Pro-Life Activism Brings Back Memories of Montgomery, 1965


Joe Scheidler (back left) with a group of Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and students from Mundelein College in Montgomery, Alabama, March 1965 (see a larger version of this picture here)

March 25 of this year brought back fond memories of 50 years ago to the very day.

While standing in downtown Chicago with a large sign showing a baby eight weeks from conception in an effort to alert the public to the inherent rights of babies to be born, I couldn’t but help think of standing in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965—exactly 50 years before—talking to some Southern gentlemen holding rocks in their hands as I tried to explain that I thought blacks should have the right to vote.

“Go back up north where you belong, Yank”

Holding that baby picture in Chicago Wednesday was less dangerous than talking to what may have been members of the Ku Klux Klan who were not at all interested in giving blacks the vote. “Go back up North where you belong, Yank. We’ll take care of our blacks.”

In March, 1965, I was teaching at Mundelein College in Chicago and when I was asked to chaperone a busload of students on a three-day trip to Montgomery, Alabama to join the march from Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King, I thought it would be a blast and said I would be glad to go.

We left Chicago March 24 and traveled all day to St. Jude’s Catholic Compound in Montgomery after joining the marchers from Selma. At the compound some of us stayed in the gym, while others stayed at the homes of black families.

We were entertained by Peter, Paul and Mary, Harry Belafonte and a dozen other celebrities the night before the march to the Alabama State Capitol the next day. I remember that early the next morning after Mass I left the St. Jude compound and headed for downtown by myself, intending to check out the capitol to see what arrangements were being made for Dr. King’s talk later that day.

I walked through the friendly black neighborhoods with no trouble. But when I got into the white area I stopped to watch a young man decorating his car with Confederate flags and signs that said “Yankee go Home.”

While talking to him I suddenly felt the presence of half a dozen gentlemen standing around me, some of them holding rocks. One asked me what I was doing in their town and accused me of having been in the March from Selma. (I had red mud on my shoes since I had taken part in the last part of the march, so that must have been a giveaway.)

I told them I was a journalist from Chicago, and was interested in getting both sides of the story. My explanation was not going too well when a man in the group said in a northern accent that if the group would return to the tavern from which they had emerged, he would set them up… “Drinks are on me.” All but one took him up on the offer and left.

Visions of being dragged into the woods and strung up began to vanish as they disappeared one by one into the tavern. The man with the northern accent then told me that there was going to be trouble, with Dr. King leading a march to the capitol surrounded by hundreds of clergy and a thousand black sympathizers. He told me to return to St. Jude’s compound and not to leave it except in the company of many marchers. He told me to go back slowly, which I did, while the Confederate flag draped car followed me.

Marching for Justice in 1965, Still Marching for Justice in 2015

Unborn baby at 8 weeksSo as I was holding the sign showing the unborn baby this March 25 in downtown Chicago, I realized that I was still marching for justice — not the right to vote but the right to be born.

Then, last evening, I attended an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March in the Mundelein Auditorium (now on the campus of Loyola University Chicago) to hear from others who had been on it. I had the opportunity to say a few words, and I told the gathering about how the march had been a catalyst in making me take up the fight for lives of unborn children. I couldn’t stand seeing people being denied their God-given rights then, and I can’t stand it now.

Fifty years ago activism had helped get black Americans the right to vote. It worked.

Fifty years later we’re marching to get unborn children the right to life.

I hope history will repeat itself. I’m getting tired of marching.

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