March 7 marked the 42nd anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery “Bloody Sunday” march. If you recall the stock news footage of violent white cops beating non-violent black and white demonstrators often shown in the media between MLK Day and Black History Month, it features the infamous Edmond Pettus Bridge. I recently spoke with an 80-year-old African-American nun who walked across that bridge on that fateful day. She’s the only black nun and one of the few living nuns to provide us with this oral history.
As we shared Selma stories, I mentioned to Sister Antona Ebo that my step-grandmother, Delia Smith, 96, who died Feb. 15, asked me 17 years ago to join my step-dad, Henry Mayfield, for the wedding of my step-sister (Iris Kirksey) in Selma. It was the 25th anniversary of the march. I visited the area underneath the bridge and discovered homeless people of all races and crackheads of every stripe, a comment that made Sr. Antona laugh when I mused that this probably was not the interracial dream Dr. Martin Luther King had imagined. I reported on the 25th anniversary of the march in the Chicago Defender where I was once associate editor.
Sr. Antona visited Dominican University last month to help present the documentary, Sisters of Selma: Bearing to Change, directed by Jayasri Hart. “One white minister was beaten to death the day before we left for the march,” she recalled. “We saw it on the 10 o’clock news. He was beaten so badly his head swoll up like a pumpkin. I thought to myself, ‘If they did that to a white priest, what are they likely to do me, an African-American nun?'”
I told her that a white priest I knew, Father Morrisroe of St. Columbanus, had also gone to Alabama. He was helping black sharecroppers get the right to vote. Instead, he got shot. Father Morrisroe survived, even recuperated in River Forest, I said, adding that his shooting put a human face on the struggle for me as an adolescent as well as the adults in our South Side parish.
While I knew of the Selma march vicariously, I was struck by Sr. Antona’s willingness to face real danger.
“I was scared,” she said. “I was so scared that I didn’t notice that of the other sisters who traveled with me, one of them was Hispanic. Thank God nothing happened to us. I believe our habits saved us. We stood out. Ironically, one of the complaints we received concerned our habits. Critics were upset that we knelt down in our starched habits to pray on Selma soil instead of daintily praying in the church pew.”
She said the “Sisters of Selma” were not allowed to participate. “One priest was kicked out of the Selma diocese for allowing his church to be the headquarters of the demonstration,” she said. “Whites in Selma called us ‘outside agitators.'” That’s a term I’ve heard some liberal Oak Park whites label local people of color who demand more power sharing.
According to Sr. Antona, the lack of change from 42 years ago “is my biggest disappointment.”
Mine, too, I said.
She added that the Selma experience motivated her activism, which led her to establish the National Black Sisters Conference and to serve as the first black religious woman to serve as the head of a hospital, St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo, Wis. in 1976.
In a private reception for Sr. Antona where I sat next to the diminutive Kinte cloth-clad nun with a short Afro, we spoke a lot about South Africans like Ela Gandhi. Ela told me she learned as much about passive resistance from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as she did from her famous grandfather. Leaning over to show me her frail wrist with a blue plastic band, Sr. Antona said, “I wear his famous saying on my bracelet, ‘You be the change!'”
On the other side of me at the dinner table was Dominican University’s Sister Melissa who told me that in 1934 River Forest, residents were upset when then-Rosary College invited black opera star, Marian Anderson, to sing in the school’s Social Hall. Sr.
“When Marian Anderson sang ‘Ave Maria,’ there was not a dry eye in the house. But outside, River Forest was real tight on racial issues then,” the white former English teacher said.
“I’m amazed our college was able to get away with the Marian Anderson visit.” We’ve always had a sense of social justice. During the 1965 Selma march, I participated in a march of solidarity from Rosary to the Oak Park Post Office,” she recalled.
“A white woman was so upset at me she pushed me down.”