“Trying to remember 50 years ago,” said Patrice Underwood with a chuckle, letting her words fade away, before adding, “but it had such an impact on me, I can remember a lot of it.”

The 85-year-old woman was Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Patrice Underwood when she flew to Atlanta and then Alabama in March of 1965 with a group of five other social justice activists from the San Francisco Archdiocese. It included two priests, a male teacher and two female nurses.

They were answering the desperate call of Martin Luther King, Jr. The charismatic civil rights leader was asking clergy and citizens to come to Selma after a violent attack by police, which the nation watched on TV, had stopped an initial march shortly after getting underway. The March 7 event became known as “Bloody Sunday.” About 200 Alabama state troopers and sheriff’s deputies charged some 525 peaceably assembled citizens, mostly African Americans, who were protesting unjust voting conditions in the Yellowhammer State.

The group had just started from the black ghetto of Selma and were nearing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, heading to Montgomery, the state capital. The police, some on horseback, charged using nightsticks, whips and tear gas to beat back the marchers. More than 60 had to get emergency care, while 17 were hospitalized.

Hundreds responded from across the nation.

King, who headed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and leaders of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), immediately organized a second march two days later. But it was mainly a ceremonial action, with the civil rights leader holding a short prayer session at the bridge before turning the group of about 2,500 around when confronted once again.

Many of the protesters, however, remained in Selma while President Lyndon Johnson tried to persuade Gov. George Wallace to guarantee the safety of marchers. Meanwhile, a district court judge had approved a petition for a Selma-to-Montgomery march. When the governor claimed Alabama didn’t have the personnel to protect the marchers, the president federalized the state national guard and mobilized almost 4,000 troops on March 20.

The very next day, some 3,200 people restarted the march, which would end in Montgomery with an estimated 25,000 on the steps of the Montgomery Capitol.

Rude awakening

Then-Sister Patrice Underwood got to Selma a day before the third and climatic march. Never having been to the Deep South, the woman religious immediately had a rude awakening.

“I was walking down the street with a priest and the teacher from our group, and people were yelling out of their cars at us, calling me everything in the book to get the two guys rattled,” she remembered during an interview off her tidy kitchen in her third-floor apartment.

“And I said to them, ‘See what the men have to go through here. We have to be nonviolent the way we were trained. But they can’t defend their wife or mother or sister because they’ll get the heck beat out of them.’”

The next morning, after staying overnight at a Catholic hospital, there was another Southern jolt — this time before an early morning Mass at a Catholic church just down the street. Sister Patrice knew that she and the other so-called “invaders” stood out in Selma. But she figured a place of worship was a relatively safe haven.  

At first, she thought the church was Vatican II modern, with its practice of placing a Communion host from a dish into a ciborium as you came in. But as she was doing this, a white woman also reached over to transfer the host. Spotting an invader, she said to the nun, “I just want to tell you, go to hell! You come here to teach hate. That’s what you’re here for.”

Later, when the woman religious was coming back from receiving Communion in the church, some people in the pews made similar remarks.

But these caustic incidents were more than balanced by the kindness of local African-American residents. “The minute we got there, people were all over welcoming us,” she said. “The people out on the street and in their homes would come and say how grateful they were that we came. So it was beautiful. And I made it a point to talk to the people and hear their stories. And that’s why I was so touched. So touched.

“They would just come over and grab your hand and say, ‘It means so much you’re here.’ And for some of those people, it was the first time that a white person ever shook their hand.”

And then there was the most beautiful ecumenical gathering she’d ever been to on the steps of a local Baptist church. The love was so palpable, she said, it just overcame the hatred she encountered. So when the march began, approaching the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the woman religious was actually feeling a calm inner peace.

“Yeah, I was scared,” she recalled. “I mean, they told us about things. But after the black minister talked about letting go of fear and trusting in the Lord, you know, that he’s with us because this is what Jesus preached — to love one another — I felt different. And the way the people supported all of us, you know, my fear went right out the window.

“That was true of a lot of people. There were professors at universities. There were poor families. And there were a lot of women, too. But it was the teenagers I talked to who had such hope.

“And when we started, I was in the third row and could see the back of Martin Luther King’s shoes marching in front of me,” she said, smiling now. “They were boots. Ahead of me, he was starting to sing the song, ‘We Shall Overcome.’”

