In 1965, Northwestern University senior Ferris Hardin felt a calling to be a small cog in a big social machine and change America in the small town of Selma, Ala.
Nearly 50 years later, Hardin and thousands of others returned to the site of three protest marches to mark the anniversary of the world-changing event.
The protests in 1965 shined a spotlight on the racial divide and raised awareness about the need for the Voting Rights Act.
“We were in the crux of a fierce battle to secure the Voting Rights Act,” said the Rev. Dr. Francys Johnson, president of the Georgia NAACP. “The question of the day was that it seemed altogether impossible. The Civil War and 13th, 14th, 15th amendments were almost 100 years old, and there were still some places where African-Americans were not allowed to vote”
On a Sunday evening in 1965, Hardin watched a news broadcast of a calm protest turn violent in the small town.
Johnson said 600 civil rights marchers headed out from Brown Chapel AME after the Sunday morning church service in response to Jimmy Lee Jackson’s death. A civil rights activist, Jackson was shot by a state trooper following a peaceful march in Marion, Ala., in February 1965.
Protesters marched east from Selma on Highway 80. Leading them were civil rights leaders John Lewis and the Rev. Hosea Williams. They met a wall of Alabama State Troopers, under the command of Sheriff Jim Clark, who ordered officers to attack.
“On Bloody Sunday, March 7, when the peaceful demonstrators went across the bridge and were beaten back and chased with horses and all kinds of things, all of that was on the national news,” the now 71-year-old Hardin said. “Dr. (Martin Luther) King (Jr.) came on and issued an invitation. ‘People of good will. People of faith. Come to Selma and help us with voter registration.’”
Two days later, the 21-year-old woman was on a plane to Birmingham, ready to make a difference.
Heading down South
Hardin’s spring break was set for that week, but she had not planned a trip home to Decatur since she was beginning her student teaching before her time off was over. Instead, Hardin approached the director of her Methodist student ministry foundation on campus and asked for a plane ticket to Birmingham. The director said yes.
“I landed in Birmingham and got on the Greyhound bus,” Hardin said.
Almost 90 miles later, the college student arrived in Selma after dark.
The bus did not stop at a station, much to Hardin’s surprise. It dropped passengers off in an alley in Selma, near a place Hardin suspected was open during the day.
The young woman was unsure where to go next. She originally planned to stay in the bus station overnight. However, others who were on the bus with her seemed to be headed in one direction.
“We got off the bus, and I’m standing there thinking ‘What am I going to do?’” Hardin said. “There were some young men from ... Chicago (who) had been on the same plane as me. They looked back at me, and I must have looked like I was lost. They said ‘Are you here for the march?’ And I said ‘Yes, I am.’”
Hardin explained someone met the men and escorted them to the George Washington Carver housing project.
“People over there were taking people in,” she said. “They found me a family to stay with and I slept on the floor there.”
Ready to make a difference
Hardin awoke to the smell of grits and biscuits for breakfast. Following the meal, she set out with the hundreds of others to help.
Hardin said she was prepared to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Unfortunately, after King took a group across the bridge Tuesday morning, federal Judge Frank Johnson declared an injunction against the march until he could ensure the protesters’ safety.
Despite not being able to participate in a march, Hardin felt a strong desire to make a difference.
“I was there, and I was on a time limit because I had to get back and do my student teaching,” she said. “So I asked what I could do.”
Instead of doing, Hardin underwent training to prepare for nonviolent protests.
“They taught you how to put your hands over your head and curl up in a ball and protect yourself,” she said. “And I’m thinking, ‘This could get serious.’”
Despite her knowledge of possible violence in Selma, Hardin was not afraid. She proceeded to help recruit people and register them to vote.
“A group of us (who) had the training went out into a neighborhood with pickets, with signs asking for voter rights and voter registration,” Hardin said. “So, we did that and pretty soon the police paddywagons came along. They took us to the Selma jail.”
Under arrest in Alabama
Hardin explained a group of 25 people were lined up in a parking lot before they were taken inside. Hardin’s time outside of the jail was one of the only times she felt fear.
“We were all standing there in a couple of lines, and these officers were there across from us,” she said, recalling the moment as if it were yesterday. “They had these billy clubs and they were (smacking them on their hands) like they wanted to do that to our heads. And I was thinking, ‘This might get serious.’”
However, the officers simply took the group into the tiny jail and held it in a municipal courtroom overnight because of a cell shortage. Hardin noted she was not booked or photographed. The group was let go in the morning.
Once she was free, Hardin knew she still wanted to help but couldn’t risk a real stint in jail.
