Selma Remembers Four Martyrs

By Gary G. Yerkey

Weekend ceremonies marking Bloody Sunday’s 50th anniversary paid tribute to four slain civil-rights activists, including Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Daniels.

Hundreds of people participated in the anniversary march in Selma, Alabama. They honored Daniels and Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old Baptist deacon; Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian activist from Detroit; and the Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister.

Two landmark churches — Brown Chapel A.M.E. and Tabernacle Baptist Church — were the host sites. The 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery led to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

At Tabernacle Baptist Church, site of the first mass meeting of the so Selma Movement, the crowd sang “This Little Light of Mine” and paid tribute to the four Movement Martyrs during a service on March 5.

The Rev. Clark Olsen, now 81, was with Reeb as several men attacked them with clubs outside an integrated restaurant in Selma on March 9, 1965. Reeb later died.

Olsen paused to take a deep breath as he recounted how several white men hurled racial slurs at them and another white minister, the Rev. Orloff Miller, as they left the restaurant after dark.

“Jim just wanted to do the right thing,” Olsen said. “I did, too.”

Brown Chapel A.M.E. was headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The five-day march began there on March 21, 1965. Daniels and the other activists were honored at Brown Chapel in a brief ceremony after a morning service on March 8.

The Rev. Leodis Strong, pastor of the church, said the martyred activists — all white except for Jackson — represented sacrifices by people of all races. He pointed to a bronze plaque by an entrance to the church that identifies the four activists as Martyrs for Racial Justice. The Episcopal Church recognized Daniels as a martyr in 1994.

Jim Key, moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association, said at Tabernacle Baptist Church on March 5 that he was profoundly moved to “honor the martyrs … and look to the future.”

“We knew then, and we know now, that history is being made here,” Key said. “Yes, we are here in gratitude for those who gave their lives. Yes, we are here to remember and honor the history that was made here 50 years ago; but, dear friends, you and I know that there remains work to be done.”

The annual Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage in Hayneville — a solemn procession through the town followed by a service of Holy Communion in the courtroom where the man who killed Daniels was tried and acquitted — is scheduled for August 15 this year.

Gary G. Yerkey is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of South to Selma: ‘Outside Agitators’ and the Civil Rights March that Changed America.

Image of Edmund Pettus Bridge by Carol M. Highsmith via Wikimedia Commons •


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