In 1965, a very young Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Barbara Moore, was asked by her provincial superior if she would like to join other religious sisters and priests as they united with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King and their followers to march for voting rights in Alabama.
Sister Barbara remembers well how they were prepared for the march.
Marchers were trained not to retaliate for what was said or done to them along the 50-mile hike from Selma to Montgomery. Their behavior was to be perfectly focused on the march ahead.
“Our provincial superior at the time, Sister Joan Marie Gleason, said that the Catholic Interracial Council had sent out a call for religious and people of faith to come to Selma to be in solidarity with the people there because this was the right thing to do after ‘Bloody Sunday,’ which occurred on March 7,” says Sister Barbara today.
“There was going to be a delegation going from Kansas City and she asked if I would like to join them. And I said, ‘Yes.’ There were to be 22 of us — priests, sisters, a Presbyterian minister and another person.”
The first day of the march, on Bloody Sunday, about 600 demonstrators were attacked at the Edmund Pettus Bridge after leaving Selma. Participants in the march were beaten, abused with tear gas and pushed back from the bridge.
A national cry was heard for a new voting rights law and a demand for help. Martin Luther King Jr. sought federal protection and called for religious leaders to lend support.
Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, refused to protect the marchers. President Lyndon B. Johnson said he would provide protection, after which Sister Barbara Moore participated in this 54-mile march, King’s third attempt to reach Selma.
Sister Barbara especially recalls the tension and fear that surrounded the march as it began again and proceeded on to Montgomery. She said the state troopers at Selma seemed as antsy as the marchers, despite being in full gear.
This protest began on March 21 and arrived in Montgomery on March 24 under the protection of soldiers, Federal Marshalls, the National Guard and FBI.
In the end, an estimated 25,000 marchers participated and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law in Alabama.
This four-day march ended without the bloodshed and beatings of the previous two marches. The procession was tense and participants were often fearful, but it showed that nonviolence can prevail.
Sister Barbara remembers that one young man asked, “What am I to do if I cannot not retaliate?” He was told by leaders, “Then you will not march.” It was the spirit of nonviolence, of not retaliating at any cost that so inspired her.
“This was a profoundly moving experience for me,” says Sister Barbara. “Seeing all the people — the different faith traditions and ethnic backgrounds — so many people who had put their lives on the line for something they believed in — it was profoundly moving for me.”
She knew many people who were beaten and even killed because of racism.
Participants stayed in various convents and rectories and were told not to go out at night.
“We were told that if we were to be arrested, we would not be put in the same cell with the Caucasian sisters,” Sister Barbara said. So they asked the religious women involved, “In light of that, did we still want to march? We said, ‘Yes.’
“The ‘lieutenants’ of the movement really instructed us as to what our behavior should be as we marched to the courthouse. Whatever happened, we were not to be aggressive or retaliate. They were very strict about that discipline and nonviolence — the witness of it,” says Sister Barbara.
It was only later that she realized all that could happen to the group.
“Really the potential danger did not hit me until I returned to Kansas City. The whole experience just strengthened my resolve to speak out and be vocal about our hardship and the whole experience.”
Sister Barbara Moore, CSJ, currently lives in St. Louis, Missouri Until 2006, she held a leadership position in her community of four provinces (St. Louis; Albany, N.Y.; Minnesota; Los Angeles, including the western United States and Japan) and the two vice provinces of Peru and Hawaii.
She has worked in healthcare nearly every year of her religious life and belongs to a number of professional organizations. Though not fully in ministry at present, she is still very much involved in the neighborhood of Carondelet, Missouri, where she lives and meets with small support groups of women in the area.
At the time of the marches in Selma in 1965, she was a supervisor of nursing staff at St. John’s Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. What brought her to Selma was a simple phone call.
The whole experience of Selma has had a deep impact on Sister Barbara’s life and ministry.
“It was how I was reared anyway. I always say I am a child of the South. We lived in Birmingham until I was six and we moved to St. Louis — and my parents were from Mississippi,” she said.
Her family would visit Memphis and Mississippi and see the “colored only” fountains, “balcony only” theatres, and the line on the bus indicating separate seating and the train car that was “for colored.”
“My parents were always very active, as were my extended family members, and very vocal about asserting equality and justice and the importance of our education. It isn’t that I was a withering flower before,” Sister Barbara said.
“But having entered [the CSJ community] — and I am a convert to Catholicism — Selma was my first experience of going outside of the setting which I was in at the hospital. It strengthened my resolve, too,” she said.
“I have practically no tolerance for people who take voting lightly. People have died so that we would have that right to vote. So that is what the experience did for me. And I continue to be active in causes that I believe in — to be active in peace and justice, and civil rights.”
When asked about how she kept her focus in Alabama and the impact the event has on her today, Sister Barbara says, “The Holy Spirit said to me to be very focused — to be in the moment. I was there. So that was where I was supposed to be to make that commitment, because nonviolence is very serious business.”
“So I tried to stay in the moment. The whole experience was powerful for me. No one moment really stood out. The whole experience stood out — being with the people there, the singing and the discipline — it was very much striking for me,” she said.
Civil rights are still being threatened, Sister Barbara said.
“For me, racism is systemic — in our education system, trying to turn back the healthcare act, people having to have an ID to vote, particularly in large urban areas — I call it sub rosa. Father Bryan Massingale’s book, he’s at Marquette University, on racial justice in the Catholic Church and in the hierarchy … the silence … is deafening,” she said.
“It is not the time to be silent. We have to show up and act for peace and justice. There are definitely things we need to address as a nation. The importance of immigration reform — a lot of the reaction to this is racism. It is the interrelationship of all of creation. We are all united in this. If we are not united, then the whole nation is going to suffer.”