Today we take equal rights and equal access to the voting booth as a given. Could it really be only 40 years ago that the federal Voting Rights Act nullified once and for all an insidious code of “Jim Crow” laws?
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Joe and Joyce Ellwanger remember vividly what they did March 25, 1965: They marched to Montgomery, Ala. “There was a sense of accomplishment,” says Joe, a retired ELCA pastor living in Milwaukee, “because the white power structure said this march from Selma to Montgomery was ‘the craziest thing that you could imagine, and over our dead bodies will you ever march’—and here we were.”
Joe was then the 32-year-old pastor of St. Paul Lutheran, Birmingham, Ala., an African American congregation. Joyce was 28, expecting their first child and setting up health records for the soon-to-be-launched Head Start program.
The Ellwangers marched to the Capitol, with its Confederate flag flying just below the U.S. flag, and then listened to music and speeches in front of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. had been pastor during the Montgomery bus boycott. Joe heard King read his name as one of the 14 pastors who would meet with President Lyndon Johnson about the voting rights bill. “I had no idea,” he recalls.
This historic moment was the culmination of months of hard work. In January the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had a mass meeting in Selma to kick off the voting rights movement. Selma had been chosen because of its large number of African Americans who had no possibility of voting and its active black community.
In the weeks that followed, many African Americans tried to register to vote. “The people in charge of registering voters kept playing games, saying the office was only open one day a week and to come between 3 and 4 in the afternoon,” Joe says.
The couple were involved in the Birmingham Council on Human Relations when they began to hear of the struggles in Selma. “The question was, ‘What can we do besides issue a statement and pray for them?’ ” Joe says.
The answer: Have white citizens from all over the state march to Selma in solidarity. On Saturday, March 6, Joe led 72 people down Broad Street to the Selma courthouse. Called the Concerned White Citizens of Alabama, they were clergy and professors with their spouses.
“When we turned the corner, a block away from the courthouse—our destination—we saw a group of whites with clubs and baseball bats,” Joe says. “A couple cars were upended in the street, and they were pumping smoke in our direction. On the other side of the street about 250 African Americans gathered on the post office lawn in solidarity.”
From the courthouse steps, Joe read the group’s declaration: “We consider it a shocking injustice that there are still counties in Alabama where there are no Negroes registered to vote.”
Then the people on the post office lawn began to sing We Shall Overcome. Joyce says that remains a powerful image of solidarity for her, one she recalls every time she sings that hymn.
These demonstrations were an integral part of the Ellwangers’ faith. “As Christians we say every person has value and that means that every person’s voice and vote is important in determining the way in which our government in the local, state and national scene goes,” Joe says.
“We are called not just to believe,” Joyce adds, “but to live out those values our faith teaches us about—the value to God of every life.”
Joe returned to Selma in March for the 40th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” one of 10,000 people who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers