Remembering Montgomery: Carlow Alumni Reflect on Their Role in Civil Rights History

Emily E. Martin -

On Tuesday, March 16, 1965, nearly 30 students from Mount Mercy College joined with hundreds of civil rights demonstrators to march on the capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, in support of voting rights for black citizens. Fifty years later, the marchers remember their experience.

 Mount Mercy protestors sing freedom songs
Mount Mercy protestors sing freedom songs upon their return to Pittsburgh. 
Copyright ©, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2015, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
  

In March of 1965, the world converged on Alabama in support of civil rights. So, too, did nearly 30 students from Mount Mercy College (now Carlow University).

"On Sunday the 14th, we got a call from a Mt. Mercy priest who was already there," remembered Linda (Elston) Wolfson '65. "He said, 'This is happening. Students are getting involved. Tell people about it.' And so we did, and the plan to join him came together in a matter of hours."

They scrambled, first to get parental permission to go, then to catch one of three charter buses set to leave Oakland that evening. "The plan was to go to Montgomery so that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) marchers could meet up with the people coming from Selma," remembered Sister Patricia McCann. "Then we would all go on to the capitol."

"It just felt like we were on another planet," said Catherine McClenahan '65, recalling her first moments in Alabama. "People recognized us as out-of-towners and they were not happy to see us. One truck driver pretended to let us cross the street then tried to run us over. For the first time in my life I thought someone was trying to kill me."  

For McCann, the tone was set when she saw the confederate flag flying above the American flag at the capitol building. "I knew what we were up against," she said. 

Students bedded down late Monday night in a large Baptist church. The next morning—Tuesday, March 16, 1965—they regrouped with their chaperones and were reminded of their objective.

"We were a nonviolent group, and if anything happened we were supposed to just put our hands over our heads and not cause any problems," said Barbara (Getsey) Palso '67. 

"The first thing we did was march from the church to Alabama State College," said Samuel Carcione, a young Mt. Mercy professor at the time. "We made our way through campus picking up more and more people." 

"I think we started feeling courageous," recalled McClenahan. "We were organized in groups, everybody was singing. It wasn't until we saw the line of police with clubs and guns and dogs that things got scary."

With the capitol just three blocks away, the march slowed and a tension fell upon the crowd. "We got to a point where we couldn't advance any further. The police completely surrounded us," said Carcione.

It wasn't only the police who surrounded the demonstrators: the Montgomery County Sheriff's Mounted Posse, a group of deputized cattle ranchers on horseback, were there, too, eager to enforce their particular version of law and order.

Bedlam erupted. 

"All of a sudden there was chaos. People were running everywhere, and I remember not knowing who was with me and who was against me," said Palso. "It wasn't that we did anything wrong, the police just kept coming."

"Everyone scattered," remembered Barbara (King) O'Connor '67. "But as the crowd fled, police pursued, beating anyone in their path with billy clubs and whips. I remember running down an alley frantic to escape."

Miraculously, only one Mt. Mercy student was hurt that day, though many credit the brave actions of their fellow marchers with saving them from a worse fate. 

"There was one great big guy who got between me and someone with a club," said Donna (Roefaro) Henke '67. "They hit him instead of me. I'll never forget the sound of that club on his bones, it was horrible. He definitely saved my life." 

The demonstrators were pushed back away from the capitol, and the Mt. Mercy students slowly found one another, but they were by no means out of danger. 

"The police had us cordoned off," recalled McCann. "There was one guy who made his way out into the street. He sat down and a policeman on a motorcycle ran right over him. I just couldn't believe what I was seeing." 

For some, it was not just the actions of police but also their attitudes that left indelible memories. "I remember seeing this young cop guarding a stretch of sidewalk," said McClenahan. "And I remember looking at him thinking there was no way I could talk to this person. He could never see me as a human being."

"The rest of the day was kind of a dream," said Henke. "People were singing and giving speeches, and out of nowhere came all this food—it was like the loaves and the fishes, it just appeared!—and people started whispering that Dr. King was coming."

Indeed, Dr. King did come.

"It was like God was walking down the street," said Carcione with a laugh.

"Dr. King thanked us for our efforts," recalled McCann, "and he gave us a piece of advice: 'When you leave,' he said, 'Don't leave in buses that show the name of a northern city. List a southern city as your destination.' So that's what we did."

Dr. King addressed the demonstrators and Mt. Mercy students climbed aboard their bus. The sign read "Raleigh" but their final destination was Pittsburgh. 

 

To read more about the 50th anniversary of Mt. Mercy students' involvement in the civil rights movement, including the Selma to Montgomery march, look for the Summer 2015 issue of Carlow University Magazine arriving in mailboxes and on the web in June. 

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