When Bob Sherrell, longtime Oak Park resident and former trustee, boarded a Trailways Bus at 95th and Wentworth on March 5, 1965, he imagined the white folks in Selma, Ala., would respond to the march he was going to participate in two days later by saying, “OK, we see the problem, and we see that we need to do something about it.”
From what Sherrell had seen in his 26 years living, it seemed plausible that whites in Alabama would be reasonable people with good intentions. After all, that was his experience at Hyde Park High School. His 1957 yearbook has page after page of pictures of well-groomed black and white students, side by side. He became first chair bass in the school orchestra as a junior. He was in honors classes with white and black students. He played in a combo with future jazz great, Herbie Hancock.
Racial progress was in the air. Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947. Most of Sherrell’s friends lived in two-parent households. The black middle class was growing. Brown v. Topeka Board of Ed. had rendered the principle of “separate but equal” unconstitutional in 1954.
His father, Robert Sherrell Sr., a mechanic with only a sixth-grade education, had instilled three principles in the oldest of his seven children: 1) don’t screw up, 2) keep your nose clean, and 3) don’t be ordinary. Bob followed his father’s advice and earned grades good enough to be admitted to the University of Illinois at Chicago, then located at Navy Pier. In 1963, with only two and half years of college, he was hired by Zenith as a special technician in their chemistry department and was later promoted to supervisor by the all-white management.
So Bob Sherrell believed in the American Dream: that everyone was equal, that every child born in the United States could be whatever they wanted to be, and he was able to rationalize the numerous instances of race and class discrimination he encountered as anomalies, character defects in individuals, which would eventually be overcome by black people representing their race well.
Heading to Selma was consistent with his principles. He wasn’t going there to make trouble but with good intentions-to support a reasonable approach to change.
The first challenge to Sherrell’s illusions came when the bus stopped at Paducah, Ky. where a new driver strode onto the bus-a good old boy with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his shirt sleeve and wearing a crew cut and engineer boots. The driver approached a black man sitting too far to the front of the bus for his liking and commanded, “Nigger, you move to the back.”
The man complied, and the people further back kept their hands folded and avoided eye contact. “It was very visceral,” Bob recalled. “I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?'”
A lesson in hatred
Around Aniston, Ala., he began to see signs of the White Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan. Getting off the bus in Marion, Bob and the man who had been ordered to move further back saw a Dairy Queen and walked in with the intention of getting a sandwich. One of the black men in the store approached them and said they weren’t supposed to enter by the front door. He pointed to a sign which said, “COLOREDS IN THE BACK.”
After getting their food, the two men proceeded to walk across a parking lot where they were surrounded by 50 white people who began calling them “niggers.” One man took the sandwich Bob’s companion was carrying, threw it on the ground, stepped on it, and said, “You’d better pick it up, or you’ll be arrested for littering.”
Seeing that his friend was traumatized and not wanting to cause trouble, Sherrell bent over to pick up the food on the ground. He grimaced at the memory. “A woman came up behind me and kicked me as hard as she could, and everybody cheered, saying, ‘Take that, nigger.’ I felt embarrassment and shame. I was in pain and agony.”
The crowd applauded as the two humiliated and frightened young men walked to the church where they were to gather before beginning the walk to Selma. Half of the group of 60-70 people in the church were nuns. Five or six were priests.
The 26-mile journey to Selma, which began early the next morning, proved to be an emotional and spiritual marathon. Pickup trucks would drive right toward the hikers and veer off at the last minute. Mounted police rode alongside the marchers, hitting them on the head and back of their knees with their billyclubs. “I was cold and scared and trying to be brave,” Sherrell said. And he was becoming painfully aware of how violence could be used to intimidate.
Throughout the ordeal, the 30 nuns never faltered. Singing as they hiked toward Selma, the Catholic sisters, most of whom were young, projected the sense that nothing could make them back down. “They were inspirational,” Sherrell said. “They were welcoming. They had a deep sense of purpose. It wasn’t religious in the narrow meaning of the word, but it was very spiritual. There was a brotherhood, a sisterhood, a sense of us being a human family. I was scared, yet at the same time I felt safe. I felt that I was with people who could protect me.”
