Photo: Richard Kelsaw
Written by Betty Miller Buttram
It was early in the morning of Thursday, June 21, 2018 when the Martin Luther King, Jr. Club of Fort Wayne, Indiana set off with a busload of people to begin their Civil Rights Tour of Memphis, Tennessee, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma, Alabama. Among the group were two passengers who had participated in two of the Civil Rights Movement marches during the turbulent 60s. One had memories of the March on Washington, August 28, 1963, and the other had memories of the 54-mile highway march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery on March 21, 1965. Two different sets of memories; one a peaceful march and the other full of hate, fear, tear gas, and billy clubs.
Mr. Richard Kelsaw has been living in Fort Wayne since 1965. He is a member of True Love Baptist Church and serves as an usher. He was born in Coy, Alabama about 40 miles south of Selma. Coy is a rural community in Wilcox County and is located in a bend of the Alabama River. It is home to several historic plantations. The county seat is Camden. Mr. Kelsaw is the Selma Marcher with memories to share.
Betty Buttram: How did you get involved in the marches?
Richard Kelsaw: We were having marches in Camden. Coy is just a rural area but the closest town is Camden. Rev. Harold was a preacher and a civil rights worker. The SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) sent civil right workers to areas, and he was one of the ones they sent to our area to register voters. We had meetings mostly every week and then we marched in Camden. We went around to people’s houses to get them to vote.
Buttram: Was that successful?
Kelsaw: Well, most of the younger people did a lot of [visiting] houses because we could walk more. We went to peoples’ houses on the white man’s property to get them to vote.
It was just like slave owner[ship], and they worked [on] the white man’s property. So we were at this one house, and he came with his gun on his side. We didn’t run, we just walked off. He drove up with his pistol on his side and got out [of the truck], so we didn’t say nothing. We just walked away.
We marched quite a bit, and we had meetings. One night we had food at the church (so many people would stay at the churches for food and stuff), so one night they broke in the church and beat them up. Those people were considered by the black folks as being all Klan anyway.
Buttram: Did they burn the church?
Kelsaw: No, they just beat up the people in there. Then one guy just ran out the door, and they shot a hole in the church with a shotgun shooting at him.
We marched and most of the time, the older people would be on one side of the street and the younger people would be on the other side of the street. So they (white people) would try to intimidate the younger people by throwing tear gas.
When we marched in [Camden] they would be in their houses pointing guns at us. Nobody shot at us, just tear gas; but we would always wet a towel to keep with us to cover our faces. Sometimes we would be outside the town, and they would stop us. So we would sit on the side of the road.
Buttram: But no one actually got physically hurt?
Buttram: The day of the march from Selma to Montgomery, how did the Reverend get you to the bridge?
Kelsaw: Different people had cars and trucks. We had a truck and they took us to Selma and then we got off at [Edmund] Pettus Bridge. My brother and them went back home, but they did come later and met us in Montgomery. They drove to Montgomery at the end of the march, but I was in the march. Selma is 50 miles from Montgomery.
(The first attempt to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge was on Sunday, March 7, 1965 and became known as “Bloody Sunday.” The second march, which became known as “Turnaround Tuesday,” was on March 9, 1965 and led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Troopers, police and the marchers confronted each other at the end of the bridge, but Rev. King led the marchers back to Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church which had been the starting point and meeting place for the Selma to Montgomery marches. He was obeying a federal injunction while seeking protection from federal court for the march. The third march on March 21, 1965 was the successful crossing of the bridge from Selma to Montgomery, and the marchers were protected by the National Guard and the military.)
Buttram: How did you feel about Bloody Sunday?
Kelsaw: Well, after that, we wanted to go, and then they had the National Guard from the beginning to the end. The National Guard was in control. When we marched across the bridge the National Guard was on both sides of the road, and the helicopters were flying above. They were in control of protecting everybody, and they showed that there would be no interference. The crowd was bigger on this march as far as you could see.
(The marchers started out of Selma with approximately 3,200 people. Five days later in Montgomery, the count had swelled to 25,000 people.)
