SELMA, THE TURNING POINT
Another man Bob had regard for beside Charles Lowery was his cousin’s husband John Bradley who was studying for an M.S.W. at Harvard. In April of 1965, John called Bob long distance and told him about a march to be held in a place called Selma, Alabama.
“John was telling me ‘man, you gotta go down there and be a part of history,'” Bob recalled. “So, I’m thinking John will be down there with me and he’s 6’8″ so I’ll be with somebody big.”
“Sonny, you don’t want to do this,” was his father’s response to his plan to go to Selma. Katie went ballistic. “You don’t know what you’re doing. You have a wife and two kids. Don’t ever go into the South.”
Feeling like he had to go despite his parents’ protests, Bob promised his mother he’d be back for her birthday on March 10 and boarded a Trailways bus at 95th and Wentworth and started the first leg of the journey to Selma. When the bus made its first stop in Indianapolis, he noticed that all of the black folk who boarded the bus sat towards the back. They didn’t say anything but looked at him in a pained sort of way as if to say “there’s something here you don’t understand.”
At Paducah, Kentucky the driver from Chicago got off and onto the bus strode a white guy wearing engineer boots and a crew cut and with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his shirt sleeve. The new driver approached a black man sitting two rows in front of Bob and commanded, “Nigger, you move to the back.” The man complied. 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?”
Around Aniston, Alabama he began to see signs of the White Citizen’s Council and of 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 African American men in the store approached them and said they weren’t supposed to enter by the front door and pointed to a sign which said COLOREDS IN THE BACK.
After getting their food handed them through a cubby hole in the back of the restaurant, the two men proceeded to walk across a parking lot where they were surrounded by 40 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, Bob bent over to pick up the food on the ground. Bob grimaced as he continued his story. “A woman came up behind me and kicked me right dead in the ass, straight up in my crotch 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 men walked to the church where they were to gather before beginning the 26 mile walk to Selma the next day. Half of the group of 60 or 70 people were nuns. Five or six were priests.
The 26 miles to Selma, which began early the next morning, proved to be an emotional and spiritual marathon. Pick up trucks would drive right toward the hikers and veer off at the last minute. Mounted police rode alongside them hitting them on their heads and in back of their knees with their billy clubs. “I was cold and scared and trying to be brave,” Bob said. He was feeling a little abandoned by his 6’8″ relative who, in Bob’s mind, was going to protect him and didn’t show up. He was becoming painfully aware of how violence could be used to intimidate.
At the same the thirty 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,” Bob 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 group, which had walked from Marion, arrived in Selma and joined the rest of the marchers in Brown’s Funeral Home, where a few of the march leaders tried to prepare them for what might happen in the next few hours. The told the marchers that 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, twelve people across, and instructed to march arm in arm in a cadence, 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, Bob was toward the end of his line about ten rows rows behind Hosea Williams from the SCLC and John Lewis and Bob Mants representing SNCC in the front row. At least as many rows were behind him. The plan was to march the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery.
As they approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, just six blocks from where the started, 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. Bob wasn’t chuckling. He was thinking, “Oh, my God, one good reason and I’m out of here.”
That’s when, 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 Bob.
“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. Up until this point in his life’s journey, there had been bends in the road, so to speak, 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 which convince people that the lenses through which they had been trying to discern what is real and what is not were in fact distorting his view of the world. That day, March 5, came to be called “Bloody Sunday.”
Riding on the Trailways bus back to Chicago and home, Bob felt a confusing mixture of emotions. One was the feeling of disorientation. He had no intention of “causing trouble.” “I had no understanding that the tension existed to that level. I was going down there to be a supporter, something like I planned to do when I went to Washington to be part of the inauguration.
“My exposure to white people from Hyde Park led me to think that these people were going to be reasonable and say OK, there are things to work at changing. We see the problem now [that you’ve pointed it out to us] and we see that WE need to do something about it. I had no f___ing idea how entrenched that culture was. I never knew humans would do something like that [tear gas].
“My world was a small world,” he explained. “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 and that was 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 on the bus ride down. Shame for being black.”
He also understood much better where his feisty mother was coming from, why though she didn’t always agree with him, she kept listening to Malcolm X. “She understood me probably better than I understood myself,” he said, “that I had this idealism that ignored the reality of my skin color. That’s why she was so frightened that this idiot son of hers was going half cocked down to Alabama.”
“I guess maybe I understood my father better, too. I respected him for understanding how to play the game. Both were right in the way they approached life, and here I was, caught in the f___ing middle. I kept asking myself how am I going to live my life, how am I going to look in the mirror? That’s what the bus ride back to Chicago was like.”
A SEASON OF LONELINESS AND DISORIENTATION
The picture of the world he had put together from pieces he had found in Hyde Park had been scattered. Now he began the process of putting together a new picture with the pieces he could retrieve from the past and new pieces he had just been given.
It was also the beginning of many sleepless nights. “I could never again put my head on the pillow and go right to sleep,” he said. “I spent a lot of time processing what had happened to me, what I had seen. My experiences in Selma challenged those things that I had assumed, like if there were problems with race, they were individual hang ups and not part of the social fabric. What I saw in Alabama helped me understand what I had NOT been looking at in Chicago, and I felt like a fool.”
He never again accepted anything at face value. He had never understood what a friend of his meant when he said that life is like an eight dimensional chess game. Bob began to see how you have to play the competitor you have on one level while playing against another competitor on another level, using different strategies for the competition at each level.
On the one hand, the disorientation energized him to see double meanings in everything and to explore those meanings. On the other hand it was depressing, because much of what he had seen seemed hopeless. Dr Quinn, for example, owned a mansion in Hyde Park but couldn’t buy a bungalow anywhere else. He was, so to speak, a king in a prison, but it was still a prison.
“Part of the pain of coming back,” he said, “was that I didn’t belong anywhere.” He wasn’t rich, and he wasn’t poor. He wasn’t street wise, but he wasn’t sophisticated like his blue blood friends had been. He felt isolated and separated even from his siblings and parents. On top of all of that, his marriage was falling apart. His first wife had not appreciated him going to Selma and felt like he had abandoned her and their daughters.
There was no one he could talk to at work. Among the few other black people working at Zenith, one, Dave Single, was a Black Muslim who would go off on diatribes against all white people. As bad as Selma had been, Bob couldn’t buy that line. Charles Lowery, whom he admired, was preoccupied with his own game and didn’t have any emotional time for what his co-worker was going through. Two Italian guys, Dominic and Antonio who were part of his team, would make racial jokes in Italian. And the hill billies from Kentucky. . . .
“That single word, lonely, summarized my existence in those days,” he said. “I was like a wire with insulation around me, alive at the core, but nothing could touch me. I had folks who liked and respected and in some cases loved me, but I was emotionally insulated from them.”
Both his world view and his sense of identity had been smashed. The three years between Selma and 1968 comprised a depressing time when much of his emotional energy was invested internally, trying to put the pieces together.