Friday, January 15, 1999
Wendy Davis talks about her march to Montgomery to hear MLK
It's January and the time of year when thoughts turn briefly to the man who led the civil rights movement. When the day of his birth comes and goes, the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. seems to fade like thoughts of summer with winter's cold bite. But for Carlisle's Wendy Davis, a native of Georgia who came here to live and then to teach, the memory of King and the day she marched with thousands to hear his words is a treasure she keeps dear and well-dusted.
After speaking to her by the wood stove in her antique home with a backyard full of birds, one gets a sense of the impact King made on the people who heard him speak. A champion of civil rights, Wendy Davis went to march because, "as the momentum mounted, it just seemed necessary. I was always involved in making sure people got equal treatment." In the Georgia town where she grew up, where segregation was a way of life and racism common as apple pie, this, she says, was not always easy. In the North, "racism is veiled. It still is." Davis continued, "I grew up in a household that was not prejudiced, and I expected people to accept everybody. I never heard anything bad in my house about anyone with a different colored skin. We never spoke about anything except the civil warand the South was always on the right side of courseand I suppose that's what started it all."
Involved in civil rights protests from a young age, Davis would take her two children to marches in Boston after they moved to Carlisle. When it came time for the summit in March 1965 at Montgomery, Alabama her children had been so involved they thought it was a "natural thing to do."
Human Rights Council speaker
Speaking at the Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council last Sunday, she reflects on her youth and recalls, "I always rode on the back of the bus....I had the most wonderful conversations there. Looking back I don't know how I didn't get lynched for doing things, because I did things."
Her children would not join her on the trip to hear King however, as "there had been so many incidents and killings" Davis and her husband Jim deemed it too dangerous to take the children. The couple was so fearful of what might happen that they flew on different planes in the hope that at least one of them would survive. "We had to go to Boston for training sessions," Davis recalls, "on what to do in case we were attacked. They told us to lie down in the fetal position, and told us to march ten abreast, arms locked, so that the line was difficult to break. So many people had been attacked by dogs, and hoses...We just didn't know. There'd been so many incidents. Not too long before we went there had been one or two ministers killed. It was a tense situation."
With her best friend, Davis flew to Alabama in an old lumbering plane and arrived at dawn on a foggy day. "The sun was breaking through, and it was just a beautiful sight," she recalls. Planes coming from all over the country, and foreign countries, brought believers by the thousands. "It was wonderful to see all that congregation," she says smiling. Bussed to a tiny primitive hospital, the first person she saw was Nigel Andrews, the rector at her home parish, Trinity Episcopal Church in Concord. Davis was thrilled to see a familiar face.
Armed with loads of food after being warned to be prepared for anything, Davis tells of what she calls "one of the miracles of her life" as the assembly waited for the call to march. "In a tiny churchyard, ankle deep in red mud, we shared our food," she remembers. "People were so hungry. They were cooking in pots over open fires, and we shared food all day long. The next day, after sleeping two or three hours, I opened my bag and there was still food in it! I do not understand it. That was on of those miracles in my life, I think. I don't know how we still had food to share."
At the head of the march
Somehow finding herself at the head of the mass of marchers, Davis walked arm-in-arm with others through the encouraging shouts and cheers of the poor black section of Montgomery and on through the gauntlet of the stone faces staring from porches in the affluent white neighborhoods. Among darker concerns, she feared she would be spat on. All around was the sobering sight of armed policemen, faces expressionless, guns standing ready, sunlight gleaming on metal helmets. When they reached the top of the hill where the capitol lay, Davis looked down on one of the most beautiful sights of her life. "I looked back and as far as I could see, ten abreast, all colors, all locked arms."
Hearing King speak
When Davis finally heard King speak, she laughs with joy at the memory. "Awesome! As the children say. It was really a moving experience, the blue blue sky and the sun shining off the buildings and the confederate flag waving. Someone went on to the state house to try and get Governor Wallace to come out, but that didn't happen. But it was really the most peaceful, beatific day I've ever spent. We were just aglow with hope."
After more than thirty years, Wendy Davis still breaks down and cries at the mention of King's death. "It was a terrible day," she says, wiping away tears. "I think everything went downhill from there. He was just the most inspiring leader. There was such hope. When he died it was like the end of the world."
In a Wall Street Journal interview from 1962, Martin Luther King proclaimed, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that." And for a few days in the coldest part of winter, Wendy Davis shares her bit of the brightness. With it comes the challenge to see clearly and to act upon what is seen. When the celebrations of King's life are over for the year, memories like hers are what tend the fire, and make the darkest day of his death a call to remember to light a candle for unity and hope.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito