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Fifty years ago, 17 Boston College students traveled 1,300 miles to join the civil rights protests taking place in Selma, Alabama. It was a pivotal moment in their lives and in the history of student political engagement at Boston College
Situated along the banks of the Alabama River near the center of the state, Selma, Alabama, was a segregated town with an adult population of 15,000 blacks and 14,400 whites in 1964. More than 80 percent of the blacks lived below the poverty line, and less than two percent were registered to vote. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned racial discrimination in setting voter qualifications, but Governor George Wallace and fellow segregationists found ways of using literacy tests, poll taxes, and other tactics to hold down black voter rolls. In Selma, the registration office at the county courthouse was open just two days a month. And when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) attempted a registration campaign there in July 1964, a state judge issued an injunction prohibiting any “assembly of three persons or more in a public place” sponsored by a civil rights organization.
Fed up, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a few dozen members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and SNCC defied the injunction and led unregistered Selma residents on daily marches to the county courthouse beginning on January 18, 1965; in response, the Selma police and a posse of 200, many wielding cattle prods, stationed themselves outside the entrance, where they beat and arrested anyone trying to enter, including children, who held signs reading, “Let our parents vote.”
Within a month more than 3,000 people were arrested, Dr. King among them. Then, on February 18, in the nearby town of Marion, 500 demonstrators took to the streets in a peaceful SCLC-led protest. State troopers attacked the crowd, mortally clubbing and shooting Baptist deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson.
It was a galvanizing assault. Plans took shape for a 54-mile march, east from Selma to the capitol building in Montgomery. There would be three attempts in all. To ensure that the governor and the national media paid attention, the SCLC and SNCC recruited extra marchers, many of them clergy and college students from the north.
In the early afternoon of Friday, March 19, 1965, two dozen Alabama state troopers in riot gear faced down a crowd of 350 detainees behind Selma City Hall. “Square your feet!” the troopers barked as they thumped billy clubs into their palms. “Don’t talk! Don’t move!”
The prisoners, including 12 Boston College undergraduates and one professor, had been arrested en masse earlier in the day while convening to picket the home of Joseph Smitherman, the mayor of Selma, after he had refused to provide escorts for African-Americans trying to register to vote in town. Just 12 days earlier, on March 7, which had come to be known as Bloody Sunday, troopers had attacked some 600 civil-rights demonstrators, led by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) chairman John Lewis, as they tried to march, for the first time, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge—named after a Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon—just four blocks from City Hall, on their way to Montgomery. On foot and horseback, the troopers had unleashed attack dogs, fired tear gas, charged the demonstrators, and struck them with nightsticks and bullwhips. Footage of the scene appeared on the national news that night, and in the days that followed, more than 25,000 men and women traveled to Selma to express their solidarity with the demonstrators. Which is how those 12 students, 11 men and one woman, found themselves detained behind City Hall.
They were an unlikely crew, and they were terrified. Few had ever participated in a protest before. None had ever been arrested. Most had not been south of Washington, D.C. All, however, had seen the TV clips of the troopers beating the demonstrators on Bloody Sunday—and now they were worried about what those same troopers might do to them. “They just kept beating their clubs and staring at us,” recalls one of the former students, Robert Gundersen ’65, JD’68, “letting us believe it was only a matter of time before they attacked.”
The idea of going to Selma had occurred to Gundersen only four days earlier, on March 15, a snowy Monday morning in Chestnut Hill. He and his friend Gerard Kiley ’65, MSW’74, both English majors and editors for the Heights, were drinking coffee in the Lyons Hall basement cafeteria, killing time before their 9:00 a.m. classes. One of them, probably Gundersen, was reading a front-page Boston Globe story about a memorial rally that had been held the previous afternoon on Boston Common for the 38-year-old Unitarian-Universalist minister James Reeb, who had traveled from Boston to Selma on March 9, only to be beaten to death with a pipe by white segregationists. The event had sparked demonstrations from Chicago to Budapest, but in Boston, where 25,000 people turned out, it was personal: Reeb was a community organizer in Roxbury, and he and his wife and four children were well-known in the community. After the murder, students and faculty at Harvard, Northeastern University, and Boston University had donned black mourning armbands and joined silent marches from their campuses to the memorial on the Common.
