“I am ashamed — ashamed for myself and for the church — that we have not been here sooner.”
That was Monsignor David Cantwell of the Catholic Interracial Council of Chicago speaking to my father at the end of the five-day civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965, led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The words from my father’s reporting 55 years ago for the San Francisco Chronicle came back to me Sunday after reading about Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country, “systematic racism,” Mitt Romney marching with evangelicals and management shake-ups over BLM-related coverage in big-city newsrooms.
My father, then 37 years old, walked the Selma-to-Montgomery route with King and thousands of 1965 marchers, interviewing blacks, whites, locals, out-of-towners, cops and clergy along the way. One headline, two days after the thousands of marchers reached Montgomery on March 25, was “A Search for Answers.”
A subtitle after a section on what King said at the end of the march about the legacy of racism, read “GUILT.”
My father wrote:
“The only persons I saw in Alabama during the past two weeks who were ready to accept blame were the white men who had rushed to Selma last week in the heat of the struggle to cast their lot with the Negro.
“Almost every one of them would admit quickly that they came to Selma out of guilt.”
And Cantwell, he wrote, told demonstrators and state troopers along the barricades, “I am ashamed … that we have not been here sooner.”
Earlier in Selma, Dad spoke with another white clergyman who had come for the King-led march, the Rev. Don Schilling from St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Marin City, Calif.
“It’s an evil system we live in,” Schilling told my father. “When government moves as slowly as it does, you’ve got to create a sense of urgency.
“It’s not that Selma’s problem is any worse than a lot of other places,” Schilling said. “But Selma has created the urgency with two killings and the brutality of the State troopers.
“We’re trying to point up Selma as a symbol of the injustices that exist across the land,” Schilling said in Selma, in March 1965.