Martha Jackson Ross: One Native Selmian for Freedom and Justice

On March 25, 1965, Selma, Alabama, native Martha Jackson Ross traveled from her Bethesda, Md., home to participate in the final day of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march.  Here is her account of her experiences, as she wrote them for a March 15, 2005, presentation to the residents of Buckingham’s Choice, the continuing care facility where she and her husband, Donald Morris Ross, were living.  The text includes the notes she spoke from and the text from two letters that ensued.  (At the end, I’ll add some additional information about the photos.)

Image

REMARKS

Selma-to-Montgomery March 1965

for presentation to fellow residents

of Buckingham’s Choice (Adamstown, Maryland)

Tuesday, 15 March 2005

I would like to thank Fred Pyne and those who invited me to have the opportunity to think back on a unique event in my own life and to share those recollections with you tonight. For once, I’m addressing an audience made up of my own “age cohort,” people who have lived through and witnessed-with varying degrees of personal involvement, proximity or distance-the events I will describe tonight.

I was born in July 1923, in my mother’s home town of Selma, Alabama. The only child for ten-and-a-half years, the only grandchild in my mother’s large family of seven, and sickly as well, I was indeed spoiled, particularly by a maiden great aunt, who doted on me.

Characterized by Tom Brokaw, whose parents are in our age group as “The Greatest Generation”, we watched our relatives as they suffered through the Great Depression. Some us were old enough to help elect Franklin D. Roosevelt to the most terms ever for an American president, and Harry Truman, with his wife Bess and daughter Margaret, bring a taste of midwestern ordinariness to the White House and the nation. By the early 1960s, we were ready to install a leader of almost our own generation, to bring new energy and “vigah” to our public life, in the person of John F. Kennedy. A “New Frontier”, a new beginning for our society.

Through these years in the South, as in earlier times, blacks were our servants: cooks, laundresses (“washerwomen” we called them, and I have a remarkable recollection of ours as I grew up), always a special black nurse who came in to help new mothers manage their new responsibilities, feed the baby at night, take care of the diapers, etc. These black women lived almost intimately among us and were valued, but we always knew they weren’t entirely LIKE us. We were, after all, “white.”

My father, an “immigrant” to Selma from a Kentucky family who never had black servants, was an educator in Selma, rising to superintendent of Selma schools before going off to serve in the military in World War ll. In that capacity, he was a personal friend of the black superintendent of the black schools of Selma, but-of course-he could never be received in our home as a guest. My father always visited them in their offices in the black neighborhoods. In this context, combined perhaps with a somewhat contrarian bent, I think I was always ready to ask, “Yes, but … ??”

So, when the racial climate began to heat up in the late 1950s — black college students “getting uppity”, ideas filtering in from other parts of the country, we became aware of disturbances in other places, with demonstrations, “sit-ins” at lunch counters in public places like bus stations, I became interested. It was not surprising that by the early 1960s, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama — “The Deep South”, “The Black Belt” (although so-called because of its deep, rich, black soil rather than for its minority population) were involved. Among all of the cities and towns throughout the South, Selma was among the very last to become involved.

By March of 1965, events were cascading to some sort of a climax, especially in Alabama. As I recall, several little girls were attacked at Sunday School in Birmingham. Fire hoses and police dogs were turned on demonstrators. The evening news showed it all, and the nation began paying attention. Union members were particularly engaged, along with elite ladies from the North. By the second week of March, someone decided to organize a march from Selma to Montgomery. As a few participants gathered in a black neighborhood near the downtown business district, a young Unitarian minister, the Reverend James Reeb, was shot and killed in downtown Selma. And the marchers who made it across the Edmund Winston Pettus Bridge across the Alabama River on the road leading to Montgomery, they were greeted with armed National Guardsmen, where they were assaulted. The nation was inflamed.

In our home in Bethesda, MD, I was naturally interested. A group was being organized in Montgomery County by the National Council of Churches to fly down and participate. With my husband’s permission, I called to enlist. Unfortunately, by that time, because of the size of the chartered plane, that group was already oversubscribed. But very shortly a second group was announced, to fly down for the final day of the March and return to Washington the same evening. I immediately signed on.

