In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we are sharing excerpts from writings by Mary Ellen Doyle, SCN. Sister Mary Ellen has a long history of working for civil rights that continues to this day. Here are her reflections of marching during the Civil Rights Movement.
When Governor George Wallace of Alabama was invited to campus by a student group, I finally got the nerve to take part, in full habit, in a campus protest march. That led to my participation in the last phase of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, along with other priests and religious from Notre Dame.
Notre Dame was seething with the issues of the Civil Rights Movement when word came that participants were sought for the last lap of the march from Selma into Montgomery. The Chicago Catholic Council for Interracial Justice was sponsoring a group, to include students from Notre Dame.
Perhaps ten of us, mostly Sisters and priests, as I remember, met the larger group in Chicago and flew to Montgomery. In Montgomery, a bus transferred us to join the march. The first strong emotions of joy at being there came to me as we walked past small homes in the black section of the city and exchanged waves and smiles with the people who filled the porches.
The approach to the Capitol, however, had all the atmosphere of an occupied city, with grim National Guardsmen at every corner. In front of the Capitol on our left was the massive white stone Judicial building; curious or hostile white faces looked at us as if seeing the approach of an enemy. On our right stood the Dexter Avenue Baptist church where Martin Luther King had first organized the bus boycott and started the whole movement. The two unmovable forces had come to confrontation, with the symbol of governmental resistance in between, facing a crowd determined to move that government.
I remember the excitement of meeting the marchers in the crowd, of hearing the speeches, of singing “We Shall Overcome,” my arms crossed and hands joined with an African American woman and another Sister. We sang with the gusto of a naïve belief that we had already overcome a separating barrier so immense that we could complete the task once for all, NOW rather than “someday.”
After the ceremony, we were transported from the Capitol to the City of St. Jude. This complex comprised a church, school, hospital, rectory, and convent, and a large field where many marchers had camped the night before and would spend the present night before their dispersal. Most of the Sisters were to be house that night in the convent*; I still wonder how they managed us. Before supper, several of us were shown through the small hospital by a nurse who expressed her pride and happiness to see the marchers. Supper was offered to a huge group in (as I remember) a kitchen and adjoining rooms of the school, whose gym was also be overnight housing. The talk bubbled everywhere; committed people shared their stories and reasons for their enthusiasm and presence. Only one named individual remains in my memory: Henri Nouwen. He had made the entire march, been rain-soaked, and was now encased in a sweater that stretched to his knees.
The experience of the Selma-to Montgomery March and marchers was central to a permanent change in my awareness of the reality of racism and all later involvements. I came to see that, though I would gladly take part in any future marches or other brief actions, I needed to find a lasting way to make a difference.
Sister Mary Ellen went on to work for racial justice in many various and powerful ways throughout her life. She continues her work today.
She writes, “I have been able to embody one piece of the SCN’s commitment to justice and compassion for marginalized persons. I have every reason to be thankful for all gifts.”
*At that time, the school and hospital were served by the Vincentian Sisters of Charity (VSC) The VSCs have a long history of working with impoverished African Americans in Alabama. The VSCs merged with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in 2008. Former VSC, Barbara Ann Lengvarsky, SCN, has been in ministry at the City of St. Jude in Montgomery for many years and is still serving there today. See her video here.