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Freedom: Spirit of the Selma March (An Essay by Henry Wiggins Jr., M.D., '55)

  • wiggins
  • Henry Wiggins Jr., M.D., '55 (Photo by Nick Gould)

The following essay appeared in the April 17, 1965, edition of The Progress, the community newspaper of Clearfield, Pa. Henry Wiggins Jr., M.D., spoke Aug. 27 at the Convocation ceremony for the Class of 2017.

THE PROGRESS

Editor's Note...Henry Wiggins Jr., M.D. was born and grew up in Clearfield, one of nine children of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Wiggins Sr. of 317 Merrill St. He graduated, with honors at each, from Clearfield High School in 1951, Franklin and Marshall College in 1955, and the Howard University Medical School in 1959. After internship and residency at University Hospital, Iowa City, he was named staff radiologist at Michael Reese Hospital, Chicago and to the faculty of the University of Chicago Medical School. Dr. Wiggins' account of his participation in the march from Selma in Montgomery, Alabama, was written especially for Postscript and mailed while he was on his way to Columbia University for some post-graduate work.

By HENRY WIGGINS JR., M.D.

When I first heard of the march from Selma to Montgomery, I felt that I wanted to do something, even if it was just march. I was tired reading about how human beings were being treated. I was asked what could I accomplish by going and replied I would stand up and be counted.

I decided to go to Alabama for just the last two days since only 300 people could march the second day. In the building where I live, two other fellows also wanted to go. It ended up with six of us all told … four men, two white and two Negro, and two young ladies, both white.

We left Chicago at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, March 23, on the "Dixie Hummingbird," a southern line. This was 30 minutes late and each of some hundred people were anxiously waiting, wondering what he or she might encounter in Montgomery.

On the train there were ministers, doctors, lawyers, church groups and just individuals, such as our little group. We all had one thing in common and because of this everyone had plenty of friends. The trip was a long, anxious 17 hours. We had packed food for dinner; however, we had breakfast in the dining-car at Birmingham, Alabama. I can remember a group of women singing civil rights songs and the host saying, very somberly, "not in here."

After breakfast I met a young Negro woman who had boarded a train at Cincinnati, Ohio, and she was as apprehensive as the rest of us. Since she was making the trip alone, I invited her to join us. Before arriving in Montgomery and departed from the train, you could see the look of loneliness on each face even though we were many. We were met by field workers who said they would have transportation to Saint Jude, a Catholic institution which was to be the headquarters that evening.

There being uncertainty about when the bus was coming, our small group plus two other fellows decided to ride in taxi cabs. The three girls rode with the two white fellows. In the south it is much better for a white man to be seen with a Negro woman that vice versa. Four of us, all Negroes, got in a "New Deal" cab, a Negro company because Yellow Cab was not riding Negroes during the crisis.

At the city of Saint Jude there was an evangelical fervor. People were pulling up tents and preparing for thousands more. People were being briefed about what to expect and how to behave when encountered by white natives.

Before noon 10 of us crowded into the back of a Volkswagen bus which had cushions covered with a tarpaulin as a seat. As it rained Tuesday everyone was covered with Alabama red clay mud. After about a mile we ran out of gas and did not remember the auxiliary tank until some had gone for gas. We left our belongings at Saint Jude … that is, those who brought any. I had only the clothes on my back and a toothbrush.

When we joined the marchers on U.S. 80, they were about 20 miles from the capital and 15 miles from Saint Jude. They were on their lunch break and it was something to see … priests, ministers, nuns, nurses, blacks, whites, men, women, boys, girls, the blind, the deaf, Christians, agnostics, the healthy, the crippled, rabbis, Indians, the elderly and the children. Some had come all the way from Selma and others were just joining the march or had joined early in the day. By this time the ranks were swelling to approximately 10,000.

When we started we walked in fours and at times, eight abreast. About every 30 yards along the highway there were man in green facing the wooded area ready for the slightest hint of trouble. They carried rifles and bayonets. It was something to behold, to see the federalized National Guard of Alabama with the confederate flag on their uniforms. The regular Army was also there and this was most assuring.

As we marched along the highway the townsfolk were out in great numbers, jeering and calling "nigger" and "nigger lovers." They would say to the nuns, "We thought you were Christians, you will burn in hell like the damn niggers." They made all sorts of gestures but we just kept marching and singing.

