer to avoid a blow, and a teenage SNCC worker replied that if he couldn’t keep his hands off the club, he shouldn’t join the march.

When the marchers finally set off in silence for Edmund Pettus Bridge they numbered in the thousands. Rev. King walked at the front, flanked by the most prominent white clergy. 

On the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the protestors knelt on the highway and prayed before turning around. The march was peaceful, but there would be more bloodshed that night when a visiting Unitarian minister, Rev. James Reeb, was fatally beaten by a group of white men outside a café.   

By the time thousands of marchers finally made it all the way to Montgomery later in March, Rev. Cosby had already returned to Washington to share the lessons he had learned in Selma.

“To be in the midst of the freedom movement, as expressed by the black church in the Black Belt is to touch a spirit and come away changed,” he told his congregation.

In the same breath he reminded them that injustice and inequity was everywhere, including their own neighborhood of Adams Morgan.

“Selma ... is every community in our nation. Washington is Selma, too,” he said.

Rev. Cosby then called his congregation’s attention to Junior Village, a notoriously overcrowded city orphanage, where nearly a thousand orphans, mostly black, languished in what Harper’s had called “a special hell for children.”

Cosby called his congregation to try to close the orphanage. The church rose to the challenge. They imagined it would take a year to shut down the orphanage and find nurturing homes for children. It took eight.  

When he returned from Selma, Rev. Cosby was a changed man.

"If you do not find me in the march, look for me in the graveyard, for that’s where I’ll be,” Elizabeth O’Connor records Cosby as saying to his congregation.

Over the years he stayed faithful to that promise. Rev. Cosby died in 2013 at the age of 95, alongside homeless men and women in the hospice facility on Columbia Road that he helped found years before. His original congregation had, at his urging, split apart countless times to form dozens of new ministries and non-profits, including Jubilee Jobs, Jubilee Housing, For the Love of Children, Samaritan Inns, Sitar Center for the Arts, the Family Place, and Hope and a Home.

“A trip to Alabama is a small thing,” wrote George Leonard after joining the march in Selma.

“But out of many such acts, let us hope, may come a new America.”

Every day in Washington, the organizations that Rev. Gordon Cosby and his congregation inspired are still hard at work building that new America, running job placement and drug rehabilitation programs, providing afterschool tutoring, subsidizing low-income housing, and raising millions of dollars for social justice.

Thanks to them, the march that first started at Brown Chapel in Selma still continues 50 years later in the streets of Washington.  

Jessica Wilbanks (@creativenonfic) is a writer based in Houston, Texas. Her work has received a Pushcart Prize as well as creative nonfiction awards from Ruminate, Ninth Letter, and the Sycamor Review. She is working on her first book, a memoir entitled Bigger than Any Single One. For more information, visit http://jessicawilbanks.com.

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