Nothing of the sort happened at Boston College. It was a more provincial place: Catholic theology still dominated the core curriculum; men were required to wear a jacket and tie to class; women wouldn’t be admitted into the College of Arts and Sciences for another five years; and Doris Day musicals served as Friday-night entertainment in Devlin Hall, as one graduate recalls. The greatest display of activism in Boston College’s 100-year history had occurred not long before, on December 3, 1962, when some 3,500 students, Kiley among them, marched from campus down Commonwealth Avenue toward Cardinal Richard Cushing’s residence. “Give us what we deserve!” they had chanted. What atrocity were they protesting? The University’s decision not to play in that year’s Gotham Bowl. “Isn’t this bowl beneath your dignity?” Cushing said, and sent them away.
Gundersen and Kiley, both longtime Massachusetts residents who remain friends today, were two of the more well-informed students on campus. Because they sometimes reported for the Heights on the strikes taking place at other universities over tuition, women’s rights, or racial discrimination, their classmates considered them progressives. They only learned of the Reeb memorial, however, upon seeing the report in the Globe.
Fellow Heights senior editor Michael Greene ’65, MA’67, also saw the report, apparently. As Gundersen and Kiley recall, he strode up to their table and his first words were “Let’s go to Selma.”
Gundersen and Kiley agreed, even though they didn’t know where Selma was. The three then began inviting others to join them—and, to their surprise, a number readily accepted. One was Phil McGough ’65, a New York City native and magna cum laude-bound English major. “I had no sense of the consequences,” he recalls. “It just sounded like a noble adventure.” Joseph Hayden ’66 was another. “I was not an activist,” says Hayden, who now lives in New Jersey. “But I felt a spontaneous outpouring of euphoria. I was thinking this is what you hoped you would have done against the Nazis.”
Not everybody said yes, of course. According to Kiley, one senior editor for the Heights wanted to go but declined, fearing what his neighbors in South Boston would think of him if they found out. But by that afternoon four more students had joined the group: the brothers Peter Lareau ’65, JD’68, and Richard Lareau ’68, from Fairport, New York; Marsha (Flagg) Downs, from Revere, who worked in the computer center and took classes in the Evening College; and Belmont native Jay Bryant ’65, a former member of the conservative student club Young Americans for Freedom.
What next? The students didn’t know, so they called the young Harvard theologian Rev. Harvey Cox, whom Dr. King had appointed to coordinate the travels of all Selma-bound protestors from Massachusetts—a group that ended up numbering more than 800. Already in Selma, Cox told the students to attend a nonviolence training session that evening in Roxbury, at the local headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Gundersen, Kiley, and Hayden went and learned how to curl on the ground to protect their head, testicles, and internal organs. Hayden remembers that a Baptist minister, the Rev. Bill England, concluded by saying, “There is one thing I can promise you: You’ll never be the same again after you’ve gone to Selma. May God go with you.” The SCLC hadn’t yet set a date for the next march attempt, but Cox advised them to get to Alabama as soon as possible.
The students’ families responded differently. “The hardest task for all of us was going home and telling our parents,” Kiley says. When Gundersen told his mother, who was a widow, she looked at him as though he was insane. “If you go,” she said, “you can’t come back to the house.”
Undeterred, Gundersen called Avis and rented the biggest car he could, a seven-seat station wagon. And at 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, March 16, the nine members of the Heights group grabbed their sleeping bags, crammed themselves into the car, and hit the road.
