On the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, the pastor of St. James United Church of Christ shares his reflections.
By REBECCA LAYNE
The Winchester Star
WINCHESTER — On March 9, 1965, Pastor Don Prange nervously approached the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama.
In this March 25, 1965 file photo, state troopers block the steps of the Alabama state capitol at Montgomery, Ala. from civil rights marchers at the end of their five-day march from Selma, Ala. (Photo by Associated Press)
Although he was in the middle of a throng of about 2,500 marchers on their way from Selma to Montgomery, he couldn’t help but feel the angry stares of the sheriff deputies and bystanders along the way, many armed with batons and whips.
Just two days before, police had attacked 600 marchers who had tried to cross the same bridge. Dozens of marchers on that “Bloody Sunday” were beaten so severely they had to be hospitalized.
“It was frightening,” said Prange, 82, who moved to Frederick County in 1990. “You feel like any moment they’re going to move in.”
Leading the march was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who had called for civil rights supporters to join him in the march.
As the marchers crossed the bridge, a line of state troopers blocked the road ahead.
King, to the surprise of many, came to a stop at the end of the bridge. He knelt down and prayed. After a moment, he stood back up, turned the marchers around and led them back to Selma.
“I felt a sense of relief,” Prange said. “We were not going to face this angry mob.”
At the same time, Prange felt tremendous joy and triumph.
“Even though, that day, the march didn’t continue, we knew the march would eventually continue,” he said.
The march was one of three Selma to Montgomery marches held in March 1965 to peacefully protest voting discrimination against southern blacks.
Politicians, celebrities and tens of thousands of civil rights activists are expected to visit Selma today to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the events.
Prange called the march a conversion experience.
“I feel tremendously blessed,” he said. “It was a gift to me. It helped me develop into a caring, loving human being.”
In 1962, 30-year-old R. Don Prange took over as pastor of a small congregation in Pittsburgh.Once predominately white, the community he moved into was transformed overnight into a black community due to blockbusting — when real estate agents tell property owners to sell their houses at a loss by telling them that racial minorities are moving in.
All of a sudden, Prange, who is white, was thrust into a different cultural reality.
“It wasn’t something I’d chosen to do, but once I was there, history led me,” he said.
In 1963, Pittsburgh’s first major civil rights demonstration was held outside the Duquesne Light Company. Prange was among the 600-800 spectators that day.
“At the time, I really was not sure where I belonged,” he said.
It wasn’t long, however, before that got decided for him. During the demonstration, a black preacher he knew named W.D. Petett took his hand.
“Brother Don, I believe you’re on the wrong side of the street,” he told the young pastor.
On that day, Prange went from a spectator to a demonstrator — what he calls his baptism.
“In a way, it was an exhilarating experience,” he said. “My Jordan River was this asphalt Jordan in downtown Pittsburgh.”
The history of Selma
Even though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade discrimination in voting, some southern states such as Alabama still put up barriers for black voters that included intimidation and discriminatory requirements like literacy tests.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Selma, Ala., where only 2 percent of the city’s eligible black voters had managed to vote in 1965, according to history.com.
So in January of that year, King and other civil rights and civic leaders gathered in Selma to denounce and bring national attention to voter discrimination in the hopes of winning federal protection for a voting rights statute. There, they led a number of peaceful demonstrations to the Dallas County Courthouse.
On Feb. 18, the peace was broken when white segregationists attacked a group of peaceful demonstrators in the nearby town of Marion after turning the street lights off and leaving them in darkness. Black activist Jimmie Lee Jackson fled the scene but was killed by police as he tried to hide in a nearby cafe.
In response to Jackson’s death, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) planned a 54-mile protest march from Selma to Montgomery.
On March 7, John Lewis and other activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the SCLC led the peaceful march.
But about 600 marchers only got as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge six blocks away, before they were assaulted with billy clubs, whips and tear gas by state and local lawmen.
The assault, dubbed “Bloody Sunday,” was captured on TV. In addition, marcher Amelia Boynton was beaten unconscious during the march, and a photograph of her lying on the road appeared in newspapers nationwide.
The event opened the eyes of many across the country.
King, using the national exposure to his advantage, called for civil rights supporters nationwide, both white and black, to come to Selma for a second march on March 9.
Thousands flooded in.Prange, who was a 33-year-old pastor at the time, arrived with eight white clergy and one black reporter. Tensions were so high that when they hit the Dallas County line, they decided Prange would have to sit between the reporter and one of the white female occupants because of the outrage it would cause if she was seen sitting next to a black man.
On March 9, King got as far as the end of the bridge before deciding to turn the marchers back after state troopers again blocked the road. King, fearing another bloody event, decided to wait until he and the marchers received federal protection before he would try again.
That night, Prange said that the civil rights supporters were told not to stay in town because it was too dangerous. But a young white minister named James Reeb did not heed the warning and was subsequently beaten to death by segregationists.
Prange and his group left Selma between 8 and 9 p.m. that day, unaware of Reeb’s death. As they drove out of town, Prange said they were followed by a group of Ku Klux Klan members in a pickup truck, who pulled up and hit their bumper every time they stopped.
They knew that whatever happened, they should not get out of the car.
“If I could have disappeared, I would have,” Prange said. “It was a frightening, traumatic experience.”Prange later ended up holding a memorial service for Reeb in his church in Pittsburgh.
Although Prange never ended up meeting King, he said the reverend’s artistic, poetic and musical cadence was fantastic.
On March 21, President Lyndon Johnson gave federal protection to the marchers, and about 2,000 people walked from Selma to Montgomery with the protection of U.S. Army troops and the Alabama National Guard. They reached the Alabama State Capitol on March 25, where they were greeted by about 50,000 supporters.
That August, Johnson and Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which guaranteed the right to vote to all African-Americans and prohibited all barriers to voting.
Prange credits the black liberation movement for his own liberation — theologically, politically and socially.
He went on to protest the Vietnam War and was an activist for miners in Appalachia and gay and lesbian rights.
Because of his involvement in the civil rights movement, his church received numerous bomb threats.
He was arrested several times and spent time in jail. He continues to do ministries in economic justice and currently serves a congregation in Lovettsville.
But Prange said the fight is not over, citing the recent situation in Ferguson, Mo., to restrictions people continue to face trying to vote.
Gains that were made in 1965 have been eroded, he said.
“Unfortunately, there are still people who are remaining spectators to these issues,” he said. “There are a variety of issues that cry out for liberation.”