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

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 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 ofcivil rights. So, too, did nearly 30 students from Mount MercyCollege (now Carlow University).

“On Sunday the 14th, we got a call from a Mt. Mercy priest whowas already there,” remembered Linda (Elston) Wolfson ’65. “Hesaid, ‘This is happening. Students are getting involved. Tellpeople about it.’ And so we did, and the plan to join him cametogether in a matter of hours.”

They scrambled, first to get parental permission to go, then tocatch 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 thepeople coming from Selma,” remembered Sister Patricia McCann. “Thenwe would all go on to the capitol.”

“It just felt like we were on another planet,” said CatherineMcClenahan ’65, recalling her first moments in Alabama. “Peoplerecognized us as out-of-towners and they werenot happy to see us. One truck driver pretended tolet us cross the street then tried to run us over. For the firsttime in my life I thought someone was trying to kill me.”

For McCann, the tone was set when she saw the confederate flagflying above the American flag at the capitol building. “I knewwhat we were up against,” she said.

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

“We were a nonviolent group, and if anything happened we weresupposed to just put our hands over our heads and not cause anyproblems,” said Barbara (Getsey) Palso ’67.

“The first thing we did was march from the church to AlabamaState College,” said Samuel Carcione, a young Mt. Mercy professorat the time. “We made our way through campus picking up more andmore people.”

“I think we started feeling courageous,” recalled McClenahan.”We were organized in groups, everybody was singing. It wasn’tuntil we saw the line of police with clubs and guns and dogs thatthings got scary.”

With the capitol just three blocks away, the march slowed and atension fell upon the crowd. “We got to a point where we couldn’tadvance any further. The police completely surrounded us,” saidCarcione.

It wasn’t only the police who surrounded the demonstrators: theMontgomery County Sheriff’s Mounted Posse, a group of deputizedcattle ranchers on horseback, were there, too, eager to enforcetheir particular version of law and order.

Bedlam erupted.

“All of a sudden there was chaos. People were runningeverywhere, and I remember not knowing who was with me and who wasagainst me,” said Palso. “It wasn’t that we did anything wrong, thepolice just kept coming.”

“Everyone scattered,” remembered Barbara (King) O’Connor ’67.”But as the crowd fled, police pursued, beating anyone in theirpath with billy clubs and whips. I remember running down an alleyfrantic to escape.”

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

“There was one great big guy who got between me and someone witha club,” said Donna (Roefaro) Henke ’67. “They hit him instead ofme. I’ll never forget the sound of that club on his bones, it washorrible. He definitely saved my life.”

The demonstrators were pushed back away from the capitol, andthe Mt. Mercy students slowly found one another, but they were byno means out of danger.

“The police had us cordoned off,” recalled McCann. “There wasone guy who made his way out into the street. He sat down and apoliceman on a motorcycle ran right over him. I just couldn’tbelieve what I was seeing.”

For some, it was not just the actions of police but also theirattitudes that left indelible memories. “I remember seeing thisyoung cop guarding a stretch of sidewalk,” said McClenahan. “And Iremember looking at him thinking there was no way I could talk tothis person. He could never see me as a human being.”

“The rest of the day was kind of a dream,” said Henke. “Peoplewere singing and giving speeches, and out of nowhere came all thisfood—it was like the loaves and the fishes, it just appeared!—andpeople started whispering that Dr. King was coming.”

Indeed, Dr. King did come.

“It was like God was walking down the street,” said Carcionewith a laugh.

“Dr. King thanked us for our efforts,” recalled McCann, “and hegave us a piece of advice: ‘When you leave,’ he said, ‘Don’t leavein buses that show the name of a northern city. List a southerncity as your destination.’ So that’s what we did.”

Dr. King addressed the demonstrators and Mt. Mercy studentsclimbed aboard their bus. The sign read “Raleigh” but their finaldestination 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 inJune. 

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