“My mother and dad didn’t know where I was, and I didn’t want to call them from Selma and tell them I was in jail,” Hardin said with a laugh.
Different ways to help
The college student decided to contribute in another fashion — without the possibility of getting arrested again.
“There was a man, he was some kind of radio entrepreneur, he knew people in radio in New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Los Angeles,” Hardin said. “He needed people to go find somebody (who) looked important. There were plenty of those people around, so I started looking.”
Hardin met a Greek Orthodox priest in full garb and a woman she described as being “tall and imposing,” who turned out to be NAACP lawyer Constance Baker Motley. Hardin assisted with the radio interviews by day and went to meetings and speaking events at night.
“I heard Dr. King speak. I heard (civil rights leader) Andrew Young speak,” she said. “The singing was magnificent and inspiring. So, I spent those five days and then had to go back to Chicago.”
Hardin found out later the voter registration drive was a success despite the violence. In less than a year, enough black voters had been registered to make a true impact.
“In 1965, there were very few black voters registered in Dallas County, which is where Selma is located,” Hardin said.
In fact at the end of 1964, just 335 of the 15,000 eligible black voters in Dallas County were registered to vote. On the flip side, 9,000 of the 14,000 eligible whites were registered, according to the Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement organization.
“In 1965, 19.3 percent of Alabama voter registration was African-American, but nearly 70 percent were white,” Johnson said.
The Voting Rights Act was, therefore, essential to increasing participation. It worked quickly, which was evident in the election after the Selma march.
“Sheriff Jim Clark ordered the assaults on Edmund Pettus Bridge,” Hardin said. “Well, by 1966, there were so many black voters registered that they were able to vote him out of office.”
Life-altering impact of Selma march
The course of events in Selma and Hardin’s own experiences altered the course of her life. At the time, she was studying to be a high school English teacher. Hardin graduated with the degree and taught high school English and English courses at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C. But soon, the young woman decided to answer a higher calling.
“It was a defining moment in my life,” she said. “I’m sure that it was one of the things that led me into the ministry because what I experienced there with hundreds and thousands of people gathering in, was the church. The universal church, black and white, Protestant, Catholic and everyone focused on one common aim.”
Her experiences in Selma, along with working as a youth director for a black church on the south side of Chicago, fueled Hardin’s desire to fight for justice and righteousness. In fact, one of King’s speeches affected her heart profoundly, leading her to decide on attending seminary school.
“One of my favorite quotes (is) from Dr. King, which he said at the end of the march on March 25,” she said. “He said ‘The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”
Hardin shared these words and her experiences with her classmates at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., which is less than 30 miles from Chicago.
“People were surprised that I went, and you try to explain why, and I would have to say that it was a calling,” she said. “I definitely felt called by God to go. Responding to that strengthened me in anything that I did after that.”
More than two decades after the Selma march, Hardin finished seminary in 1989 as an ordained Methodist minister. She was the first woman pastor at each church she served. No matter what, she always worked for human rights.
Remembering the events in person
When she returned to Selma in 2012 for an anniversary march, Hardin knew she had to be there for the 50th anniversary. She wanted to show her family what she experienced.
Her daughter, Wendy; her granddaughter, Lucy; and her son, Andrew, went to Selma with Hardin this month for the celebration.
“There were thousands and thousands of people there,” Hardin said. “It was a very celebratory mood. It was just like a homecoming or something. We heard Obama speak on Saturday, and the march commemoration was really on Sunday.”
Hardin also heard Lewis, now a U.S. congressman from Georgia, and civil rights leader and minister Jesse Jackson. She also showed her family the town, which she says hasn’t changed much aesthetically.
“There’s still a lot of poverty,” Hardin said. “But I went to the jail and showed my granddaughter where I was in jail. The great thing was there were black people in charge this time.”
However, Johnson noted the voting rights progress being celebrated in 2015 is wavering in the national government. The act, which tries to create balance in voter registration and voting rights, is struggling in Congress as pieces of the act are being struck down and changes are being made that affect who can vote.
“The Voting Rights Act which we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of is on life support,” Johnson said. “There is much to celebrate, but there is also much to think about and respond to. The biggest gains have been that America is closer and truer to her ideal. These ideals are why we send soldiers around to fight for her on foreign soil. In 1965, these ideals were not yet realized here at home.”
For anyone working for human rights and trying to make a difference in 2015, Hardin has just one piece of advice she feels is why she and other protesters were so successful in March 1965.
“You just have to do what you believe in your heart is right,” she said.