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Eyewitness to Selma: Faith Leaders’ Stand for Civil Rights

In March 1965, a nonviolent protest about voting rights for African Americans turned tragic when police attacked demonstrators on what would come to be called “Bloody Sunday.” On March 9, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. asked faith leaders to join him for a second march in support of equal rights for black voters. A young Methodist pastor in Boston heard his call and soon found himself in the middle of history. Like so many, the Rev. Gil Caldwell can never forget that event 50 years ago.

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Script:

(Music: “We shall overcome.”)

Many of the memories  Gil Caldwell has of the civil rights struggle in the U.S. are painful, but they also remind him of why he risked his life and was so committed to the cause.

The Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell: “Having a chance to meet Martin King in 1958, I think I knew full well that even as I went into the ministry of The United Methodist Church, that I would be involved as I could be in the civil rights movement that he led.”

Caldwell was 24 and completing his studies at Boston University School of Theology when the 29-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. came to rally support for area public schools.

Voice of the Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell: “There I am, of course, on the right hand side of the picture looking up. Whether I was concerned about security or not, I’m not sure.”

Later, when Caldwell was a Methodist pastor in Boston and a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he headed south to Selma to walk with King again.

The Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell: “I was not there for Bloody Sunday but because of my involvement with SCLC in Massachusetts, was one of those who received communication from Martin King asking for religious leaders to come to Selma. I was there for that ‘Turnaround Tuesday.”  That was the day we did not have permission from the officials to begin the march, so we marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, so that Sunday became Turnaround Tuesday.”

(Clip from movie “Selma,” Paramount Pictures) “White, black and otherwise, come to Selma. I heard about the attack of innocent people. I couldn’t just stand by.”

The Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell: “That of course was the time when Rev. James Reeb, the white, Unitarian minister was with us and, of course, was beaten and killed. One of the things I do remember about that day, Bishop James Pike, an Episcopal bishop many, many years ago. He was, I remember standing next to him on the steps of Brown’s Chapel AME Church, and as he looked out at that gathering on that Tuesday following Bloody Sunday, he was saying, ‘This is the greatest ecumenical gathering the world has ever seen.’”

(Clip from movie “Selma,” Paramount Pictures)

The Rev. Gilbert H. Caldwell: “There are people who felt the civil rights movement was too confrontational, that it was too activistic, and that was not how some people saw justice. The black residents of Selma impressed me, as I remember I could feel their support. I had the feeling that those persons were vicariously identifying with us. In fact, that we were standing up for them in ways that they could not stand up themselves. I’ve written about Harry Belafonte being responsible for bringing in a number of Hollywood stars and picking up the tab for the plane. I remember being on the stage with those celebrities. There was that.  And then of course, the triumph of getting to Montgomery, and the signing of the legislation that brought to the forefront the whole purpose of the march. There was just so much violence during those days, but there was a kind of exhilaration that there was purpose, there was meaning in what we were doing. So many people cannot understand the depth of the patriotism of Martin King and other civil rights heroes and heroines. They love the country, its possibilities and potential in ways some people have yet to comprehend.”

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Caldwell continues to advocate for equal rights for all people.  He wrote a commentary after seeing the 2015 film, "Selma." 

He also offered his memories of walking with King for a series about United Methodists who shared MLK's dream.

Media contact is Fran Walsh, at 615-742-5458.

This video was posted on March 6, 2015.