And began making a large sign –29″ x 22″ poster board — on our dining room table. It read, “Here’s ONE NATIVE SELMIAN for FREEDOM and JUSTICE.” Don provided me with a very large redwood stake — 54″ long, 4″ wide, 1″ deep — on which to staple it in order to carry it. It was HEAVY! (Just HOW heavy I would certainly learn throughout the very long day I carried it!)

Very early on the morning of March 15 ((Editor’s note: It was actually March 25)), my very supportive husband delivered me to the charter terminal at National Airport. I provisioned myself with one can of Vienna sausages in a small straw handbag. Little did I know this would provide me with the only sustenance I would enjoy on that very long day!

When our plane landed in Montgomery and took its place among the numbers of chartered planes there (l particularly recall one identified as being from Purdue University, that name being emblazoned along its cabin.) With a notable lack of Southern hospitality, on our arrival NO STAIRS were wheeled up to our plane; the men jumped down and handed down the ladies! Indeed, a unique airport arrival, in my experience! We were then bussed to a muddy field on the Montgomery outskirts, where we joined a sea of multi-racial faces!

As we stood waiting for the entire group to assemble, someone came over to me and said quietly, “Would you come over and speak to Mrs. Parks? She would like to speak to you!” Mrs. Parks? Of course: This was Rosa Parks, the Montgomery black seamstress, whose refusal-at the end of a long day’s work –to give up her seat at the front of a Montgomery bus refused to give up her seat for a white passenger and take her appropriate place at the back of the bus! I went over eagerly, honored to be asked.

She took my hand in both of hers and asked, gently, “My dear, do you still LIVE in Selma?” Taken aback, I smiled and responded, “No, I live now in the Washington, DC, area.” Sadly, she dropped my hand and turned away. Thus, I became the woman who disappointed Rosa Parks!

But it would not be POSSIBLE for a Selma resident to take part in such an event and survive the day! Some native Alabamians/Southerners were intent on preserving their way of life, their segregated society, at any cost, despite any amount of pressure from other parts of the nation … OR the national motto: “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all”!!

After group after group formed up and began to leave the field to the streets towards the state capital, my National Council of Churches group marched smartly ahead, leaving me and my heavy sign lagging behind. Suddenly two young male strangers materialized on either side of me, saying they would march with me in the middle of the street and protect me in case any of the onlookers took exception to my message.

SelmaMarch-Guys-JetMag-Web

Through the empty streets we marched, through poor black neighborhoods, with onlookers watching in silent awe. No one cheered, no one saluted, despite invitations from the participants, and MANY voices raised in that old union anthem, “Which side are you on, brother? Which side are you on?”

Eventually, we  reached Dexter Avenue, the wide approach (boulevard?) to the Capitol building, crowning the hill. National Guard troops stood on every rooftop, guns drawn.  There was no doubt that the guns were armed and ready for instant use.

Parade marshals directed each group as it entered the plaza to go, sequentially, up the left side of the street, up the middle, and up the right side, thus balancing the throng and helping to keep groups together, from curb to curb. Our group was pointed to the left. My two heroes took me there to deposit me, when I had the inspiration — in thanking them — to ask them to autograph my sign, which they each did. As you can see, they were the first of many who did so that day!

I’ll have to refer you to other contemporaneous accounts for details of the program that day. I guess I sat down on the pavement, as those of you who know me well know, NOT an EASY thing for me to do! I’m sure I also lay down my sign so it wouldn’t interfere with others’ view of the proceedings up ahead. At some point early on, I peeled open my little can of Vienna sausages and ate them.

The day’s climax, of course, was the very moving address by Dr. King himself, details of which I don’t recall at all. And of course, the tremendous mass singing of the most moving anthem of all, “We Shall Overcome”!

