Wayne Law alum recounts taking part in 2nd Selma march of 1965

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By Ronald Helveston

Editor's note: Ronald Helveston, Wayne State University Law School class of 1966, traveled with three other Wayne Law students to Selma, Ala., in 1965 for the second attempt at the march to Montgomery. These are his recollections.

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, my wife and I were horrified as we watched on the news a failed attempt by residents of Selma, Ala., to demonstrate for black voting rights by marching to Montgomery.

We learned that the march, organized after Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed for protecting his mother during a voter rights protest, had been organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's John Lewis and others. The plan had been to begin the march by crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

We watched the footage as the peaceful marchers began crossing the bridge. Suddenly, state troopers on horseback and on foot brutally attacked the marchers men, women and children with clubs, dogs and tear gas, refusing to allow the march to continue across the bridge. Almost immediately, the leaders were struck down: Among others, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Amelia Boynton was beaten unconscious, and John Lewis' skull was fractured. We saw marchers struggling to run from the dogs but unable to breathe because of the tear gas. The troopers were relentless, striking hard at anyone who tried to keep moving. So many marchers were seriously injured that the march was halted.

Live television had exposed, in prime time, the intensity of the Southern determination to maintain segregation and the savage brutality white Southerners were willing to engage in to prevent blacks from exercising their right to vote. The television and print news reported that people from all corners of the country had been horrified by the injustice they had seen on TV.

The next day, Monday, March 8, 1965, a number of Wayne State University Law School students attended a meeting of the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council and discussed the televised violence. At that meeting, four other law students and I decided to join the second march in Selma scheduled for Tuesday, March 9. Ken Cockrel, one of the few African-American law students and a gifted orator and civil rights advocate; George Edwards, son of a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals judge; Todd Ensign, son of a state legislator; Stan Walker, a civil right activist; and I made plans to leave for Selma that afternoon in an Oldsmobile 88, borrowed from Judge Edwards.

As we made arrangements with our respective spouses and girlfriends, Ken, whose wife was expecting their first child, was persuaded that it would be too dangerous for him, a black man, to be traveling with four white men in Alabama. The remaining four of us decided to go forward, leaving behind wives and girlfriends, who also shared Ken's wife's trepidations about our safety. My wife and George's wife made arrangements to stay together to follow the radio reports of the second march together. So, Todd, George, Stan and I set off, driving the 850 miles straight through to Selma.

We arrived in Selma late Monday night and went directly to Brown's Chapel, where we were provided with blankets to catch a little sleep before sunrise.

When we woke, we joined hundreds of marchers from Selma and from across the country to hear words of encouragement from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and other preachers. When a group of about 2,500 marchers had assembled, we were moved to a nearby playfield to wait under a hot sun for instructions. The organizers then split us into groups of about 50 and began instructing us in self-defense. We were told to march arm in arm, four abreast. In the event of attack from the state troopers, we were advised to curl into a fetal position to try to avoid blows from billy clubs and protect our eyes from tear gas. As we awaited the beginning of the march, George remarked that "We can't be arrested for sitting in a field," after which Todd responded, "In Alabama, we could." A young local woman nearby responded, "You know, you know," to us. From then on, we felt one with the local marchers.

Sometime in the late morning, Dr. King arrived to lead the marchers to the Pettus Bridge. As we walked through the streets of Selma, angry local whites gathered on the side of the street within a few feet of us, mumbling and laughing and spewing hateful words, as they slapped axe handles in their palms and glared at us, itching for a reason to strike us. I had never felt such hatred before in my life, and I was terrified. As we marched, we learned that the local police had called out all white males older than 21 to be deputized.

When we reached the bridge, the marchers knelt down in unison in prayer led by Dr. King. As we stood up, we were instructed to turn around and march back to Brown's chapel. We were confused, and likely relieved, but we didn't know why we were turning back. We later learned that there had been a federal court order entered preventing us from making the march; only the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had been advised about the court order in advance. Those of us who had traveled long distances were disappointed that we were unable to continue the march to Montgomery that day. We heard later that one of the marchers, the Rev. James Reeb from Boston, had been beaten and clubbed the night we left for home by four KKK members. He died two days later.

Dr. King spoke with the marchers back at Brown's Chapel and asked us to remain in Selma to participate in a march after the injunction was lifted, stating that President Johnson had promised federal protection for us. Unfortunately, like so many others, we were unable to remain in Selma for another couple of weeks and prepared to leave. On our way back from Selma, we stopped at a gas station/convenience store to get gas and something to eat. Three men in a pickup truck with a rifle plainly in sight in the rear window pulled up next to us as we were filling the tank and asked, "Where you boys been? In Selma?" I remember but this may be apocryphal one of us muttered, "We were marching with Dr. King in Selma." We looked aghast at him, pushed him into the car and squealed off, quickly reaching speeds of more than 90 miles per hour, thinking for sure we were being chased. The pickup truck finally disappeared from our rearview mirror.

On Thursday, March 25, 1965, thousands of marchers reached Montgomery and heard Dr. King deliver his speech, "How Long Will it Take?" Later that evening, a white woman and Wayne State nursing student from Detroit, Viola Liuzzo, was killed by KKK members as she was driving black marchers from Montgomery back to Selma. When we heard this, we realized that Ken had been right to stay behind. Although he did not go with us to Selma, after law school, Ken continued his activism for civil rights, serving on the Detroit City Council and becoming a candidate for the position of mayor of Detroit before dying prematurely.

George, Stan, Todd and I were permanently changed by our Selma experience. Upon our return to Detroit, we met with Ken and a number of other law students and committed ourselves to continuing the pursuit of equal rights for the disenfranchised and minority citizens. That is how the Free Legal Aid Clinic (formally) came into existence Nov. 29, 1965.

The clinic's first office was at 4705 Grand River Ave. at West Warren Avenue, "a low-rent and beat-up store front" according to supervising attorney James Lafferty. My wife, Mary Anne, now an attorney with 30 years of experience, designed a sign reading, "Free Legal Aid Clinic," to hang in the front window. We grabbed brooms, buckets and paint, and, with donated furniture, turned the place into the clinic's first office.

The newly founded clinic was staffed by the dedicated and hard-working 1965-67 student officers and leaders, including John Ecclestone, William Segesta, (Judge) Arney Mustonen, Laurence Burgess, Jane Kerr Burgess, Loyal Eldridge, Chuck Richards, Victor Papakhian, Frank Sweet, Ward McDonough, Ted Ravas, Hank Henson and many others. The clinic quickly evolved into a valuable asset for the poor and minority residents of Detroit as a result of the incredible organizing efforts and letter writing of our student staffers and the guidance of National Lawyers Guild attorneys, including Lafferty, Bill Goodman, Harry Philo, Dean Robb, David Klein and Judge James Montante.

After the 1967 Detroit riot, the clinic office on Grand River was one of the few buildings in the area left standing.

Published: Thu, Apr 02, 2015