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45 years after march, Selma priest remembers Bloody Sunday

By Robert Howell
Supervising Producer, CNN "In America"
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Rev. Maurice Ouellet found himself on the front lines on Bloody Sunday
  • Officers in Selma, Alabama, used billy clubs, tear gas on marchers
  • Doctors refused to help at the "negro hospital," nurse recalls
  • Because of activism, Ouellet was forced out of diocese

(CNN) -- The Rev. Maurice Ouellet remembers the day vividly: March 7, 1965. As he walked out of church after serving Sunday Mass, he encountered silence. Then sirens.

"Everything was dead, still," said the priest, now 83. "It was haunting. Then the sirens started going. Every kind of siren in Selma was blowing. And I just knew something terrible had happened."

Standing on the steps of St. Elizabeth's -- Selma, Alabama's "black" Catholic church -- the young white priest was about to witness one of the most iconic days of the civil rights era. It would come to be known as Bloody Sunday.

The sirens were coming from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, only a few miles away. Selma law enforcement and Alabama state police, led by Sheriff Jim Clark, had forced back nearly 600 marchers with tear gas and billy clubs.

In the days leading up to the historic march, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had focused his nonviolent campaign for civil rights on this rural section of Alabama. By March, Selma had become ground zero in the fight to gain voting rights for blacks.

Ouellet and his fellow priests found themselves on the front lines.

Responding to the mayhem around him, Ouellet made his way to Selma's Good Samaritan Hospital, where many of the injured were taken. Run by Ouellet's fellow Edmundite priests and the sisters of St. Joseph, it was the only hospital in Selma that served blacks.

Inside, Ouellet encountered Etta Perkins, a nurse tending to the wounded.

"Father, they're going to kill us all," Ouellet remembers her hollering.

Perkins' son would become the first black mayor of Selma. But on this day, Ouellet had little hope for racial harmony.

"I was shattered," he recalls. "They were beasts. I wondered if it was all worth it."

Perkins remembers that tear gas was the biggest problem. Some of the injured "were in real misery," she said.

Because Samaritan was known as the "negro hospital," Perkins says, a lot of doctors refused to come help. "The Sisters of St. Joseph carried a heavy load that day."

In the hospital's cafeteria, Ouellet saw people strewn everywhere.

"I looked down, and there was a little girl, probably about 15 or 16, lying on the floor. She wasn't moving, and she had blood coming out of her head." Ouellet picked her up. "She opened her eyes. Her eyes focused right into my face, and she said, 'Oh, Father, I hurt.'"

Ouellet rushed the wounded girl to the front of the line to receive care and soon came across another badly injured person. The man was lying flat on his back on a food cart.

"He looked more like someone had taken a knife and sliced a piece of his head," the priest said. "He was just lying there bleeding."

The quiet man was John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Now a congressman from Georgia, Lewis had led the march that day, and the severe beating he suffered has become one of its lasting images.

Lewis "didn't say anything," Ouellet recalls. "I couldn't really tell if he was conscious. His eyes were vague, but that was his way, I understand. He had been beaten so many times that when he did get beaten, he would just go quiet. That is when he would go into his mode of nonviolence."

I was really committed. It was not that I wanted to get myself killed; it was just, if this is what it takes, then this is what it takes.
--The Rev. Maurice Ouellet
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Only weeks earlier, another young black man had been brought to Good Samaritan after sustaining injuries at the hands of authorities. Jimmie Lee Jackson had been shot by a state police officer during a march in nearby Marion, Alabama.

Perkins sat with Jackson the night before his death.

"He was in too bad a condition to talk," she recalled. "I kept him comfortable as best possible."

His death became the catalyst for King's decision to march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery.

Long before the historic march and the violent confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Ouellet and his Catholic mission of mostly white priests and nuns had been working directly with those suffering the worst effects of a segregated Selma.

iReport: Share your memories, photos from the civil rights movement

The Society of Saint Edmund had come to Selma in 1937 to set up its mission. Ouellet joined in 1952. The Edmundites faced intimidation from local officials and constant death threats from the white community as well as the Ku Klux Klan.

