Selma march at 50: Bloody Sunday 'was just heartbreaking to see'

This story appears in the Selma march at 50 feature series. View the full series.

by Paul Murray

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Editor's note: Every day this week, we are publishing reflections of Bloody Sunday, its aftermath and the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., to commemorate the march's 50th anniversary. Find more Selma reflections.

Susan Butler, a graduate of Marymount Manhattan College in her third year teaching at New York City's School for the Deaf, was watching "Judgment at Nuremberg" when the television drama was interrupted with news of the Bloody Sunday attack in Selma, Ala. "It was just heartbreaking to see," she recalls. Later that night, when Al Gordon, a veteran Freedom Rider, called urging her to accompany him to Alabama, she readily agreed.

Butler and Gordon stayed with Mrs. Howard in Selma's black community. Each morning, they reported to Brown Chapel AME Church for the day's assignment. On March 19, 1965, the pair was among more than 300 protesters arrested for picketing outside the home of Mayor Joe Smitherman. They were placed in "protective custody" and held overnight in a community center converted into an impromptu jail.

The march to Montgomery finally got underway on March 21. "It was amazing just to see this sea of people of all colors and persuasions all coming together," Butler says. Mrs. Howard had packed a lunch so they wouldn't go hungry. There was a great joy among the marchers.

As they walked, they passed clusters of both whites hurling insults and black residents cheering them on. Although the white and black spectators stood near each other, there was no conflict between them; their attention was focused on the marchers.

"It was very strange, like they all had blinders on and couldn't see anything next to them," Butler remembers.

Three years later, Butler and Gordon traveled to Memphis following Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. They joined striking sanitation workers in a silent demonstration to honor the civil rights leader.

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 27-March 12, 2015 print issue under the headline: Susan Butler: 'It was just heartbreaking'.

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