Tag Archives: Marching for Civil rights

My Recent Brush with History: Ed Griffin and Dr. Martin Luther King

The more I get into it, the more I think Social Networking is a really cool thing.  You just never know who you are going to meet… and the best meetings tend to happen when you least expect it.

A lot of people hop on my blog.  If I see a new person, I like to look them up to see who they are.  Recently, I checked out someone who made a simple comment, and was cyber-zinged over to his website.

When I got there, I paused as I reviewed the cover of his novel “Once a Priest”.  Then I clicked on his “about” page, and my jaw dropped.

This guy marched with Dr. Martin Luther King.  I found that absolutely fascinating.  The whole Civil Rights movement happened before I was born.  It is history to me… Something to read about in text-books.  But this guy actually LIVED IT.

I sent him an email and was pleasantly surprised when he responded, and we had the opportunity to cyber-chat for a little while.

Ed Griffin opened my eyes.  This man not only marched for Civil Rights, he met Dr. Martin Luther King.

I am not sure what kind of picture the rest of you have of people marching for Civil Rights.  My vision is sweeping black and white photographs taken from someone who stood on the outside… a reporter’s perspective.

I’ve heard about how bad it was in the 60’s, but it’s kind of like when your parents told you to eat your vegetables because there are children starving in Africa.  I just couldn’t connect with it, because the whole idea seemed so foreign.

Hearing the perspective of someone who actually marched… Wow.  This really hit home for me, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

Ed was nice enough to give me permission to give you a short excerpt from his novel “Once a Priest”.

I hope you are as numbed by his words as I was.

If you are interested in reading more you can pick up Ed’s novel for $2.99 on Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.   He has led a very interesting life, during a very turbulent time in the United States.

Amazon link

Barnes and Noble Link

Take a step back into history with me…

with someone who actually lived it.

Excerpt from “Once a Priest”

I followed the news carefully for the next few days. Martin Luther King issued an appeal for Americans to come and join the march to Montgomery. I decided to go and I knocked on Father Blessenko’s door.

“Father,” I said when he answered the door, “I want permission to go to join the march in Selma. Dr. King has called for people to join him.”

“No,” he said. “This is a busy time of year. It’s Lent you know.” He started to close the door.

“Excuse me, Father, but I’m going. I will take vacation time to go to Selma.”

He shrugged and closed the door.

I called another priest, Father Tom Gallagher, a good friend. He and I flew down to Selma a few days later. At the Cleveland airport we were amazed to see about ten policemen go through the airport surrounding Doctor King. He had been in Cleveland giving a talk that night.

It’s difficult to imagine now, but Doctor King was not the revered figure he is to people today. Ten policemen protecting him was appropriate in 1965. People threatened to kill him. My mother said he was moving too fast.

On the plane, Tom and I were sitting about fifteen rows behind him.  I turned to Tom. “Come on, let’s go talk to him.”

“I don’t know. He probably wants to rest.”

“Ah, come on. Let’s go.”

Tom and I stood and walked to the front of the plane. “Doctor King,” I said, “I just want to tell you that we really admire what you’re doing in the South. We’re on our way to join the march.”

“Wonderful, wonderful, ah… Fathers, I presume. Catholic?”

Tom shook his hand and introduced himself and then me.

“How are you Fathers getting to the march?”

This surprised me. I expected a statement about the importance of his efforts, but instead, he asked about our travel plans. I explained how we were going from Atlanta to Selma by air, but we hadn’t figured out how we’d get to the march.

“Here,” he said, and wrote something on a piece of paper. “The white cab companies in Selma won’t help you, but this company will. It’s owned by blacks. Use my name.”

We thanked him and wished him well.

“Well, God bless you, Fathers. I’m going to spend a little time with my family and I’ll rejoin the march tomorrow.”

We went back to our seats.

“Man, he’s just like an ordinary guy,” I said to Tom.

“Hardly ordinary,” Tom said.

“No, I mean, here he is leading a great march, a great effort for voting rights and the guy concerns himself about our travel plans.”

“Yeah,” Tom said, “he’s something.”

I couldn’t get over how he paid attention to us. For him, two more Catholic priests would be nothing special. Was this what made a great leader, attention to every little person?