The majority of the Negro natives were hesitant to participate because of the consequences of being identified by the local law enforcement officers. The glares of the bystanders were as if they were asking "Why are you here?"

Freedom, this was the key word. Someone would yell "What do you want?" … "Freedom!" would come the answer, "When do you want it?" … "Now!" "How much do you want it?" … "All of it!" this would ring out all along the line, and then you hoar [sic] someone say, "Ah, shucks, I knew you were going to say that!" We sang … everybody wants freedom … George Wallace wants freedom … Al Lingo wants freedom … Jim Clark wants freedom … everybody wants freedom, now, (sic)

It rained twice Wednesday afternoon and we got soaked but it felt wonderful. We kept on a-walkin' and kept on a-talkin' … nothing was going to turn us around. As we walked by Negroes who waved and shouted "freedom" it made you throw out your chest and be proud you were an American … Negro or white. The look of some of the elderly Negroes was as if they were saying, "Thank God, we are finally being helped."

We arrived at Saint Jude before dark and there were thousands of people everywhere. I talked with people from Canada, Hawaii, the north, the south, the east and the west. We read the prejudicial local papers and listened to the local radio stations. This was an experience in itself.

That evening some 25,000 persons gathered to hear an array of stars that one could not pay to see in a lifetime. This lasted until the early hours of the morning and following it, the marchers retired wherever possible … churches, classrooms, auditoriums, gymnasiums and private homes. Hundreds slept under tents. I slept, as many others did, on the ground under the Alabama moon.

At 5 a.m. the crowd was beginning to gather for the last four or five miles of the march. By 9:30 a.m., there were anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 people. I talked to a man from California who flew in with 300 others at 4:10 a.m. He said there were planes landing every 10 minutes from all over the western hemisphere.

These people were sincere. They weren't beatniks, do-gooders and joiners. They were there because they believed that all men are equal. They were people of all religions and nationalities.

As we marched through Montgomery toward the capitol we saw little children waving the American flag and trying to shout freedom. We saw old folks with tears in their eyes. We also saw white agitators who must feel the end is coming, someday.

I walked arm and arm with two 87-year-old Negro women … natives of Montgomery … and they said, "We are no longer afraid. We have caught hell for years and it can't get any worse after you all leave." This was one of my concerns … what would happen to the natives of Selma and Montgomery after we left.

It was disgusting to see no American flag above the capitol, Alabama being one of three southern states that does not fly the American flag. They fly the state flag and the confederate flag.

We were to catch the "Dixie Hummingbird" north at 4:15 p.m. so we left the rally and headed for the depot in small integrated groups. This was the first time I had any real fear, especially as we walked through the main portion of the city. We noticed a liquor store that had two doors … colored and white, even though this is now illegal. Getting on the train and heading north with new-found friends was a joy. There were many discussions on the way back, another long 17-hour trip.

Just think, you walk 20 miles, meet some people you never knew existed and suddenly you're a new person. No matter how many gathered together, each of us were very much alone; each an individual who had made up his own mind, who had resolved in his heart his own conflicts … and who marched to Montgomery with all these friends who had done the same. Emotion was probably important, but the realization that the only thing I could do was march solely intellectual, and that doesn't lessen the love in my heart.

Since I have been back in Chicago I have attended several meetings to decide what else can be done. Enthusiasm is high and there is a lot to be done. We all would like to go back and spend more time. Many are returning to help with the voter registration. We have collected money, clothing, books and food … all needed.

My personal feelings were mixed for I know that in the north, there are areas not too much different from the south. Even in Clearfield, my home town, there are places where Negroes are not welcomed. One thing I hope is that things remain non-violent; however, people are becoming restless. It is hard to bargain with those with closed minds and maybe violence will be the answer. I don't know.

People say that the Negro is pushing too fast; well, 100 years is a long time. Some say Dr. King will hurt the Negroes' chances; well things can't get much worse. Laws like the Civil Rights Law and the voters' law are segregation, themselves, as all American, black or white, having these under the Constitution.

No, we aren't going to change anything overnight but we did show them that many care enough to make them aware. It is true that we weren't many when compared to the entire country, but we were from all over and we were together.

I don't think for a moment that anyone who participated will ever really be the same again. Never again!