At the program’s conclusion, we were directed to a side street to the north of the Capitol, where we boarded a bus to take us back to our plane and the flight back to DC. Again, the local disdain for our welfare and comfort was forcefully emphasized yet again: a crate of sandwiches were tossed into the plane, and we boarded. I don’t know whether or not we had stairs this time-to discover that no other servicing had been done: there was no drinking water aboard, nor had the toilets been serviced! No doubt, we were all too weary to notice!

* * *

The aftermath of these events and my participation in them is also of interest. Two months later, I received a letter from a science teacher in Selma High School during my years there, who made a most fortunate marriage to an heiress to the Coca-Cola bottling franchise in the state of Alabama. ON COCA-COLA  STATIONERY, he wrote, [read letter:]]

– – – – –

May 7, 1965

My dear Martha:

May I preface this letter by saying I was most devoted to your splendid father and felt real close to each member of his fine family. He was the one  who made it possible for this native Montgomerian to come  to the town I cherish more highly than any other in the world – Selma. This very warm feeling for his family causes me to think you will answer a question which I am going to be bold enough to ask you.

There is a bad rumor circulating in Selma and this area that you participated in a Negro Civil Rights march or demonstration.  Won’t you please tell me that the rumor is not correct. This information first came my attention when I returned from a trip to New York City and originated from a picture featured in two magazines which showed a woman carrying a sign which stated she was a native Selmian and for freedom and justice. A large number of people, including one of your close former teachers, positively identify the woman in the group picture as being the former Martha Jackson.

I have defended you on every occasion and  insist the person in the picture is not the excellent student  I once had the pleasure of teaching. A statement from you as to its authenticity would clear up the matter and enable me to prove my position of it being mistaken identity.

Material is enclosed from our Chamber of Commerce and it is being mighty well received throughout the world. Over 17,000 copies of it have been mailed. I especially urge you to read what the scholarly Catholic Archbishop has to say on page 15.

As long as I reside in Selma, I shall miss your father. I have just completed a three year project which consisted of giving  an examination to the best U. S. History student s in our  Selma-Dal1as County senior high schools on that very good. book, “The Story of Selma” by Walter M.  Jackson. Each time I read the book these words in the beginning impress me greatly,

“To Three of Selma’s children

Martha … Edna Louise … Walter M., Jr.

This Book is Affectionately Dedicated By Their Daddy.”

One of the finest of all the narratives in the book is Mr. Jackson’s loyalty to Selma and of his praise of her remarkable resurgence after the Civil War and of her progress up to 1954 when he copyrighted the volume.

Thank you so much for a prompt reply and the kindest regards to you and your family.

(Signed) Sincerely,

(Signed) [name redacted]

– – – – –

The stationery is significant in that, in Atlanta, the Candler family who founded and completely controlled the Coca-Cola Company, were significantly instrumental in the peaceful integration of that great Southern City! What they would have thought of one of their underlings sending such a letter on their stationery, I could not guess!

In the second week of May, 1965, the widow of my major professor in college, Mrs. Vaughan, attended the annual “Continental Congress of the Daughters of the American Revolution.” (Perhaps our distinguished fellow resident, the Reverend Pyne, has known her!) When she called to touch base with her husband’s former student, she mentioned the “recent troubles” in our state. I very foolishly volunteered that I had flown down to participate, whereupon with hardly taking a breath, she snapped, “Well! lf YOU had been killed that day as ‘that woman’ [Mrs. Liuzzo] was killed, I don’t think you should be buried in sacred ground!” So much for OLD friends! {refer to her letter} ((Editor’s note: I don’t have that letter at this time.))

When I replied to Mr. [redacted], I sent a copy to the publisher of the Selma Times-Journal, for which I had contributed a weekly column recounting the happenings among Selma girls at my college. From him, I received a nice letter, regretting that, since Mr. [redacted] would NOT consent to having HIS letter to me published, he could not publish my response by itself.

