When we marched for Selma -- and freedom
Forty years ago this month it was Wednesday, March 17, 1965 UVA students, staff, faculty, and spouses walked up the sides of the Lawn, under the arcades, to the north side of the Rotunda where they were joined by townspeople approaching from University Avenue. We were all there for a short ceremony to express sympathy for the families of James Reeb and Jimmie Lee Jackson, to extend encouragement to the African Americans of Selma, and to declare our support for President Lyndon B. Johnson's voting bill.
The Selma demonstrations were the climactic event of the southern civil rights movement, the last of the great marches. Few people today will remember James Reeb and Jimmie Lee Jackson, or just how and why they were murdered, but they will likely remember pictures they have seen of George Wallace's Alabama state troopers beating women, men, and children as they attempted to cross the Pettus Bridge to begin a march to Montgomery. Those and other brutal acts visited on blacks who wanted to be able to vote made it possible for them finally to secure the right.
As I leaf through the letters, documents, and news clips from that era, I am reminded of how nervous and defensive both the university and the Charlottesville white community were about the black freedom movement. I think they feared both the freedom and the movement to secure it. Political and business leaders kept their distance. White ministers told their congregations to steer clear of us.
I was the Virginia coordinator for the Selma movement and an advisor to the student group that planned our ceremony here. At their request I wrote a letter to my colleagues, inviting them to join us for the occasion. Because I signed my rank to the letter associate professor of history some readers protested that I implied the university's approval of the march. I replied to a call from one administration official that I couldn't be responsible for the poor reading habits of the complainers.
My letter simply said that the university would permit the ceremony. The university wasn't about to be part of such a thing. Still, the president felt obliged to send through channels (president-to-dean-to-chairman-to-me) a mild reprimand. I should be more "discreet" in the future.
Tom Gardner, one of our undergraduates who journeyed to Selma, got sterner treatment. He carried aloft a large poster board on which he had copied one of Mr. Jefferson's familiar statements, one he had seen prominently displayed here on the Grounds: "All eyes are opening to the rights of man." Beneath it, he wrote "UVA."
A journalist photographed the scene, and Tom's placard went out over the wire services. When he returned from Selma, he was called into a dean's office for a dressing down. He should not have put the university's name on his placard, the dean said, because it implied the university was an official part of the march. Tom smiled inwardly at that improbable thought. More to the point, the dean told him the university's good name should not be put into public debate on controversial issues.
The principal speaker at our ceremony was Merrill D. Peterson, only recently arrived to join the faculty as the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History. His opening sentence did more than Tom Gardner or I could possibly have done to link the university to the Selma demonstrations. He put the university's good name right in the middle of the public debate.
"This University," he said, "dedicated by its father to the illimitable freedom of the human spirit, bears a high responsibility to the cause of free men everywhere... above all in the Selmas of our beloved country."
What happened in Selma concerned us "because the struggle there involves what is taught here: truth, honesty, justice, compassion, the rights and freedoms of all men in a democratic society. Today, Selma is a vital link in the heritage of American liberty."
So should the University be involved? Professor Peterson left no doubt about that: "No university... has a clearer title to speak for that heritage in the present crisis than the University of Virginia. And it is high time (long past time) we were heard from!"
I still get chills as I read the text of that speech.
Merrill Peterson did precisely what the dean told Tom Gardner must not be done, but Peterson's high rank in a hierarchical institution insulated him from criticism. The administration ignored him. No words of rebuke. No private words of congratulation.
Rights withheld and justice denied to our citizens ensure the perpetual need for freedom movements. Institutions and their leaders, alas, continue to tag along rather than to lead. We continue to depend on the voices of those who would prod them. Or so my memories of Selma remind me.
Paul Gaston is Professor Emeritus of Southern and Civil Rights History at the University of Virginia.