Walking with King
By Winston Ross The Register-Guard
FLORENCE – There are certain indelible moments in a nation’s conscience, the kind that permanently etch into the brain about where we were when they happened: the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Challenger explosion, John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Florence resident Bob Peters can add at least one more to his personal list. For him, it was seeing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stride confidently into Montgomery, Ala., on the final day of a march in March 1965 in support of the right of all citizens to vote. It was an epic event that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year. Millions of Americans were glued to their television screens from the day the trek began in Selma, Ala.
Peters was there.
He and 150 others had poured in from across the country to protect black marchers from hateful crowds that lined the 50-mile route through the deepest of the Deep South. Trained in the art of nonviolent protest, Peters’ group was there as something of a race buffer. The hope was that the hostile locals would be less likely to attack their own.
Peters rarely tells the story of what happened that week, of why a white Methodist preacher from the Northwest with three young boys at home and another child on the way would risk his life to make a political statement. To most people in Eugene, he’s better known as a public defender and former University of Oregon history professor who spent 25 years answering for accused criminals before retiring in 2005 and moving to the coast last year.
Fewer know him as a champion of the civil rights movement.
“I was so fortunate to be there, at that historic time,” Peters said.
Became active as a student
The son of a dairy manufacturer, Peters grew up in northeast Portland during the Great Depression and World War II, before blacks moved there to work in shipyards that slowly have been gobbled up in recent years by trendy business redevelopment. His only memory of race from childhood was when a black family moved in across the street – and neighbors worried that they might see a drop in property values.
After graduating from high school, Peters fought fires with the city of Portland but gave the job up to study the ministry with the Pacific School of Religion in California, not so much because of religious fervor but because he wanted to work with young people.
Peters went on to work as a Methodist preacher at a church near the campus of Oregon State University. It was there that he became active in the national Methodist student movement, which was growing at the time.
In 1958, he attended a national conference of the group in Nashville, Tenn., his first trip to the South and a chance to explore a countryside he’d only heard about. One weekend, he decided to head down to the bus station, and hopped on the first vehicle leaving town. It was bound for Birmingham.
The bus stopped that night in Athens, Ala.
“I got off the bus and went to get an ice cream cone,” Peters said. “There was a counter for blacks and a counter for whites. I hardly knew such things existed.”
The year before, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, a decision that called for integrating the nation’s school system. In 1955, the Rosa Parks-inspired bus boycott in Montgomery had taken place. Race in America had become the subject of a national debate.
Moved by “Bloody Sunday”
Upon his return to the West, Peters got a grant to seek a doctorate in history at the University of Washington. He was in Seattle during the rise of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, which was fighting to register black voters in the South. The group had organized several demonstrations and rallied eloquent black preachers from around the country to join their cause.
In 1965, after the death of a Vietnam veteran named Jimmy Lee Jackson at the hands of police during a demonstration in Marion, Ala., SNCC (which was called “snick”) decided to organize a march from Selma to Montgomery.
That march resulted in Selma police and county sheriff’s deputies confronting the crowd at the crest of a bridge. Several participants were severely beaten in a scene caught on television and broadcast throughout the country. Peters, in Seattle, watched “Bloody Sunday” in horror.
“Black people were being mowed down. They had no weapons, they didn’t fight back,” he said. “I watched this over and over again, like Sept. 11, where they showed the buildings going down time after time … people were incensed. This was my country, my police, my sheriff, my governor, and they’re beating people over the head.”
Two days later, SNCC organized a peaceful march but didn’t make it out of Selma. Then came President Lyndon Johnson’s famous “We shall overcome” speech, and his historic decision to mobilize the Alabama National Guard to protect a third march from Selma to Montgomery.
The Nashville headquarters of Peters’ church asked him to go, to line the sides of the marchers and guard the blacks who would be making the five-day journey.
“If there are white people on the perimeters, they’ll be less likely to shoot you,” Peters remembers the organizers saying. “We wanted to be there. Now they were saying `Please come.’?”
