Washington — A small parish in Montgomery, Alabama -- with its own links to the civil rights movement -- became the first stopover in the NAACP's "Journey for Justice" march, which started Aug. 1 in Selma, Alabama, and is scheduled to end in Washington in mid-September.
St. Jude Parish has been hosting 100 to 150 marchers for the first week of the march. While some marchers have continued walking the 860-mile trip to Washington, the other marchers fanned out to nearby Alabama cities for advocacy and educational events before getting into buses and heading back to St. Jude.
St. Jude's brush with the public side of the civil rights movement came with the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s children at a hospital that had operated on the grounds. The hospital was the first integrated hospital in Montgomery, according to Douglas Watson, executive director of City of St. Jude Inc. It closed in 1975 after white doctors left and fundraising efforts dwindled, then reopened again with black physicians until it closed again. The building was later converted into senior citizen apartments.
Meeting the needs of the African-American population in Montgomery and its environs has been one of the chief aims of St. Jude since its founding in the 1930s, when Jim Crow laws were the order of the day.
"Father Harold Purcell, a Passionist priest, had this vision of a church that built the spiritual and the health needs of the black community in the 1930s," Watson told Catholic News Service. The order was sending missionary priests to Africa, but "he wanted to do something right here in the United States," Watson said. "He was writing about a lot of these injustices, but then he found he wanted to do more than just write about it."
Unfortunately, Purcell's Passionist superiors didn't agree, causing the priest to leave the order and become ordained for the then-Diocese of Mobile, Alabama. He built the parish, a school and the hospital; the school closed just last year because of declining enrollment.
St. Jude also has a pediatric nursing home on its grounds for developmentally disabled children, with room for 58 kids. "They come in from right after birth and they stay there sometimes until they die," Watson told CNS from Louisville, Kentucky, where he was attending a grant-writing conference to find ways to get more funds for St. Jude.
The parish also operates a social service center that serves 1,000 people a month on average, according to Watson.
"That was our commitment then and that was our commitment now," he said. "St. Jude was a big champion of human rights 30 years before the civil rights movement came along."
The NAACP's Journey for Justice is meant to link the 50th anniversary of two milestones in the civil rights movement: the march in Selma -- the current march started at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma -- and the signing into law of the Voting Rights Act. Watson recalls when five U.S. bishops concelebrated Mass at St. Jude to mark the 50th anniversary of the original Selma march.
Making arrangements to house and feed 100-plus people every day for a week was done a bit hastily, he added.
"We only got the request three weeks ago," Watson said. "It was kind of hectic. We didn't finalize it until last week. It was a kind of a challenge, but we could accommodate 100-150 marchers."
The marchers were eating in the cafeteria of the old school and sleeping in cots in the school gym.
Feeding them has been largely the job of another Catholic, Debbie Kemsel, a member of nearby St. Bede Parish, who runs a catering company.
Kemsel's duty has been prepare three meals a day, including a take-with lunch for the road. She noted how the heat index in the Montgomery area has reached triple digits since the march and associated activities started.
"It's not pleasant for them," she said. "They look fine. I'm sure they're hot and tired, but they're very cordial to us."
The St. Jude-based marchers were set to leave Aug. 7 "with a sack lunch I'll prepare for them," Kemsel said.
The march will work its way through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia before finishing in Washington. Organizers said the march is expected to last 40 days.
Besides commemorating the historic events of the civil rights movement, the march also intends to promote a fair criminal justice system, ballot-box access, equitable public education and sustainable jobs with a living wage.