Minnesota theologian shaped by historic Selma march

Barbara Holmes
Barbara Holmes, the president of United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, Minn., marched in the third and final walk from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. in 1965.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

As a teenager in the early 1960s, Barbara Holmes had an early encounter with discrimination. A member of the only black family in a suburb of New Haven, Conn., Holmes watched as whites threw hay on the lawn, as if she and her parents were animals.

Her father's response to the harassment directed at his family came in part from his military experience as a World War II veteran and from the experience of his slave ancestors who fled the South a step ahead of a lynch mob. He found a rusty old family weapon.

"He sat on the porch all night with that shotgun across his lap," Holmes said.

But nothing prepared Holmes for the terror she would face in 1965, when she went to Alabama for the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

The marchers were met by hostile whites who tried to disrupt them by "screaming obscenities, throwing beer cans and shooting guns in the air," recalled Holmes, president of United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, Minn.

In New Haven, Holmes attended the historically black Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church, where her father, Thomas Holmes, was a deacon.

Barbara Holmes and her father
Barbara Holmes and her father, Thomas Samuel Holmes, in New Haven, Conn. in 1965, shortly after the pair marched in the third and final walk from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
Courtesy of Barbara Holmes

Holmes and her father were among 40 to 50 church and community members who rode in a rented bus to Alabama in response to a call by Martin Luther King Jr. He urged people from across the nation to support blacks in Selma who were seeking the right to vote in a state that systematically blocked them from doing so.

King and other march organizers were reacting to "Bloody Sunday," the name given the first march attempt on March 7, 1965. Tired of the slow pace of black voter registration, civil rights workers selected the city as a starting point for a protest march. The peaceful column of several hundred marchers was ordered to turn back by local law enforcement, who called the march illegal.

When the marchers refused to turn back, sheriff's deputies and Alabama state troopers wielding clubs and firing tear gas advanced and caused the marchers to run in panic. Troopers and deputies clubbed men and women who fell or who couldn't retreat fast enough, and 58 sustained serious injuries. John Lewis, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member and march leader who would later become a U.S. representative from Georgia, suffered a fractured skull.

Two days later, a second march to the Edmund Pettus bridge also was turned back. King had assembled about 2,000 protestors, but shortly after the start, he knelt to pray, and then they retreated, likely avoiding another confrontation with law enforcement. But violence flared again that evening. Local whites beat James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister from Massachusetts and an alumnus of St. Olaf College, who came to join the march. He died from his injuries.

The violence prompted President Lyndon Johnson to order federal protection for the marchers. King invited churches nationwide to send people to join those already in Selma for a massive third attempt to march the 54 miles from Selma to the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery on March 25.

Luther King Marches
Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, lead a voting rights march from Selma, Ala., to the state capital in Montgomery on March 30, 1965.
William Lovelace | Getty Images

Holmes, her father and the rest of the New Haven contingent rode south, singing and praying, in an upbeat mood until they entered Alabama.

As they rode in the darkness on narrow, two-lane roads, drivers appeared out of nowhere and harassed them. "There were major vehicles pulling out in front of us and slowing us down," Holmes recalled. "We were not sure that we would be stopped and harmed on our way down."

Once they reached the small, rural Alabama church where they would spend the night, the mood turned joyful again as residents welcomed the northern visitors. "We ate thick slabs of pound cake and lemonade and fried chicken and it just seemed that everything was celebratory," Holmes said.

The mood would not last. As night came, so did trouble. "A little after midnight that night," she said, "the Klan began to ride."

Holmes, who took shelter in the basement with the children, doesn't know how many trucks converged on them, but she will never forget how their drivers sped through the church's dirt parking lot shouting threats.

Her father and the other men sat outside unarmed in folding chairs to fend off the unwelcome visitors. Behind them, African-American women of the church stood with big potato-salad spoons.

Then the angry mob disappeared.

The next morning, Holmes and the others boarded the bus and waved goodbye as they went to join the main group of demonstrators for the final day of the march. Her father explained why local black residents had to stay behind.

"It was clear that they could not participate," Holmes said, "that the retaliation after we left would have been severe."

Civil rights demonstrators, led by Dr Ma
Civil rights demonstrators, led by Dr Martin Luther King, pass by federal guards as they make their way through the third leg of the Selma to Montgomery marches in March 1965.
AFP | Getty Images

A rally before the final day of marching was festive with singing from Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte and others.

Shortly before the march began anew, organizers issued strict instructions for behavior — no singing, no talking and no disorderly ranks.

Holmes, the oldest of five children, said her father admitted he feared for their lives. She said her mother had only allowed her to go because her father's health was failing and someone needed to care for him if he fell ill.

His World War II experience caused him to worry about snipers. "He said, 'Baby, I'm watching the rooftops. If I tell to you get down, get down,'" Holmes recalled.

On that day, Alabama National Guard troops protected the marchers part of the way, but there were stretches where jeering onlookers were close enough to touch them.

"They were spitting on us. They were urinating on our shoes," Holmes said. "And they were screaming, so the only noise that you heard because we were silent was the crowd."

By late afternoon, more than 25,000 people had gathered at the steps of the capitol in Montgomery for a rally. Holmes remembers she was tired and bored. But when King spoke, everyone was attentive.

The event ran long, and the rally ended as darkness descended. Holmes said people rushed to board buses in a controlled panic. Those vehicles became targets for hostile drivers. "They were just tearing up and down the highway, around the buses, beeping their horns. Gunfire going off," Holmes said. "We left that place, lying on the floor of a bus, praying."

Johnson would later cite the historic march in efforts to pass the Voting Rights Act.

For Holmes, in the 50 years since the march, the nation has made progress in race relations.

"There's real consciousness raised, and there have been changes or I wouldn't be sitting here as the black president of a primarily white institution," she said.

But too many Americans, Holmes said, fear people who are different and are not confronting their own racism.

"Do you want a society where everyone is afraid?" Holmes asked. "Or do you want a place where we can come into the public sphere, exchange ideas, agree to disagree, but agree that we're in this together. And that as long as anybody is not free, no one is free."

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