The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 15, 2008


Wendy Davis and the historic march for civil rights

"I just did it because I had to do it," says Wendy Davis. She speaks with a trace of the Georgia drawl that 50 years in Carlisle have not managed to erase. Interviewed recently in the dining room of her East Street farmhouse where a cozy fire crackles in the fireplace, Davis recalls the Selma to Montgomery (Alabama) march 43 years ago when she, her late husband Jim, and her best friend Julie Tams left Carlisle to join the last day of the march.

"The five-day, four-night event covered a 54-mile route along Highway 80 through chilling weather and rain," reports the online source Wikipedia. This landmark march — 25,000 people strong — led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed by President Lyndon Johnson.

Davis was raised in Cornelia, in the northern part of Georgia, with a strong sense of social justice. "When I went to school there in the 1940s, schools were segregated. But when I was growing up, we never heard name-calling or bad things, never heard it," she emphasizes. "I was aware of how poor the black people were — they never had enough to eat or much to wear. It was very obvious. I couldn't see that a person's skin color would make a difference. Of course they're proud to be black, we're proud to be white. There's no point in denigrating anybody."

Davis remembers her mother telling her many years ago that when the schools in Cornelia were desegregated, "there was not one incident at the schools in my home town. It all went very smoothly. That meant a lot to me."

Early protesters

It's not surprising, then, that Wendy and Jim Davis "started protesting a long time ago, and kept it up." In 1951, when they were newly married, Jim was teaching in the physics department at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia, where the college president was a high-powered fundraiser. He invited a General Armstrong to a meeting at the college, a military man who had recently resigned from the Army because of his racist views. Armstrong promised Piedmont a very large donation if its faculty and student body were restricted to white Anglo-Saxon protestants. "We all revolted and everybody was either fired or had resigned because of this," says Wendy, still outraged. "It was so heartening then to know that people stood up [for what was right]. We left immediately, in the middle of the year, and went to Mississippi where Jim taught at Keesler Air Force Base and I kept records of the pilots' flying time."

She recalls that they attended a party for civil service employees at the base in Mississippi. "And the head of the civil service unit was black! This was such a pleasure after the bad experience we had had at Piedmont."

Three years ago, on January 15, 2005, Davis spoke to Concord-Carlisle High School students at a Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration. She told the students about the Selma to Montgomery march and the historic importance of the civil rights movement. It is published below.

Wendy Davis speaks to CCHS, January 15, 2005

How would you feel if you were told you could not go to a school of your choice or the school nearest you because of your color? And water fountains and rest rooms were marked "Colored" or "White only?" Until the 1970s or thereabouts, these conditions existed in many sections of the United States.

When Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were in office, a nationwide awakening for equal rights became a new cause. President Johnson proposed, on March 15, 1965, a new law to make registration for black voters faster and safer — this was after numerous murders and the use of whips, clubs and tear gas on people trying to register the black populations.

In the 1960s many protest marches were held in Boston in which my family participated. When plans for the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965, were announced, my husband [Jim Davis], my dearest friend Julie Tams and I felt compelled to join the last day of the march. We were required to attend two training sessions in Boston, including ways to act in case of violence and taunts from bystanders and police.

We flew all night in a slow, lumbering propeller plane and arrived in Montgomery just at dawn. We had been warned of hostile behavior from airport personnel and we were indeed ignored pointedly. The rest rooms had not been tended to for our welcome.

We waited for a bus to take us to a little country church, St. Jude's, which was surrounded by ankle-deep mud, but the throng of people welcomed us with open arms. Among them was the Reverend Nigel Andrews, rector of Concord's Trinity Church. Many of the people there had marched for four days, sleeping at night on hard church pews and floors, but they were all jubilant even in their exhaustion.

We shared our sandwiches and fruit with everyone around us from all over the country, and, at last, it was time to begin our march of several miles to the capital, Montgomery, over dirt roads. We passed many black people standing in front of their shacks. Many waved and thanked us as we went by.

Marching and singing freedom songs

We walked eight to ten abreast with locked arms and sang freedom songs as we went. Young Jesse Jackson was one of the parade marshals.

When we reached the city limits, there were scary state troopers every ten feet, some with

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (left) and Rev. Ralph Abernathy lead civil rights marchers on their way to Montgomery. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

dogs, all with guns. Their metal helmets were flashing in the sunlight. The sidewalks were lined with white people waving Confederate flags. They stood just behind the state troopers.

Some women were taunting and spitting at us from office windows above us. Others glared at us from porches and steps, but we marchers were linked together by arms and common purpose and freedom songs.

As we marched up the hill to the capital building, I looked back. For as far as I could see, there was a seemingly endless flow of people — 25,000, I later learned, all united. Ahead was the capital, blindingly and dazzlingly white in the strong southern sun against the brilliant blue sky. My recollection is that the Confederate flag flew above Old Glory. I remember a strong feeling of revulsion.

Suddenly we were in the front row, facing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other eminent speakers. The speeches were in keeping with the rest of the day's experiences.

After all events were concluded, we said goodbye to our new friends and were bused back to the airport. There was a sense of having been involved in a small way in a momentous event, and a feeling of happiness and satisfaction that all had gone well.

When we awoke the next morning, however, we were stunned to learn that Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from Detroit who had been ferrying people by car to the airport, had been ambushed — shot to death by a Ku Klux Klansman. Forty years later, we still have not eradicated racial discrimination. It begins, keep in mind, at home where our values are.

2008 The Carlisle Mosquito