Were You There?

Were You There?

From Songs of Gentle Sadness

by Buie Seawell

At times history and fate meet in a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.  So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox.  So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson

Joint Session of Congress

March 15, 1965


My teacher and friend James Mayes called from his office at Union Seminary in Richmond, VA.  “Buie, I know you’ve heard about the Rev. James Reeb’s murder in Selma last week? . . . well, a delegation from the Presbyterian Church in the United States (i.e., The Southern Presbyterian Church) is coming in for the memorial service.  Can you help us get from the Montgomery Airport to Selma?”

“Sure, Jim.”

I was the 27 year old pastor of The First (and only!) Presbyterian Church of Childersburg, Alabama.  With my pregnant wife, Dorothy, and my one year old daughter, Scottie, I was completing what would be my third and final year in Alabama — amazing years, among amazing people. The members of our little congregation of fewer than one hundred souls, were as supportive and loving to us as one could imagine.  In 1963 when our first child, Robin, died in childbirth the love of those people had literally saved our sanity.  I was young, impassioned, filled with the rhetoric of social justice and, I think on reflection, many times simply insufferable.  They loved us anyway.  As Luther wrote, “We are saved by grace, through faith alone.”  Sole Fide!  Those were faithful friends.

So many images come back all these years later, of . . .

Standing one Sunday in the spring of 1963 on the steps of our church, in my robe, greeting the flock after morning worship and one of the Deacons (who had been smoking outside in his car during the sermon, and listening to the car radio) comes up to us and relates that a bomb explosion at a church in Birmingham (thirty miles west of Childersburg) had killed four little black girls in their Sunday School.  And how we just stood there on a beautiful Sunday morning in weeping disbelief.

Or reading in the Birmingham newspaper the letter of Dr. Martin Luther King from his jail cell in that city.  A letter addressed to “The Clergy of Alabama” and basically saying that if we (read “Buie”) were not in jail with him we were assuredly in the wrong place! And how that letter brought back to me my intense conversations with my father about civil disobedience and natural law.  My Dad had recently been Attorney General of North Carolina and was to my everlasting pride, the first southern AG publically to declare that the U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. The Board of Education was “the law of the land.”  That conscientious stand had cost Dad the governorship of North Carolina in 1960.  Malcolm Seawell did not even agree with the Warren Court’s ruling in Brown, but he knew it was the law.  And true to his principles as a “positive law theorist,” he said so.  His greatest fear was that his only son would end up in jail for “breaking a law to change the law.”  Precisely what Dr. King had done in leading a march in Birmingham without permission of that racist city government.  If Dad had only known how frightened (in spite of my bold sermonic declarations) I was of going to jail and embarrassing him and our family, he would have been much comforted!

Or on that dark day in November of 1963 driving home from the church office and stopping off to get our mail at the post office, and having Ms. Bush, the post mistress of Childersburg, tell me, “Buie, they’ve killed our President.”  And how the children in Dorothy’s high school English class had cheered when the Principal announced over the school’s intercom that Kennedy was dead.  Dorothy put her head down on her desk and wept.   I had picked her up soon after that and we just went home and sat numb for days as the events of Dallas and DC unfolded before us on our black and white TV set.

Jim Mayes asked me to have two cars “with Alabama license plates” waiting at 11 AM at the Montgomery airport for our church’s delegation, which delegation included Dr. Tolifer Thompson the 80 something year old Moderator of our church, who had also been my teacher at Union Seminary in Richmond.  Dr. Tolly was old, lame and liberal.  His presence was the very presence of our Church in these troubled times, and he was coming to Selma.  I drove our mauve and gray four-door Nash Rambler down to Montgomery early on the morning of March 15, 1965, and rented a second car at the airport, and waited.

While I was standing around in the airport, nervous as hell, pacing this way and that, I saw across the small waiting room a group of black men in suits and talking intensely.   White folks all around the terminal were staring at them.  And there was Martin King!  No wonder they were staring.  I was too.  Then I did an impulsive thing.  I walked across the waiting area, and approaching Dr. King from behind said in my white Southern accent, “Dr. King . . .”  He turned slowly, right hand already extended and said, “Who are you?”  I want the record to show I remembered my name.

The great man took the time to ask why I was there, and upon learning that the Southern Presbyterian Church was sending a delegation to the Reeb Memorial Service, asked me to have Dr. Thompson sit next to him on the dais and participate in the service.  He told me, “Jesse here, will make sure Dr. Thompson is appropriately seated.”  And then he and Jesse Jackson and company departed.  

The plane landed, and as the nine church officials and I sorted out seating and logistics I explained to Dr. Thompson about the arrangements I’d made with Dr. King.  “How the hell did you do that, Buie?,” my old teacher asked.  I had never heard him swear before.

“Well,” I said, “I just went up and introduced myself and . . .”

We arrived in Selma at about 1 PM, and spent a really long time trying to get any where close to Brown Chapel.  Finally, parking a mile or so away (having first dropped off Dr. Thompson) we walked to the church.  All along the street leading to the church there were police, sheriff and public safety vehicles.  Two white sedans had the green emblem of the Alabama Department of Natural Resources with “Pest Control” emblazoned on their driver side doors.  National Guard troops, armed, were everywhere. Some of those walking along with us (also from out of town) talked about a march to the Dallas County Court House being planned for after the service. I was beginning to get sweaty palms and cold feet, but feet kept following my friends onward toward the Church.

The place was packed.  Even thirty minutes ahead of the announced time, it was standing room only.  The nine of us went to the back of the sanctuary and waited.  And waited.  Finally, at about 3 PM Dr. King and the others, including Dr. Thompson, walked in.  We sang hymns.  Scriptures were read.  We sang, “We shall overcome.” And then Dr. King preached.  It was an amazing sermon.  He asked, “Who killed James Reeb?”  And his answers rocked the very foundations of that racist place and time.  I was near to tears.  And then Dr. King said . . . quoting Jeremiah, “And so today we go forth!”  And the people there said, “We go forth.”  And Dr. King said, louder, “And so we go forth.” And, some raising there hands, the people said, “We go forth!”

And I’m standing there next to Jim Mayes (who had gotten me into this mess) thinking we’re going to jail!  But whatever, it was abundantly clear, we were going forth.  Then, just before he said the Benediction, and lead us out (Jesus I hate guns!) Dr. King reached under his robe and pulled out a piece of folded paper, and held it up.  “Today, for the first time in the history of the civil rights movement in Alabama, we go forth under the order and protection of the Federal Courts of the United States of America.  Granted this day by Judge Johnson, Justice of the Federal Court, District of Alabama.

And I thought, “Thank you, Jesus!  Malcolm Seawell’s only son ain’t going to jail today.”

I wish I could tell you I felt strong and brave as we walked from the church the mile or so to the court house, me behind Dr. Tolly who was limping but making it, every step of the way.  But I was neither.  I was just shaken and relieved.  But with that, I was also forever changed.