Those words carried over the shouts and screams from white men, women and children lining both sides of the marchers. In her habit, Sister Patrice was an easy target. She was called a prostitute. She was called a whore. But her inner peace held.

That evening, she was ready to sleep in a women’s tent that had been set up along the highway. But for their safety, she and some others were driven back to the Catholic hospital in Selma to spend the night.  The next morning, they returned to the march.

Lunch with Coretta

The second day, Route 80 narrowed from a four-lane to a two-lane highway. Only 300 people could march as a group by state law. Sister Patrice was selected as one of them. Being a workday, Monday, there weren’t as many local whites yelling and taunting. So there was more time for conversations and breaks.

And she relished getting to know people and hearing their life stories.

An actor from Hollywood, who explained that he was Jewish, said walking with his black brothers and sisters reminded him of the Old Testament tale of the Exodus.

A couple of high school girls confided that their teacher at the segregated school they went to hadn’t even gone through the sixth grade herself.

Many of the marchers she met had been beaten with billy clubs on Bloody Sunday. “A little old lady beside me was all wrapped up in bandages,” she reported. “So I leaned over to her and I said, ‘You’ve been hurt, haven’t you?’ And she said, ‘Yes, I have. But I’ll heal. But you know what? We’re just gonna love ‘em and love ‘em until they can’t stand it anymore.’ I loved that.”

Another wonderful encounter came as a complete surprise — eating lunch alone with Coretta Scott King. The wife of the civil rights leader said it meant “so much” to have a Catholic presence on the march.

The woman religious said she’d read how a Molotov cocktail had been thrown through the window of their home, and how Coretta worried about the safety of her family, especially Martin, when he was away.

“And she said, ‘Yes, we talked about that at different times. But after that happened, we had to make up our minds to let go of the fear that something’s going to happen to us as a family,’” remembered Underwood. “And she said, ‘The cause for justice is more important than we being together the rest of our lives.’

‘It broke my heart’

The whole group was back on a four-lane highway the third day. And the shouts of hatred from the people on the sides “were like a nightmare, a terrifying and hellish experience,” according to Underwood. She pointed out that the black and white men, ministers and priests walking outside of the women to protect them were their “real body guards.”

At the end of that long tense day, the priest leader of the San Francisco group said he was really worried about “what’s going to happen.” So they couldn’t continue.

“Remember, I was in a habit,” she noted. “But I never got a real reason why. It just got more hateful when the crowd gathered around. It was more hateful, you know, with the guys on the sidelines. And that could be why.

“I felt bad, but I didn’t know all the reasons,” she said. “So I never made it to Montgomery, and that’s what killed me. It broke my heart.”

She and the others flew back to San Francisco. And on March 25, she watched on TV as 25,000 marched to the steps of the Alabama’s Capitol, where Martin Luther King delivered his “How Long, Not Long” speech.

“The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. … I know you are asking today, How long will it take? I came to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long.”

Patrice Underwood wound up giving more than 20 talks about her personal experiences before and on the march to different groups in California. Her main message being, “Wake up and be open to your responsibility to reach out to those suffering racial prejudice and injustice.”

During the march, she didn’t really realize how she was participating in a historical event, the last in the Civil Rights Movementthat led to President Johnson introducing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and Congress passing it.

“You know, I didn’t think that,” she said, shaking her head. “But you experienced so much love from the people, from the people who were marching. So I think that group would have kept marching if they had to go all the way to Los Angeles. There was something so absolutely wonderful about that. And I felt so privileged to just carry a part of that to other people. I just stood up there and told stories about the individual people I met.”

When asked what being in the march meant to her, Underwood straightened up at her round kitchen table. And her expression changed.

“I think it was a real turning point in my life,” she said. “It affected me in my own personal spiritual life and especially in regard to what being a Christian is really all about. Also, the need to overcome our own fears of being open to those in need, to being open to somebody else’s different way of living or thinking.

“It made me also question what keeps us personally from speaking up when there’s an obvious injustice, wherever that is — in our family, in our community, in our life. And my big thing is, also the need to share our stories with one another. I could not have come home and forgot all the stories the people of Selma told me.”

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