Remembering the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March

Posted Jan. 21, 2015

MP3 Interview with John Pawelek, professor at the Yale University School of Medicine, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


The new movie "Selma" reconstructs the historic 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, organized to press for voting rights. The film has generated a lot of buzz, though no major Academy Award nominations. Realizing that younger generations know little about the civil rights era, several black business leaders got together to support the distribution of hundreds of thousands of free movie tickets to middle and high school students across the country.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma, and it comes in the midst of the "Black Lives Matter" campaign, in which people of all races around the country are organizing mostly nonviolent direct action protests in the street to draw attention to the unjustified killings of numerous unnamed African American men and boys by white police officers. Almost all of these killings have been deemed "justified" by local district attorneys or grand juries, and very few officers are ever held accountable or suffer any consequences for the lives lost.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with John Pawelek, a professor at the Yale University School of Medicine, who answered Martin Luther King Jr.'s call for people of good will around the country to support the march across Alabama. Here, he describes his experience as a participant in 1965 march, his reaction to watching the movie depiction of the actual events and the state of today’s civil rights movement.

Find more commentary about the historical significance of the march, Selma the movie and today’s "Black Lives Matter" civil rights movement by visiting .

JOHN PAWELEK: I was 22 years old and with a young bride and I was in graduate school in biological sciences at Brown University. And Brown University was – if you saw towards the end of that movie, it was one of the nodes that was organized, I guess, nationwide – but Brown was sending out all these posters all over the place. All the black and white stuff of the real footage was just incredibly powerful to me, because I remember it. I'm (now) 72, and I was 22, so it was 50 years ago, but it just came back. Everything I remember was in that movie. I don't think I was in it, in the black and white section, but I remember a lot of the scenes there in the black and white. I recognized people, I recognized the National Guard with their fixed bayonets, all that stuff.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, tell us how you wound up in the Montgomery airport on the fifth and last day of the Selma to Montgomery march.

JOHN PAWELEK: The notice went out, as you saw in the movie, that MLK was calling for people to come from all over the U.S. to [participate] in this third march of his. So three of us at Brown University, we got up at midnight and we flew down with 50 or 60 people on this old cargo ship and we landed at the airport before dawn, and what we were just shocked to see when we got into the airport there were just hundreds and hundreds of people just sleeping on the floor there. They got them all up – we were dead tired – and outside the airport there were these lines and lines as far as you could see of pickup trucks driven by black farmers. And they had come in and we were herded into these pickup trucks and it was still dark. And we finally got to this staging area that was five miles outside of Montgomery, so they had gone 45 miles and we joined the march and went in with five miles to go. And by that time the march had swelled to 20,000 people from all over. They put us in at the back, and I was, I was on the outside because I was big and tall, and I had a black girl, we were walking arm in arm, and that was an outlandish thing for a black girl and a white guy to be even touching each other.

BETWEEN THE LINES: There's a scene in the movie where the two white ministers are attacked and one of them, the Unitarian minister James Reeb, is killed. The Southerners who were attacking the civil rights marchers often said that they hated the white supporters of the Southern blacks even more than they hated the black people who were fighting for their rights. Did you feel especially vulnerable there on the outside of the column of marchers?

JOHN PAWELEK: Yes, we did actually. I can't say we didn't. Even though there were state troopers with fixed bayonets, people were running between them and spitting on my whole left side, in disdain. And they kept doing it and the National Guard did nothing. I was just soaked by the time we got into the square with spit. So that's it. That's really what we heard. And then we heard this wonderful oratory from King, and that was really something. And then we were picked up by the pickup trucks and driven back.

BETWEEN THE LINES: I covered one of the protests in New Haven after the non-indictment of the police officer in the Mike Brown killing, and I interviewed your son and his young son there. Your grandson said he was marching to end racism. And I know one of your other sons is a Unitarian minister who is very active in anti-racism work. What do you think about the Black Lives Matter movement, which erupted last year in the wake of several killings of unarmed black men and boys by white police officers?

JOHN PAWELEK: (Sighs) This whole question of racism, it just won't die, and it keeps resurfacing and now it's a very, very big topic of discussion. I thought everything was peachy fine when Obama was elected, I thought that was the most spectacular time in the history of America, and it didn't really happen, did it? Racism going away...

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you feel like the movie, Selma, was accurate in depicting the different strains within the movement?

JOHN PAWELEK: Yes, this film was remarkably, impeccably accurate. From the news of the day we were following up at school, I mean that's all I got, but this was precisely what the background story was, and that was fascinating to watch because they reconstructed that beautifully. And then they melded the last part into the black and white, which was showing actual scenes. I thought it was a brilliant film, just brilliant. It was just probably one of the most intense experiences of my life to see that reconstructed before me. That was really something. And it's not getting any Academy Award nominations, except a couple, I think. But the guy that played Martin Luther King, oh my God, that was Martin Luther King to me. He just was. He was exactly the way he talked, the way he looked. That was incredible. And it's not getting the Academy Award nominations that it should be. Big discussion about that – is that racism in Hollywood again?

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