Saturday, January 17, 2015

Waterbury's Connections to Selma

Sometimes related events converge by coincidence. As Waterbury wrestles with the creation of new voting districts, guided by an outside demographer whose primary focus is adherence to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a new movie, Selma, brings to life the conflict that forced the Voting Rights Act into being.

Brief Background

On January 2, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), along with other groups, began a voting rights campaign in Selma, Alabama. Their goal was to focus national attention on the local government, which was illegally preventing African Americans from voting.

One of the protesters, an African American church deacon named Jimmie Lee Jackson, while protecting his mother and grandfather, was shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper in February. On March 7, activists began a march from Selma to Montgomery, but they didn't get far. State troopers set up a blockade on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, attacking the marchers with tear gas and clubs. The event received wide television coverage, sparking national outrage.

Two days later, the march began again, this time with more than 2,000 people participating. This time, they avoided a confrontation with the state troopers by turning back to Selma, but yet another protester was killed: a white Unitarian minister named James Reeb.

On March 15, President Johnson declared his support of the protesters; on March 16, the plan to march from Selma to Montgomery received official approval from a federal judge; and on March 17, President Johnson submitted to Congress his voting rights legislation.

The marchers finally left Selma on March 21, protected by the National Guard and the FBI. On the final day of the march, March 25, the number of participants grew to 25,000. Alabama's Governor Wallace refused to accept a petition from the marchers. A third participant in the demonstration was killed that night: white housewife Viola Liuzzo was shot in the head by members of the KKK while she drove fellow marchers to their homes in Selma.

The Voting Rights Act was finally signed into law on August 6, 1965.

Support for Selma in Waterbury

Waterbury attorney Peter Marcuse was active in the South prior to the Selma march. He was a member of the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee (LCDC), which provided legal aid to Civil Rights activists beginning in the summer of 1964. Marcuse was based in Mississippi for part of that summer, defending civil rights workers.

Marcuse traveled to Selma for the march in 1965 with Arthur Johnson, head of Hartford's Human Relations Commission. During the days leading up to the final march, Marcuse and Johnson toured the area in a station wagon, surveying the terrible living conditions for Alabama's African Americans. Marcuse also worked for social justice in Waterbury, helping to found New Opportunities for Waterbury. Now Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning at Columbia University, Marcuse writes a blog about various topics including social justice and urban issues.

Rev. Alfred Jaenicke, assistant at Waterbury's Sts. Peter and Paul Church, was one of six Catholic priests from Connecticut who flew to Alabama on March 11 in response to Martin Luther King's call for clergymen to join the demonstration. The Connecticut priests were part of the National Catholic Conference for Inter-Racial Justice.

Waterbury resident and State Treasurer Gerald Lamb joined the Selma demonstrators on March 21, serving as Connecticut's official representative. Connecticut's Governor Dempsey declined to join the march, citing too many obligations, but declared in a telegram to Dr. King: "I intend to continue my practice of speaking out strongly for civil rights and to make particular reference to the struggle you are waging in Alabama." (Hartford Courant, 21 Mar 1965)

Other Waterbury residents who participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery included Frank S. Moore, president of the Waterbury branch of the NAACP; Doris Powell Glass, president of the Waterbury Negro Federation; and Reed Smith, president of Meadow Homes, the first interracial premium home community in Waterbury.

[If you know of others from Waterbury who marched, please let me know, and I'll add them to this post.]

Waterbury Rallies for Selma

On Sunday, April 4, 1965, approximately 1,000 people rallied on the Waterbury Green to show support for the Selma demonstrators and voting rights. The Waterbury demonstration began with a march of about 500 people, who walked from Cooke Street, down North Main Street, to the Green. The march was led by a half dozen or so Waterburians who had participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery. Marchers also included about 40 nuns from city parishes, as well as Catholic and Protestant clergymen. A few demonstrators carried signs with slogans that included "Love Conquers All" and "God is Love." There was no chanting or shouting, only quiet discussion as they marched (All rally descriptions, unless otherwise noted, are from Waterbury Republican, 5 Apr 1965).

Marching to the Green down Cooke Street, Sunday, April 4, 1965.
Front row, left to right: Kenneth Moore and his parents, Mrs. and Mr. Frank Moore, and Alderman Luther Gatling.

Image courtesy of Jimmie Griffin.

Speakers at the rally were primarily people who participated in the Selma march. Gerald Lamb spoke about his experience marching from Selma to Montgomery "not only as the governor's representative, but as your representative too." Lamb said that the trip was one of the most moving experiences of his life.

Jerry Harrison, a 19-year-old Selma resident and member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, also spoke at the Waterbury rally. Harrison had been beaten and gassed at the Pettus Bridge blockade during the first Selma march. In Waterbury, Harrison declared "Anyone who denies an American citizen the right to vote dishonors the memory of every serviceman who died fighting for this country." (Hartford Courant, 5 Apr 1965)

Gerald Lamb addressing the crowd on the Green, April 4, 1965.
(Image from Waterbury Republican, 5 Apr 1965; microfilm at Bronson Library)

Frank Moore, president of the Waterbury branch of the NAACP, thanked the Waterbury police for their protection of the march and rally and spoke about the importance of voting rights and stated that "A voteless man is a hopeless man, because he is then a slave."

On a side note, police protection for the rally was, sadly, necessary. In February, residents of Berkeley Heights had been alarmed to find a 15-foot cross set on fire in the playground across the street (Bridgeport Post, 11 Feb 1965). Police swiftly arrested four young men, ages 18-20, who set up the burning cross after reading about the KKK's activities in the South. Sentencing of the cross burners was scheduled for the week following the rally on the Green (Bridgeport Post, 11 Mar 1965). The "ringleader" was sentenced to serve two months in jail and pay a $100 fine (Bridgeport Post, 8 Apr 1965). In a different incident, a week and a half after the rally on the Green, Waterbury Alderman Luther Gatling was arrested in New Haven after defending himself against a man from Massachusetts who claimed to be with the KKK and threatened to "get you, n***." (Boston Globe, 16 Apr 1965). Both men were arrested on breach of peace charges. Although the Civil Rights struggle was primarily active in the South, where conditions were much worse, tensions ran high here in Connecticut.

Other speakers at the rally included Doris Glass, president of the Waterbury Negro Federation, who urged everyone to become involved in human rights, explaining the need for financial and moral support of the Civil Rights cause.

Reed Smith, president of Meadow Homes, shared the perspective of being a white Northerner in the march from Selma to Montgomery. The experience touched him profoundly. He stated that "after my experiences in Alabama, I know I can never again sit by and do nothing when I think of the many Negro people I met in Alabama who are living in fear."

Alderman Luther Gatling, president pro tem of the Board of Aldermen, urged Waterbury's citizens to exercise their right to vote: "Vote for those who have died and for those who will die in the struggle. If we, who need only walk a few steps to cast our ballot, fail to do so while men are marching 50 miles and giving up their lives for the same right, then we are more guilty than Gov. Wallace of Alabama."

Rev. Jaenicke spoke about the Catholic perspective, noting that "Christ made no distinction. He suffered and died for us all," and that "as Catholics, we must join in all attempts to eliminate every form of injustice."

Rev. Barry Stipp, pastor of the Wolcott Congregational Church, who also joined the demonstration in Selma, emphasized that "the church is the heartbeat of the civil rights movement."

The rally included a plea to raise money for the voting rights workers in the South: the Waterbury NAACP collected $533 that day, with pledges for additional donations.

Rev. Jonathan Reed of Grace Methodist Church concluded the rally with a memorial service for those killed while working for the cause of human rights.

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