I conclude my remarks with that letter:

15 May 1965

Mr. [name redacted]
Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Selma
Selma, Alabama

Dear Mr. [name redacted]

My surprise upon receipt of your letter recently was matched only by my delight at hearing from you after so many years. I can assure you that the regard and affection you express for me and my family is warmly reciprocated by each one of us.

I must apologize for not responding more promptly. At the time your letter arrived, three friends and I were involved in presenting an original musical revue for a church group, and I have not had time to sit down and write until now.

I appreciate very much your gallantry in defending me against what you term the “bad rumor” of my having taken part in a civil rights demonstration. I hope you will be as faithful a friend and as staunch a defender when I tell you that it was indeed I who participated in the final day of the March to Montgomery, carrying a sign which I made myself on my dining room table, reading, “Here’s one NATIVE SELMIAN for FREEDOM and JUSTICE.”

You see, it was as a child of my father and of Selma that I felt in my conscience I had to be there. I should say, I felt I had to be in Selma, and I almost made the trip on March 6 with a delegation from the National Council of Churches.  I missed my contact for that plane by five minutes. The next time it was possible for me to come to Alabama was for the Montgomery march, and I came.

What prompted me to come? Partly, it was the lessons in civics I learned from Miss Rubye Neighbors in [Selma] junior high school, about the duties and responsibilities of citizenship. (l have just remembered that, coincidentally, I was [Albert G.] Parrish High School’s Good Citizenship Girl in 1931). And it was also lessons learned at Alabama College, mainly under Dr. Hallie Farmer, about our government and constitution, a government of law which regards all citizens as equal before it.

You compliment me by remembering me as an “excellent student.” Excellent or not, I am still a student, still learning and, as my father’s child, I am especially interested in the great sweep of history, from the earliest formation of the earth and planets to the history that is being made in our own time. I truly feel

that the great fact of American history in our time is the rise of the Negro to his rightful place in the American community. I especially admire and respect the attempt by Dr. Martin Luther King and his co-workers to accomplish this through non-violent means. In a world where violence is no stranger and in an area of human relations where violence has often intruded, it is especially remarkable to me that these people can respond with non-violence and love. As a student of history living in such a time, I am impelled to do what I can to help such a movement succeed.

But most of all, I came to Montgomery as the Sunday School pupil of those wonderful  ladies of Selma’s First Baptist Church, like Mrs. P. B. Moss and Mr. John A. Davison, who taught me again and again the principles of Christianity, to love God above all others and my neighbor as myself. You will remember, when Christ was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He told the unforgettable story of the Good Samaritan, one of a race despised by the Jews, a story of interracial, interfaith concern, brotherhood, and love.

I vividly remember hearing Dr. John A. Davison, that great and good preacher of happy memory, say from the pulpit, “People say Christianity has failed in this word, but that’s not true. Real Christianity has never even been tried.” It seems to me that the greatest opportunity today for the application of Christian love and brotherhood under God is in the area of interracial justice and good will. Such principles may be suppressed by churches and organized groups, but they must be carried out by individuals, The Christian individual today has an enormous responsibility to contribute what he can, however he can, and wherever he can, to further the realization of those principles in our lives and in society. For truly, Christ has no hands in this world but out hands, no feet but ours, no tongue but ours, no heart but ours; if we do not make the particular contribution that we can make, it will not be made for us by someone else. “Be you doers of the Word and not hearers only,” I was taught. Walking up Dexter Avenue in Montgomery is a small thing to do; I felt I had to do at least that.

Incidentally, I have never advocated discrimination or legal segregation, even when I lived in Alabama. I have never believed it right to hold against a person something over which he has absolutely no control, especially when I have no control over the same aspect of my own creation and life.  Which of us said, before we were born, “Look, God — I won’t be born if you don’t make me white”?  How can we possibly take advantage of the will of God for ourselves and against another of His creatures, whom he made in His own image and whom He loves? How can we avoid trying, at least, to see Christ in every man, when He said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto any of the least of these my brethren ye have done unto me”?