Two days after Bloody Sunday, on what national media would soon call Turnaround Tuesday, March 9, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and 2,500 demonstrators began a second attempt to march to Montgomery. But a federal-court judge for the middle district of Alabama, Frank Johnson, issued a temporary restraining order, so the demonstrators halted and turned around peacefully, at the same bridge where many protestors had recently been attacked. Judge Johnson would deliberate for days before lifting the ban, as thousands of additional demonstrators from around the country converged on Selma for a third attempt to march.
Meanwhile a response was taking shape in Washington. At 9:00 p.m. on Monday, March 15, in answer to the events in Selma, President Lyndon Johnson made a nationally televised speech in which he urged Congress to pass a more robust voting-rights bill. “It’s not just Negroes, but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice,” he said. And then, for the first time in his presidency but not the last, he echoed the phrase that had become the mantra of the civil rights movement: “And we shall overcome.”
Nineteen-year-old Thomas Schmidt ’68 heard the speech broadcast over the intercom in the McElroy Commons basement. He had just finished studying for the night, and he paused to listen. The civil rights movement was an interest of his. To keep up he subscribed to the muckraking newsletter I. F. Stone’s Weekly—in part, he recalls, to “needle” his conservative father. He continued down the hallway and noticed that the Boston College Sodality, a community-service and spiritual formation group run by Jesuit faculty, had posted a signup sheet outside its door for students interested in marching in Selma. English professor Francis X. Shea, SJ, a Dorchester-born priest who had recently been pressing the University to recruit more African-American students, was to lead the trip. The fact that the Sodality was organizing the journey appealed to Schmidt, who now practices law in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “It gave the trip much more of a spiritual spine,” he says. “It wasn’t just a street tactic.” He added his name.
Bryan Gaynor ’66, an economics major from Milwaukee who now lives in Arcata, California, acted even more impulsively. “I was just upset about the events on the bridge,” he says. “I saw the list, added my name, and didn’t think anything of it. The list was so long, and I thought they would select on basis of a background in nonviolent protesting. And I had zero. Zip. Then they called, and I said, ‘Sure.'”
Sixty-three Boston College students signed up. More than 40, however, didn’t meet the SCLC’s requirement that they receive their parents’ permission and ensure access to $500 so that they could post bail if arrested. Others dropped out after attending the nonviolence training session in Roxbury, where they were made fully aware of the dangers of confrontations with state troopers.
For the Boston College students who attended the training session, just traveling to Roxbury, only five miles from the Heights, was a new experience. Many had never visited an African-American community. In 1965, Boston College was almost all white, with only 10 black undergraduates in a student body of 6,500; there wouldn’t be a tenured black faculty member for another three years. The college had graduated its first black student back in 1937, but in the three decades since, only a few dozen others had followed in his footsteps. And they were largely invisible. “I don’t remember one African-American at BC,” McGough says. Michael Szpak ’68, a freshman from Waltham who also joined the Sodality trip, says, “I don’t believe there were any black students.”
Szpak’s memory failed him on that count: One of the others in the Sodality group that traveled to Selma was Mark Gray ’66, JD’74, the only African-American from Boston College who made the trip that spring. “We had a big class my year,” Gray says sardonically, correcting the record. “There were four of us.”
Gray remembers classmates who told him they feared black athletes. At other times the prejudice was less subtle. On March 19, the Heights published a student op-ed on the state of affairs in Selma, titled “Civil Wrongs,” in which the author railed against the “attempt to send students into this explosive situation,” calling it “misdirected,” and went on to claim, “Southern society, including Governor Wallace, does not deny the Negro the right to vote because he is unequal, but because he is not intelligently able to exercise that right.”
