Earl Finkler

As Martin Luther King’s birthday comes up on Jan. 19, I think back 50 years ago, when a friend and I went from Milwaukee down to Selma, Ala., in March 1965. We went to be with Dr. King and people from around the U.S.

A new movie, “Selma,” is out this month, but some events in Selma remain clear in my mind.

I was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee when Dr. King issued a call for help. He made the call after some 600 marchers tried to head out from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. They made it only a few blocks before local police drove them back with billy clubs and tear gas.

My friend Lou and I found some cheap air transit to Georgia and then took a bus to Selma. When we arrived in Selma, we were assigned to stay with Julia, an elderly black woman in public housing. It was a small apartment, but she said she was glad to share it with us.

Our first night in town, as Lou and I returned from dinner, we noticed that the black section of town, unlike other neighborhoods, did not have paved streets or streetlights.

Suddenly, we noticed car lights heading for us—and I mean heading right for us. Fortunately we were able to jump back just in time.

The next day, it was hot in Selma as over 3,000 marchers gathered outside a church. I’ll never forget standing about 20 feet from Dr. King as he spoke calmly to us.

“It will be all right,” he said. “It will be fine if we just keep cool and keep walking.”

As we started to walk, I noticed a thin line of National Guard troops between us and a very hostile group of onlookers. Even young children, sitting on their parents’ shoulders, called us all sorts of names.

After a good walk and singing songs, we stopped for some refreshments from the back of trucks. I’ll always remember how those in front passed water and sandwiches to the rear before taking any for themselves.

Later, Dr. King sent us back to Selma, I think because of the lack of resources. We were glad to see Julia again and shared some meals with her, then got a ride with some college professors back to Illinois, and then a bus back to Milwaukee.

Well before the Selma march, I had written Dr. King about a public information job with his Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I still have a copy of the personal letter he wrote back.  He asked for samples of my public relations work but said his budget was unable to fund such a position at present.

And I will also remember just before we started marching, he said “If you can’t accept blows without retaliating, don’t get in the line.” 

Finkler, a frequent visitor to Dyersville, relocated to Medford, Wis., in 2008 after previously living in Barrow, Ala.