He couldn’t afford the nearly $400 flight to Montgomery. As it turns out, that wasn’t a problem. His church raised most of the money. A few days before the march, Peters’ wife, Peg, gave him some news.
“I have a ticket for you at one o’clock tomorrow morning,” she told him.
Off Peters went, on a plane to Atlanta, then to Montgomery, then in the car of a young black man who had arrived to meet him at the airport. On the 50-mile drive to Selma, a state trooper tailgated the car most of the way, Peters said.
“You began to genuinely feel what was going on,” he said.
In Selma, SNCC had established a three-block perimeter to organize the march, which was a chaotic affair. Peters rolled out his sleeping bag and spent the night in a black church 15 blocks away, then hitched a ride back into town the next day, where he and others were recruited as marshals for the march.
Grouped into teams of eight, Peters was assigned to Team No. 8, given a yellow armband and instructed to stay on the perimeter of the marchers. The organizers, their faces scarred and bruised from past efforts, taught the newcomers how to protest without violence.
“If somebody comes up and spits on you, you take out your handkerchief and wipe it off,” he said. “If they hit you, here are the ways to protect yourself. If they club you, protect your head first. Here are the positions to get into. Do not ever be alone in these communities or go outside the protected areas.”
March was peaceful
The march began March 25, and rumors were spreading that Dr. King himself was planning to attend. The night before, Peters sat in awe in a crowded church as he heard some of the best preachers in the country rally the crowd.
Then came the day.
Peters lined up with 150 of his fellow marshals and took their places alongside the 3,500 marchers who had gathered, as helicopters overhead scanned the area for snipers and the reluctant soldiers of the Alabama National Guard assembled, ordered by the president to keep the peace.
Peters wound up at the front of the group as they strode across the same bridge where Bloody Sunday had taken place a few weeks before.
The walk itself was peaceful, but surreal. An image Peters will never forget is of a resident who had lined up to express her distaste at the event.
“She was a lovely white woman, a child in her arm, giving us the finger,” Peters said. “It just didn’t register, somehow.”
No one was hurt during the march’s five days. Peters camped with fellow marshals at night, taking two days off during a stretch when the government had ruled it unsafe for more than 300 people to be on the highway.
But he was there for the approach to Montgomery, where thousands awaited the triumphant group, and the marchers had swelled to 25,000 people.
At the front of the line was Martin Luther King Jr., surrounded by other major preachers from across the country, all dressed in identical suits, to make it harder for snipers to distinguish King.
Peters wound up alongside King, about 15 feet away. He listened as King gave one of his most famous speeches, “How Long.”
And then it was over.
Peters walked into a service station, where a white man approached him and said, “We don’t serve niggers here.”
For Peters, today’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday will be a special one.
“Not one single black person was registered to vote in Lawrence County when we marched through. Now, we’re going to have a black president,” he said. “Is that something worth telling?”
Winston Ross can be reached at (541) 902-9030 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Claim to fame: Marched with Martin Luther King Jr. into Montgomery, Ala., in 1965
Most unusual place he’s lived: San Quentin State Prison in California (not as an inmate)
In his own words: Peters will tell his story at 1 p.m. today at the seventh annual Florence Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in the Siuslaw Public Library, which runs from noon to 3:30.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. DAY EVENTS
March: Begins today at 10 a.m. at Moshofsky Center at Autzen Stadium, ends at Hult Center in downtown Eugene
Statue dedication: Unveiling of Rosa Parks commemorative statue at noon at Lane Transit District Eugene Station, 10th Avenue and Olive Street
Springfield celebration: 11th annual student-oriented event runs from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Springfield Middle School, 1084 G St.
Lane County celebration: 23rd annual event begins at 6 p.m. at Silva Concert Hall at Hult Center; keynote speaker is Stand for Children founder Jonah Edelman; reception and silent auction precedes progam at 4 p.m.
MLK National Day of Service: Volunteers will accept donations of blankets, coats, hats and other cold-weather items during Obama Warmth Drive from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Cozmic Pizza, 199 W. Eighth Ave.
Walking with King. (A profile of a man who marched with MLK.)