Carbondale resident remembers Selma march

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Charlotte man recalls his days with Martin Luther King Jr..

Responding for the first time to the firestorm of criticism over the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations, film academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs says the all-white acting slate inspires her to accelerate the academy’s push to be more inclusive.

Lowery, who still lives in Selma today, has written a book for young readers about her experience: Turning 15 On The Road To Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March, an illustrated memoir. “I would like for young people to know that each day of your life is a journey into history,” Lowery tells NPR’s Arun Rath. “You have the ability to change something each day of your life. Jesse Douglas Sr. will be reflecting on a time – turbulent, but also triumphant – when the two preachers, then young and on fire for justice, worked and marched together. The first black president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences spoke out Friday night about the Oscar nominations and the widespread criticism that followed.

For Douglas, who moved to the Charlotte area a year and a half ago to be near daughter Adrienne, the approach of the holiday honoring what would have been King’s 86th birthday recalls memories that still endure. “Dr. King,” as Douglas always called him, was a friend, a fellow man of the cloth and a leader of those, like Douglas, who were on the front lines of the civil rights movement in the segregated South of the 1960s.

King, Douglas remembers, was down-to-earth, calm but compassionate, loved to stop and talk with children, and wouldn’t let ever-present threats diminish his sense of humor. He was also a man whose heart beat for the poor, and Douglas is convinced King would have raised up the issue of economic inequality – still unfinished business today – if he had not been murdered in Memphis in 1968.

In a delicately wrought scene in which Coretta Scott King calls out her husband about his infidelities, some of the teenage girls reacted with a chorus of “oooohs.” DuVernay sets the tone for her portrayal of Lyndon Johnson as patronizing and skittish on civil rights in the first scene between the president and Dr. Plus, Douglas adds with a smile, King was a lover of gospel music and would summon “Jesse,” a singing preacher, to stand up during church rallies and perform his favorite spiritual – “I Told Jesus It Would Be All Right If He Changed My Name.” Douglas is now 84 and lives with his wife, Blanche, at a nursing and rehabilitation center in Mint Hill. Boone Isaacs declined to address whether she and the academy were embarrassed by the slate of white Oscar nominees, instead insisting that she’s proud of the nominees, all of whom deserved recognition. She explained that while each branch comes up with its own criteria for excellence and each nominates its colleagues, all voting is individual and confidential.

L.B.J. stands above a seated M.L.K., pats him on the shoulder, and tells him “this voting thing is just going to have to wait” while he works on “the eradication of poverty.” Many of the teenagers by me bristled at the power dynamic between the men. But his mind is still sharp as he recalls the years alongside King in an Alabama whose cities – Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma – were historic battlegrounds. “There was a lot of hatred going on among the white constituency there,” Douglas told the Observer in an interview last week. “They just did not want to recognize black people as equals.” His own complexion is so light that some Alabamans mistook Douglas for a white person – including one in Albany, Ala., he remembers, who spat on him for being “a white sympathizer” of black causes. Douglas never commanded as big a spotlight as those around King who went on to become famous in their own right, including John Lewis, now a congressman, and former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young. “Dr.

I really wasn’t afraid that day until we got down there, all the way to the state troopers, and they said we were an illegal assembly and we had to disperse, and I heard this pop pop sound. Douglas didn’t drive, but he would then accompany them – in a limo borrowed from a local funeral home – to Brown’s Chapel in Selma for strategy sessions, rallies and worship services. Their planning culminated in a 54-mile march for voting rights that – as dramatized in the new movie, “Selma” – ended with King’s oration to a rally of 25,000 before the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery.

-M.L.K. relationship and was “much more slanted to Johnson.” Hollywood has done that with films like “Mississippi Burning,” which cast white F.B.I. agents as the heroes, or “Cry Freedom,” which made a white journalist the focus rather Denzel Washington’s anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko. In the days before, he’d led a tense night-time prayer vigil at the Capitol for 40 clergy “from up North, with Alabama state troopers holding billy clubs over our heads.” He had also arranged transportation for visiting celebrities and others, staged a Montgomery protest of police brutality, and walked the last 17 miles of the march that started in Selma.

Top Johnson aide Jack Valenti told Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, that L.B.J. aspired to pass a Voting Rights Act from his first night as president. Watching the Montgomery rally from downtown’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, King’s launching pad in the 1950s, Douglas says his reaction was simply: “Here at last! Valenti said that his boss talked to him about it the night of J.F.K.’s assassination in the bedroom of Johnson’s house in D.C., The Elms, before the newly sworn-in president went to sleep.

Douglas, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you,’ ” Douglas remembers. “He said, ‘Everything went fine today, but we had an incident on Highway 80. Viola Liuzzo was killed by a group of rebels who saw her get in the car with this black man.’ ” “She decided she couldn’t sit still any longer,” Douglas says. “She volunteered for our transportation committee, brought her own car and refused to accept gas money.” Douglas was born in New Orleans in 1930. Filmmakers love to talk about their artistic license to distort the truth, even as they bank on the authenticity of their films to boost them at awards season. Other black kids would tease him about his blue eyes and blonde hair, calling him “old white boy” and “old albino.” But in 1954, he answered a call to the ministry. His first campaign: Joining with other Georgia students to try to desegregate cafeterias and lunch counters in Atlanta. “No one could participate in the movement unless they were committed to nonviolence,” he says. “We agreed to make our bodies a living sacrifice.” “He was always very active,” Lewis said.

And during those years when the nation’s eyes were on Alabama, Lewis added, Douglas was “always reliable, always dependable.” Though based in Atlanta, King was frequently in Alabama during the early-to-mid 1960s, as SCLC leaders mobilized protests and even went to jail with rank-and-file protesters. As I have written about “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and “Argo,” and as The New York Review of Books makes clear about “The Imitation Game,” the truth is dramatic and fascinating enough.

Douglas says that’s him singing at the beginning and the end of an LP record the SCLC released featuring King reading his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” That’s also Douglas, locked arm-in-arm with King and Lewis, in one of the most famous photographs taken during the time of the Selma-to-Montgomery march. DuVernay had plenty of vile white villains — including one who kicks a priest to death in the street — and they were no doubt shocking to the D.C. school kids. And once, he remembers, he was able to answer a white woman’s taunt that “You can march all you want, it won’t make you white” with an invitation to inspect his skin. “Lady,” he said, “look at me. I’m whiter than you.” Unlike many of his fellow activists, Douglas says, “I never got beat up because I think … whites just thought I was one of them, just being sympathetic to the movement.” But he remembers being sickened by all the white-on-black cruelty. For decades after that, Douglas served at a succession of CME (Christian Methodist Episcopal) churches, in Kansas City, Mo., Detroit, Chicago, Champagne, Ill., and Flint, Mich.

With segregation outlawed, voting rights won and access to restaurants, hotels and other public places assured, King was already speaking up in 1968 about economic injustice. Too many poor people – black, white and Hispanic – were unemployed or underpaid. “He said, ‘If you don’t have the money, how can you enjoy the privileges we fought so hard to get?’” King and the SCLC were planning a Poor People’s Campaign.

And even with Barack Obama in the White House, Douglas also thinks King would not be satisfied with the current scene, especially “new tactics” – more subtle than in King’s day – “to deprive minorities and the poor of their rights.” Says Douglas, again with a smile: “At least my kids and my grandkids are able to say this about me: ‘He didn’t sit by and watch things happen.

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