Looking back on one Canadians journey to Selma

When Dr. Martin Luther King issued a call for clergy to descend on Alabama for the 1965 Selma-Montgomery march .


When Dr. Martin Luther King issued a call for clergy to descend on Alabama for the 1965 Selma-Montgomery march a landmark five-day event marking its 50th anniversary this year with numerous celebrations and the major motion picture, Selma Ed File was working as superintendent of a North Winnipeg United Church mission.

File, who as a seminary student had heard King speak at Boston University before the civil rights leader became an international figure, had no second thoughts about entering the cauldron of violence and racism that characterized daily life for African-Americans south of the Mason-Dixon lin even though still fresh was news of the high-profile murder of three civil rights workers from the north during the previous years Mississippi Freedom Summer.

Those three young people had been very much in my mind, and how important it was for more of us from the North to go down and join in what they were doing, File says now from his home outside of Belleville.

File sees similarities between the seminal demonstration, now receiving renewed attention as it marks its 50th anniversary this year, and todays youth-led campaigns, like Black Lives Matter, that have engaged in similar activities, from occupying the St. Louis airport to flooding the Minneapolis Mall of America just before Christmas.

I try to see things in the framework of the teachings of ethical ideals of the worlds great religions, File says. Those ideals are permanent through the centuries, and people who are touched by those or see them as the focus of their lives see that there is an ongoing struggle for justice in what we used to call the civilized world.

Kings call came after millions of people had been horrified by the televised images of what became known as Bloody Sunday. And a group of marchers led by, among others, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committees John Lewis (now a U.S. Congress member), was brutally beaten and tear-gassed at the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. News coverage of that event (which interrupted a major network airing of the film Judgment at Nuremberg) consumed public discourse, much like this summers paramilitary response to peaceful protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting death of unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown.

Contacting a fellow pastor in Philadelphia who used to work in the Winnipeg church adjacent to Files, arrangements were made to meet up at the home of a white Montgomery family that was hosting a number of marchers. Upon their arrival, they were met with the bad news that James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister from Boston, had been murdered after eating in a black-owned Selma restaurant, the only one that would serve marchers.

File recalls the phone ringing that night and threats being made against the family. The owner of the house calmly went to his closet, pulled out a gun, and put it by his front door, says File.

While the image seems inconsistent with a movement often characterized as non-violent, such moments were more frequent than most realize.

As documented in Charles Cobbs recent book, This Nonviolent Stuffll Get You Killed, the civil rights movement was also populated by armed self-defence groups, like the Deacons for Defense and Justice who, from time to time, intervened when local or federal officials refused to provide necessary protection for demonstrators or during voter registration drives.

There were tensions across the generational divide of the civil rights movement as well.

Younger people, especially women, were shouldering a significant share of the actual organizing while relative elders like King enjoyed the lions share of the credit.

File recalls joining the march shortly after it began in a large park where he and his associates gathered quite close to King. He says white folks along the route were screaming lots of negative, nasty things, especially to white people like me. As ministers we always wore our church collar, and the police would yell at us, Youre a phony!

While Selma was one of the last large-scale southern marches of the civil rights era, File says there was no real sense of the events place in history at the time. Rather, it was another one of countless rallies and campaigns that had been part of social justice movements that for decades focused on full citizenship rights for African-Americans. For File, its part of a continuum, his larger vision for transforming the world that keeps him busy today agitating for everything from the abolition of nuclear weapons to First Nations rights and peace actions in Japan and Taiwan.

Just before he left for Selma, he was preparing to take a new job training clergy from across Canada in social development at the ecumenical Canadian Urban Training Project for Christian Service (also known as CUT) where he would end up working for the next 20 years. The Toronto-based CUT program, which also developed regional organizations in Atlantic Canada and BC, as well as a First Nations leadership training program, led File to Taiwan, where he has worked with community groups for decades, beginning when the country was under martial law.

The people we trained there played a major role in getting rid of the dictatorship and forming opposition parties, says File, who just received the first ever Taiwanese Human Rights Association Award.

He starts humming the lines of one of his favourite songs, When the Saints Go Marching In, and concludes, The saints were marching in Selma, in South Africa against apartheid, with Gandhi, with so many others, throwing nonviolence against violence. And the saints are marching still in Ferguson, in Washington, in New York, all around the world.

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