Early in the morning-the day that would come to be called Bloody Sunday-the group that had walked from Marion arrived in Selma and joined the rest of the marchers at Brown’s Funeral Home, where a few of the march leaders tried to prepare them for what might happen in the next few hours. They told the marchers they might be beaten, hosed, “dogged” and trampled. “If you don’t like being called ‘nigger,'” one of them said, “you don’t belong here.”
They were assigned to rows, 12 people across, and instructed to march arm in arm and act like they were in church. “Don’t get distracted,” they said. “People will yell in your face, and you have to keep walking.”
When the march began, Sherrell was toward the end of his line about 10 rows behind Hosea Williams of the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), with John Lewis and Bob Mants representing SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) in the front row. At least as many rows stretched behind him.
The plan was to march the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery. As they approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, only six blocks from where they had begun, the bullhorns went off. “Turn back. This is your last warning.”
One marcher responded with “Ain’t no turning around,” which elicited some chuckles from among the ranks. Sherrell wasn’t chuckling. He was thinking, “Oh, my God. One good reason, and I’m out of here.”
Just then, without warning, tear gas hit the front row of marchers. They recoiled and began falling backwards, causing the rows behind them to fall like dominoes. And then the tear gas hit Sherrell.
“The tear gas was really powerful,” he recalled. “It feels like you’re drowning, like water is going into your lungs instead of air. I couldn’t see. Under my contact lenses it felt like a thousand little knives were stabbing my eyes, burning and stinging.”
After he fell backwards, a teenager “wearing a dress with puffy sleeves, having skinny legs and wearing rolled down white socks” shouted, “C’mon mister, run!” Not much older than a girl, this “guardian angel” grabbed him and made him run, half blind, away from the tear gas. Somehow he made it back to Brown’s Funeral Home, washed out his eyes and made the very symbolic gesture of throwing away his contact lenses.
Until this point in his life’s journey, there had been bends in the road, which caused him to modify the way he viewed the world. Selma, however, marked a major turning point. It was one of those profound experiences that convince people the lenses through which they had been trying to discern what is real and what is not were, in fact, distorting their view of the world.
Riding on the Trailways bus back to Chicago and home, Sherrell felt a confusing mix of emotions. One was disorientation. “I had no understanding that the tension existed to that level,” he recalled. “I was going down there to be a supporter, something like how I felt a few weeks ago when I went to Washington to be part of Obama’s inauguration.
“My exposure to white people from Hyde Park had led me to think these people were going to be reasonable and say, ‘OK, there are things we need to work at changing.’ I had no idea how entrenched that culture was. I never knew humans would do something like that.
“My world was a small world,” he admitted. “I had no real understanding of the larger world and the framework that controlled it. My life had been trying to understand the larger world through my small world, and, of course, it should be the opposite.”
Another emotion was self-pity, followed by anger. “I moved from crying on the bus,” he said, “to anger, thinking about that woman who kicked me, wanting revenge.
“Mixed in with all of that,” he added, “was shame. Shame for what happened. Shame for my family who had not wanted me to be a part of this. Shame for losing the courage I thought I had on the bus ride down. Shame for being black.”
The great leap forward
The years between March 7, 1965 and Nov. 4, 2008 were filled with ups and downs in Sherrell’s life journey. He went through a period of feeling isolated and lonely for three years, followed by a divorce. In 1968, he was hired by AT&T and during his 23-year career with the communications giant, rose to the position of vice-president.
He married again in 1971. While playing bass for St. Luke Church of God in Christ in Cabrini Green, he met an attractive white woman from South Dakota named Kathleen, an ex-nun who was doing social work in the neighborhood. This year they will celebrate their 37th wedding anniversary.
His personal progress can be measured by an encounter he had with a second-level manager in Peoria named Sam Fisher. Sam was a pompous “king of the hill” in his area, and Sherrell had the task of explaining a new strategy, which Illinois Bell’s president, Charles Marshall, was implementing.