Buttram: After you crossed the bridge, how much time did it take to get to the capitol?
Kelsaw: It took a week…about five days. We start marching about eight in the morning until about four in the evening. We camped out in big pastures at night.
Buttram: When you camped out did you have food? Did you bring food with you?
Kelsaw: Martin Luther King and SCLC provided food for everybody.
Buttram: Did you have lights or tents?
Kelsaw: Yes, there were huge tents. The military put them up because when we camped out the National Guard was all the way around the tents. We were very well protected from the start to the finish…all the way. The big tents so big that first night. The security was all around, and every night we camped out they had national guards all the way around the tents so nobody could get in there.
Buttram: Once you got to Montgomery, Alabama, how was that?
Kelsaw: We got in Montgomery that evening, but before we got there, the last day, I was up front and saw Martin Luther King, movie stars. We were all getting food off the same truck. When we got there that evening they had the stage set up for Sammy Davis, Jr. and performers, and everybody was up front. They gave us an orange jacket to put on to help keep people back from the stage.
Buttram: They gave all the marchers orange jackets?
Kelsaw: The ones that were up front. We all got orange jackets, and we would keep people back from the stage. I was the littlest security guard they had. And when it was over, the lady who got killed, Viola Liuzzo...the guy that was in the car with her…we picked him up.
(Viola Liuzzo was a civil rights activist from Michigan. She participated in the successful march and helped with coordination and logistics. Driving back from a trip shuttling fellow activists to the Montgomery Airport, she was murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Leroy Moton, a 19-year- old African-American, was in the car with Mrs. Liuzzo. The bullets fired into the car missed him, but he was covered with blood. He lay motionless when the Klansmen reached the car to check on their victims. After the Klansmen left, Moton began searching for help and eventually flagged down a truck driven by Rev. Leon Riley. Like Moton and Liuzzo, Riley was shuttling civil rights workers back to Selma.)
Kelsaw: We were on the truck and he was running down [the road]…it had just happened. He was running down the middle of the highway. We picked him up in a big truck…cotton truck…lots of us on that truck. So we picked him up on that highway and went on to Selma. When we got there, I don’t know how but the FBI was waiting on us, and they talked to him.
Buttram: Was he hollering, screaming, or just running when you picked him up?
Kelsaw: Just running. Later on, I tried to and wondered if anybody got his name because I wanted to meet him but never did. I didn’t even know his name, and we stayed there all night in Selma until we left for home the next day.
Buttram: After you got back home [to Coy], was there any attitude change with the white people?
Kelsaw: They didn’t change…still the same. Now, you had a couple of them down there. We had a white neighbor about a mile away, and we could go into their house and eat breakfast with them. You didn’t have too many like them. We could go to their house and didn’t have to go to the back door. Go right in the front door and play with his kids.
(On Thursday, March 25, 1965, Rev Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his speech, “How Long? Not Long” on the steps of the State Capitol Building in Montgomery, Alabama. The Selma Voting Rights Movement led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.)
Kelsaw: We moved shortly after the Voting Rights Act was signed. We moved to Fort Wayne about November 1965. I had an older brother and older sister already here. My father had passed, and I [worked] the farm for two years and then we moved up here. My mom said it was time to go, and I couldn’t say anything because I was a youngster and had to move when she said to move.
Buttram: I am quite sure you went back home after 1965. Did you see any changes in your little town?
Kelsaw: One of my father’s friends became the Sheriff of Camden, Alabama. They have quite a few black politicians now.
Kelsaw: Every time we marched, we got tear gas.
(End of interview)
The Selma marcher story was much more enlightening to cover since Mr. Kelsaw was born in the deep south. The Washington marcher was part of a peaceful endeavor; the one thing both marches had in common was that MLK was present at both marches. The Washington, DC marcher only was familiar with Selma because of the television and the newspaper...but Mr. Kelsaw was a witness in that battle for the voting rights for the black folks in Alabama.
(Research for portions of this article was obtained from websites on the Google network.)