Fifty years ago, I marched into Montgomery, Alabama, behind Dr. Martin Luther King. I cannot recall any of the speeches made on the steps of the statehouse—I was too far away and the sound system was nowhere near powerful enough to reach those of us seated on the concrete plaza below. But the drama of that day, marching 25,000 strong into that hostile city, remains an indelible memory.
The message had come from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to liberal communities all over the country: please join us and swell our ranks for the final stage of the march from Selma to Montgomery. I was 22, a recent college graduate living in Greenwich Village. My political group, the Village Independent Democrats, decided to rent a charter plane to go to Alabama. I nervously agreed to join the group.
My fears were personal, not political. I was afraid of marching. You have to understand how different young women were then. We didn’t do anything strenuous—well, nothing athletic. Sneakers were strictly for tennis courts. What’s more, the march organizers specified that we were to wear work clothes so that opponents couldn’t take pictures of us looking like “hippies.” That meant suits and ties for men, dresses and heels for women. My friend Griffin and I cheated and wore flats.
I was also afraid that I’d get nothing to eat. Marching sounded like hungry work. In preparation for the trip I bought support stockings and chocolate bars. (The stockings worked; the chocolate melted in the Alabama heat.)
Saturn Airlines delivered us the outskirts of Montgomery early on the morning of March 25, 1965. My first impressions: the red clay of the South really was red and keeping up with my fellow marchers would not be the biggest challenge. March organizers formed us into ranks with the men on the perimeters, the women inside, in case we are confronted by angry bystanders. President Johnson had assigned army units and called up the Alabama National Guard to protect the March but we knew they were none too happy about the assignment. There were plenty of Confederate flag patches in the ranks.
We began walking on country roads. As soon as we reached the black neighborhoods in the city, the paving stopped. People on porches we passed stared but did not speak to us.
Sometimes we sang as we walked,
We shall not, we shall not be moved
We shall not, we shall not be moved
Like a tree that’s planted in the water
We shall not be moved
I concentrated on keeping up, my wool dress itching in the growing heat. It had been cold when we left New York before dawn.
Finally we reached downtown. People were hanging out of windows in the building we passed. Some of them shouted insults. Most just stared in horror and disbelief as we kept coming and coming, filling the square and beyond. We sat or sprawled on the cement, chatting, and straining to hear what we could from the speakers.
Ed Koch, then the president of the Village Independent Democrats, and Jack Newfield, the legendary editor of the Village Voice, were holding forth on the potential impact of the march on national public opinion.
We cheered when the people in front of us cheered. We stood to link arms and sing all of the verses to “We Shall Overcome.” We felt the majesty of being there, a part of something larger than ourselves.
I also felt thirsty. I left the march area and walked a few blocks over to get a coke, but the local five and dime refused to sell me a drink. I was clearly one of the Northern Agitators. I swallowed my spit and returned to the crowd.
After the speeches, we walked back to an empty field where buses would pick us up for the trip to the Montgomery airport. The troops left. We sat on the grass, feeling uneasy in the growing dark. A few locals came by and took pictures of us. By now we were disheveled and lolling together on the ground—if not hippies, definitely not model citizens. Finally the buses arrived, we left for the airports, boarded our charter flights, and fled north.
That night we learned that a fellow marcher, Viola Liuzzo from Detroit, and been killed by a Klansman. We were very quiet as we drove from La Guardia back to Greenwich Village. For weeks after, I jumped every time a car backfired.
I never wore that dress or the support stockings again. But I sang those songs again on several other marches. All too soon I was learning new songs and joining marches against the War in Vietnam. But the trip to Montgomery remained my proudest moment.