Sam, apparently, was unaware that Sherrell was already seated at the conference table when he entered the room in an officious manner and attempted to take control of the situation by announcing, “All right, ladies and gentlemen, I understand a nigger’s going to be coming down here, and he’s going to be in charge of some of the proceedings, so I want you all to be on your best behavior.”
That was the moment when he looked around the room more carefully and saw that the “nigger” had already arrived. “It was a ‘do you want to get out of town’ moment,” Sherrell remembers. “Some of the women at the table had been trying to warn Sam that he was digging a hole for himself, but in his arrogance he had ignored them.
“When I heard him say ‘nigger’, the hair on my neck stood up and for a moment it was 1965 all over again, that time we got off the bus and were encircled by 50 white racists. I wanted to stomp the guy. Shame was gone. Everybody looked at me. They knew what had just happened. This is what I was able to do. … I responded to Sam by referring to Charles Marshall as Chuck.”
By invoking the head of the entire corporation in a familiar way, Sherrell was letting Sam know he was already, as a young manager, at a level this arrogant racist from Southern Illinois could only dream of attaining. He also demonstrated the compassion that had become one of his guiding principles. He allowed Sam to crawl out of the hole he had dug for himself without punishing him. His principles triumphed over the emotional baggage of Selma.
A second career
Five years after retiring from AT&T in 1991, Sherrell went to work as director of Human Resources for The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) based in his old neighborhood, Hyde Park. About once a month, a young state senator who had been a community organizer on the South Side would come by and ask Bob if there was anything he could help with. The senator’s name was Barack Obama.
The big issue Sherrell was dealing with at the time was the drug testing program required by the state in order for TWO to receive government funding. Obama was able to get the Illinois legislature to pass a compromise which gave TWO the flexibility to allow employees to self-identify and enter an employee assistance program instead of being fired on the spot if they tested positive.
“If I knew anything,” Bob said, “I knew if we put people back out on the street again, we would be exacerbating the poverty issue and creating a situation like a tinderbox in which all our good intentions could go up in flames.”
“Because Barack Obama would come in about once a month,” Sherrell said, “I was able to get a measure of him as a man. He was not impressed with himself. He never asked for a payback for anything he did for us. In a way, he was a problem because you never knew where he was coming from. I would say to him, ‘I have problems,’ and he would say to me, ‘How can I help you solve them?'”
Eight years later, on the evening of Nov. 4, 2008, Bob and Kathleen were with their 32-year-old son Matt in a huge bar in Venice, Calif. When one of the TV stations announced that Obama had won, father and son stood in the middle of the bar with people cheering all around them and wept together. Matt embraced him and said, “Thank you, Dad. Thank you for being a part of making this happen.”
“My tears did not mean I felt like we had reached the promised land,” Sherrell said. “What they meant was that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights had become real for me. Obama’s success made me feel that I and other black people were finally no longer 3/5 of a person.”
He also felt a lot of pride in the way Obama had conducted his campaign. “He knows there is a race issue, but he didn’t deal with it as the defining issue. Part of how you do it is to build bridges, build trust, build relationships. That explains his choice of Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration. Warren might not be on the same page as Obama, but he’s in the same book and in the same church.”
He sees Obama as a man who saw his identity not just in being a politician but also as a family man, a professional and a man of faith. “He is a lot of things, a Renaissance man. I could relate to that personally. And in his election, I saw the promise of potential for my children-that if you really do want to work hard and strive and make the sacrifices, you can achieve anything you want to do.”
That, of course, sounds very much like what an idealistic teenager might have said at his graduation from Hyde Park High School in 1957. The difference is he’s no longer informed by naïve optimism but by the audacity, and reality, of hope.
Or as Bob Sherrell put it on returning from the Obama Inauguration: “March 7, 1965 to Jan. 20, 2009, what a journey-from the depths of despair to the heights of hopefulness.”
Tom Holmes is a retired Lutheran minister who lives in Forest Park.