So, you see, I not only believe that all men should have equal voting rights but I believe everyone should have equal opportunities for education, employment, and housing. Wherever my family has lived, we have had friends and neighbors of various races; in my present location in suburban Washington, I am working to promote open housing, equal employment opportunities, and interracial understanding. The almost amusing aspect of equal opportunity for all is that, even if it is undertaken with the most high-principled and spiritual of intentions, it is bound to produce the most material of benefits for the whole community.  Segregation, like poverty and ignorance, is very costly; equal opportunity for all enriches all, materially as well as spiritually. lf Alabama Negroes, for instance, were given over a period of time equal educational and employment opportunities, where do you suppose they would spend the additional money they would then earn? In Alabama, of course. They would buy more cars, more appliances, more groceries, more clothes, more gasoline, more insurance — even more Coca-Cola – and pay more taxes and absorb less welfare money in the process.

Now — do you believe that everyone who advocates equal opportunity for all is either a Communist or a fellow traveler? Do you believe that everyone interested in civil rights is a left-winger? lf you do, then I must tell you that you are seriously mistaken, that you are taking a simple and dangerous rationalization instead of looking at the real situation and seeking a real solution, in the true American tradition. Has our country come to the point where it takes Communists to help American citizens claim their rights under our Constitution? Certainly not, and I hope you would agree.

And how can we most effectively oppose Communism in this country? It seems to me that alien philosophies, of whatever “ism”, most often appeal to those who have no hope of fulfilling their own aspirations and their ambitions for their children within the social order in which they find themselves. Communism claims to promise such people equality, and they accept that really empty promise, feeling that they have nothing to lose and any change in their state of life would be an improvement. The most positive opposition to this threat, I feel, is to make sure that every citizen in our society is valued for his individual worth, whatever it may be, and is free to realize his aspirations without artificial barriers to his progress and advancement.

Thus, Mr. [redacted], I myself advocate equality of opportunity in this country as a social expression of Christian principle. But I feel that it is of unarguable benefit on purely material grounds, as well, and furthermore is of paramount concern to anyone sincerely and realistically opposing Communism in this country.

In my wish not to burden you with the duty of disseminating my views to those who questioned your about my possible presence in Montgomery, I am forwarding a photocopy of your letter and a copy of my reply to Mr. Falkenberry at the TIMES-JOURNAL, with the hope that he will publish them and thus inform the community at once. I am sure he will be in touch with you for your permission to use your letter.

Again, thank you for letting me hear from you. Please accept our very best wishes to you and your family, and may I express the hope that any possible difference of opinion on these or any other concerns will not mean any diminution of the mutual regard which we feel for each other.

Cordially yours,

(signed) “MJR’

Mrs. Donald M. Ross

SelmaMarchTalkPoster-BChoic

Here are some notes on the photos:

The top photo was taken by Bruce Davidson. It appeared in Popular Photography’s 1965 Annual issue and in Davidson’s book on the civil rights movement during 1961-65, “A Time for Change”. A selection of his photos from that book can be seen here: http://www.rosegallery.net/#s=3&mi=12&pt=1&pi=10000&p=0&a=10&at=1

The middle photo was taken by a young photogrpaher, Rob Ellison, and appeared on page 32 of the April 8, 1965, issue of Jet magazine (http://books.google.com/books?id=jMADAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA32&lpg=PA32). Tragically, Ellison was killed when the plane he was riding while on assignment in vietnam was shot down. Here are some tributes: http://books.google.com/books?id=KtoDAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA24&ots=ipVdvZXA7s&dq=”bob+ellison”+selma+montgomery&pg=PA24http://www.oocities.org/westernalumni/ellison.htmlhttp://www.savewestern.com/2010/05/rob-ellison63.html

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3 thoughts on “Martha Jackson Ross: One Native Selmian for Freedom and Justice

  1. I knew Martha in Selma, Alabama. I always admired her for her strength, determination to engage in her strong belief of equality for everyone. I know after she marched she was ostracized and criticized unjustly, but she never wavered in her beliefs. These articles were terrific and I loved her pictures. Thanks for posting all of this.

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