Civil rights activist reflects on 1965 Selma march

When Jim Steen saw civil rights marchers being attacked by Alabama state troopers and county lawmen on television 50 years ago, he just couldn't sit in his Delaware home and do nothing.

After watching the horrific incident unfold on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Steen and his 17-year-old son, Jeffrey, responded to a national call for people of good conscience to go to Selma, Ala. So on March 8, they flew to Montgomery, Ala., on a six-passenger plane along with three ministers. The next day, they went to Selma and started crossing the bridge with hundreds of marchers led by the Rev. Martin Luther Jr. But the march was aborted when King decided to turn back during negotiations with President Lyndon B. Johnson.

"People came from all over the country to help stamp out what I would consider fascism in this country, which was the denial of people's right to protest, walk, march and peacefully assemble," said Steen, who now resides in Columbus. "I'm very proud of Jeffrey because he was 17, and as we were making the arrangements to go, he said, 'You're not going without me, Dad.'"

Now, Steen, 89, and his 82-year-old wife, Bet, are expected to be in Selma today for the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," which occurred March 7, 1965. Their son, Jeffrey, 67, flew into Columbus on Wednesday and was considering joining them.

The Steens said a friend is driving them to Selma and they are not sure how close they will get to official activities, which will include a joint appearance by Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, along with their wives.

It's a historical event that the Steens don't want to miss.

"We hope we get there because we've heard a lot of weird stories about the difficulty with parking," Steen said on Thursday. "We're going to have to get somewhere near Brown's Chapel, or somewhere near the bridge on Saturday. We'll find that out when we get there."

The Steens aren't the only ones traveling to Selma this weekend. While the couple plans to participate in today's events, hundreds of other Columbus residents will travel to Selma on Sunday for a bridge crossing and other activities.

The Muscogee County Democratic Committee has chartered five buses that will transport a few hundred people. And Columbus State University will transport more than 100 people on two buses. Those numbers don't include those who are traveling on their own or with church groups.

On Thursday night, university students screened parts of two documentary films -- "Freedom Summer" and "Eyes on the Prize: Bridge to Freedom" -- to prepare for the trip. After the film, the students participated in a group discussion led Gary Sprayberry, chairman of the Department of History and Geography.

In Selma, events began Thursday with a program titled "Public Hearings on Poverty: A Renewal of Dr. King's Poor Peoples Campaign," a Mayor's Welcome Reception, a memorial for martyrs of the movement, a Miss Jubilee Pageant, and a play about the life of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a marcher killed by law enforcement during the 1965 Selma voting rights campaign.

Steen, a World War II veteran and son of an ordained minister, said Delaware was still very segregated in 1965, but his parents raised him to respect people of all races. He also attended Quaker schools, which emphasized equality.

In 1965, Steen was an engineer working for the Hercules Powder Company in Wilmington. He and his wife had been involved in civil rights activities since 1961, fighting for the integration of theaters and other public accommodations.

The Steens said they were at home on March 7, 1965, when their 9-year-old daughter told them something bad was happening on television. The next day they heard about the call for supporters.

"Some outfit appealed nationally, and said 'Good God, don't let Alabama turn fascist.' And boom, we were there," Steen said.

Jeffrey Steen said it was scary.

"We had to be trained in how to drive to avoid being shot," he said. "It was like going to a foreign country."

When they arrived to Montgomery, they were greeted by Charles Evers, the older brother of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Evers transported them to Selma and they stopped at Brown Chapel AME Church, where the civil rights marchers were gathered. The group included most of the leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, among them Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael and others.

Steen described the scene as electrifying.

"We formed into a march line and headed for the Edmund Pettus Bridge," he said. "Jeffrey and I were in the back left of the line and there were a lot of people in front of us."

Then suddenly the line stopped, he said.

"It was decided as a result of talks in Washington that we would not attempt to break the law at that time and that a deal was being offered. A march from Selma to Montgomery did occur several weeks later."

The young marchers in SNCC were disgusted by King's decision, Steen said, and others thought he made the right call.

"Most of us said at the time that we wished we had gone ahead but they decided not to," he said.

From there, the group went back to Brown Chapel, Steen said. Then he and his son went to a restaurant with other marchers.

They found out later that while they were eating, James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister from Boston, was beaten to death a couple of blocks away.

Steen said they worried about their safety and left town later that afternoon. Bet Steen said she and her daughters received death threats from racists in Delaware while her husband and stepson were gone.

"I was terrified," she said. "I was absolutely out of my mind for a couple days."

Steen said he never regretted the decision.

"It was the ethical thing to do if you had the means to do it," he said. "I can think of nothing more important. Because without the expression of the will of the whole populace, you have the expression of the will of a little group here, or a moneyed group there, or a bad group of people here. You don't have democracy."

Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.

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