By 1965, Ouellet found it harder and harder to separate his duties as a clergyman from his sympathy for the plight of his parishioners. He was one of few white men who attended the meetings organized by King's supporters in Selma.

"I had gotten kind of discouraged," he said. "People were leaving. They were scared for their life."

Ouellet remembers one of his first conversations with King. "He thanked me for what I was trying to do and said, 'Isn't it wonderful that we are getting all kinds of people coming down, and we're even getting priests and sisters?'"

Ouellet was not as optimistic. "I said, 'Well, it's about time they got here.'"

King's response helped change Ouellet's perspective on the struggle in Selma. "His head snapped up, and he said, 'Oh, Father, don't say that. The important thing is that they are here.'"

Committed to becoming even more involved in King's cause, Ouellet quickly found himself at odds not only with local officials but with his own church hierarchy, especially when he and others at the Edmundite mission asked to be allowed to participate in the growing marches. The answer the mission director received in this letter from Alabama's Catholic Archdiocese reveals the conflict of conscience facing the church in a divided state:

"I won't stand for any priest of the Diocese going in parades or sit-ins. ... The march on Washington and the marches in Baltimore have done absolutely no good. ... Of course, you realize you are stirring up great trouble for yourself, as I have told you, Selma and the surrounding country as far as the negro is concerned is and always has been the worst in the state. They hate the negro, and hate him worse than they love the Church. ... While I am Bishop of Mobile, there will be no picketing by priests or nuns, and no marching."

- Rev. T.J. Toolen, Oct. 26, 1963

Archbishop, Mobile-Birmingham

Barred from marching, the Edmundites housed and helped feed the crowds, many of them clergy, who poured into Selma after Bloody Sunday. People slept in an unopened wing of the new Good Samaritan Hospital, on floors of offices, in the school and with the priests and the nuns from the mission. The risk of fallout for their actions is evident in this angry letter from the Archbishop:

"I want Ouellet out of Selma. He is a good priest but crazy on this subject. ... It is destroying the Church in Alabama and I cannot sit idly by and see this done. ... No one has done more for the negro people than I have but that is all forgotten by these new men who have come in and only see one side of a question. I have put up with as much as I am going to. ... I have always felt closer to the Edmundite Fathers than any other Community in the Diocese, but Selma has cured this.

- Archbishop T.J. Toolen, March 18, 1965

The marchers finally left Selma for Montgomery on March 21, two weeks after Bloody Sunday. Many of the supporters who joined the march that day were clergy from across the nation.

But Ouellet was not one of them. Toolen had ordered him to leave Selma. It was a difficult time for the young reverend, who had poured so much of himself into the causes of the black community. "I cried. It was the only way I could handle it at the time."

Monsignor Michael Farmer, the current vicar general of the Archdiocese of Mobile, points out that Toolen had been very active in advancing the rights of African-Americans himself but had his hands tied as the leader of a church that was still very segregated in the South.

"He appears to be not as open, but you must take in his age and lived experience," Farmer said. "The approach that was being used at the time he was not able to comprehend."

Ouellet now understands the bishop's motives.

"He opposed what we were doing," he said. "He was a segregationist, but he wasn't a bigot."

Ouellet says the bishop was well aware of the turbulent times and the danger they all faced. He admits that being moved out of Selma may have saved his life. "I was really committed. It was not that I wanted to get myself killed; it was just, if this is what it takes, then this is what it takes."

After continuing his career with the Edmundites for nearly 30 years in cities across the country, Ouellet is retired and back in Selma, where the Edmundites continue their mission work. In addition to feeding and clothing the poor, they operate rural clinics and in many cases still provide the only doctors available to their patients.

Ouellet lives in a home for the elderly. There, he is cared for by African-American nurses, many of them from the families he once served.

 
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