When we arrived in Selma, we called the cab company Dr. King had given us and they took us across the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge where the marchers had been beaten. We drove along Route 80 a short distance, and then we saw the march ahead of us.

We paid the cab and started walking. It was around noon and we hadn’t eaten since the previous night, but we admired the marchers who had been on the road for three days already. Tom and I had no luggage, just our clerical suits and overcoats. The marchers were on one half of the road, with some traffic getting through on the other half. The weather was cold and windy and we were glad we had our coats. At every cross street there were National Guard soldiers with fixed bayonets on their rifles. I couldn’t believe that there had to be armed soldiers in my native country.

In front of us on the march, a group of black people and white people laughed and joked together. They all seemed to know each other. They told us they were from Dr. King’s organization, SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  They welcomed us to the march and shared some candy bars with us.

Behind us was a short old white man with a full head of white hair. He said he had marched in the thirties for jobs for people and now he was marching so that people could vote.

“Get back in the church, Reverend,” someone on the sidelines behind the guards shouted at Tom and me. “Nigger lovers die tonight,” they cried out.

The wind picked up and it started to rain. There was nothing we could do but walk on. The weather seemed to depress people’s spirits for a while, but then the SCLC group started singing. We sang We shall overcome, and If I had a hammer.

Almost as if the weather responded to singing, the rain stopped, the clouds broke and the sun came out. It got warmer, so we took off our coats and walked along. Cabs were pulling up to the march all afternoon and the crowd got bigger and bigger. The abuse from the sidelines increased too as we neared the city of Montgomery. Tough looking locals promised us death – “If you go to sleep tonight, Pastor, you won’t wake up.”

As evening came, the organizers told us that we would spend the night on the grounds of St. Jude’s mission. This was absolute irony for me, because the little mission box on our kitchen table when I was growing up had been for St. Jude’s in Montgomery, Alabama. The stated purpose on the box was to convert the Negro people to Catholicism. I am sure my mother never intended her mission money to be used to house a bunch of protestors.

That evening a rally was held at St. Jude’s, including singers Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Nina Simone, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter, Paul and Mary. It was a great concert and rally. I felt happy and fulfilled that night. I was with my people – these protestors, black and white, young and old, clergy and lay. The night felt like the high point of my life, more important to my identity than my ordination day.

When the rally was over most people slept outside, but the priests from St. Jude’s insisted that all priests were to sleep in a big roof filled with cots. Nuns from the march stayed in a separate room.

Around noon the next day we walked the remaining distance to the state capital. By now there were about twenty-five thousand people. Of course, Governor Wallace did not come out to greet us.

Dr. King gave a terrific speech that day, encouraging us to struggle on for voting rights. He promised that the struggle would not be long. I don’t know whether he had inside information, but a mere five months later President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

One part of Dr. King’s speech affected me deeply:

“Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.”

Standing there in the sun that day, I felt that my life had reached an apex. Finally I was a Christian. I was working with this saint of a man, Doctor King. I was surrounded by other Christians who were fearless in their determination to bring justice to America.

It was hot, I hadn’t had a shower in days and I was hungry and tired. But I was happy.

The next morning Tom and I hired the black-owned taxi to drive us to the airport. The driver took the fast lane on the highway and stayed in that lane, even though other cars passed us on the right.  I asked him why.

“Reverend,” he said, “a white woman got killed last night by the Klan. They drove up along side her and shot, just because she was a civil rights worker. All due respect, Reverend, but ain’t nobody pulling up along side me in this lane. It’s you Reverends who’s the target.”

I found out later that the woman, Viola Liuzzo, was from Michigan and the mother of five children.

As we flew back to Cleveland, Tom and I talked about what a significant experience it had been for both of us. Tom had called his pastor from Montgomery and the pastor told him that the people in the parish were praying for his safety. “We’re having a big reception for you, Tom, when you get home,” he said.

Tom’s pastor was Father Ed Jackman, the old friend of my dad’s, the man who could have become a baseball player. He certainly had done the right thing for Tom, getting the people to pray for his safety.

I wondered what awaited me.

Thank you so much Ed, for sharing your incredible story.