Those on the Sodality roster, like those in the Heights group, met resistance from their parents. Tom Schmidt didn’t even bother trying to get permission from his father; he remembers he either persuaded Shea to make an exception or forged his father’s signature, and told him about the trip only after he returned from it. Mark Gray’s parents tried to convince him not to go. “They knew the reality of violence toward blacks,” he says. “They came up from South Carolina in 1927, during the Great Migration. In retrospect, they had to relive the experiences they had escaped.” But Gray, who had participated in the March on Washington two years earlier, stuck with his decision and even convinced the director of the University Chorale, Daniel Foley, SJ, to visit his house and offer his parents a blessing in sending their son. “He helped,” Gray says. “But they knew why they didn’t want me to go. They knew lynchings.”
In the end, seven students made the Sodality’s final cut: Schmidt, Gaynor, Gray, Szpak, Gerry O’Malley ’66, Paul Dimond ’65, and Richard Minisce, MA’68. To raise money for the trip, they held collection buckets in the McElroy and Lyons dining halls, and by Tuesday afternoon they had raised $665. “Some faculty members emptied their pockets,” the Heights reported, “while others gave their lunch money. Student support was, however, not as heavy as the Sodality had hoped.”
With the money they raised, the Sodality group was able to charter a Greyhound bus with other marchers, set to return Saturday, March 20. They boarded the bus at 10:45 on Tuesday evening, nine hours after the Heights crew left town, and settled in for the long ride to Montgomery.
For Gray, fear set in quickly as the Sodality group hurtled toward what he knew would be a dangerous situation. “The bus is going 60 miles an hour,” he recalls, “and I can’t get off.” Others wouldn’t worry until they arrived. Szpak remembers spending most of the ride memorizing a poem he would have to recite to a notoriously exacting English professor when he returned. “At that point,” he says, “I was much more afraid of him than whatever was in Selma.”
With rock music blaring on the radio, the Heights crew drove south into the night, buoyant with bravado. “We all felt we could die for the cause,” recalls Marsha Downs, who now lives in New Hampshire. “We were too young to really believe we would. We were superheroes.”
The next day, March 17, near Atlanta, Georgia state troopers caught sight of their northern plates and pulled them over for questioning. Jay Bryant, the driver for much of the trip, told the officers they were on vacation, and after a few minutes they were sent them on their way—but not before the officers’ accents made clear to the students just how far they’d already traveled from Boston. “All of a sudden,” Hayden says, “the seriousness of what we were doing sank in.” In the evening, passing through Montgomery, they saw the Confederate flag flying atop the capitol dome.
That afternoon, Judge Johnson had lifted the injunction. In fact, he’d called the right to march “commensurate with the enormity of the wrongs that are being protested.” Dr. King and the SCLC at last set the march for Sunday, the 21st. The Heights crew was thrilled and anxious, but the timing would disappoint the Sodality contingent, who had committed to returning to Boston by bus on Saturday.
At 9:00 that night, after driving nonstop, the Heights group arrived in Selma and headed straight for the Green Street Baptist Church, where Cox, their one contact in the South, had told them to find him. Church staff welcomed the men in and let them crash on the basement floor, along with a couple hundred other male demonstrators. Downs, the only woman, was escorted to the home of a black family that had volunteered to quarter marchers.
The Sodality group turned up on the 18th. They, too, had been told to head for the church. For a couple of days both groups of Boston College students, along with growing crowds of newly arrived marchers, passed the time listening to motivational speeches, singing revival songs, attending nonviolent training sessions, and wandering around Selma. The white parts of town, they soon figured out, had paved roads, whereas the black parts of town had only dirt roads. Throughout these first days, Hayden kept asking the others, “What time period did we jump back to?”
The men in the Heights group continued to sleep in the church basement. But the Sodality volunteers joined Downs in staying in the homes of black citizens—homes that were often little more than tin shacks. Most of the students had never seen poverty like this before. Downs remembers chickens walking in and out of her host’s front door, and the children heating water on the stove to fill a cast-iron bathtub in the living room. Szpak stayed with a single elderly woman who turned on the television soon after he arrived to watch Governor George Wallace deliver a speech in which he called the impending march “communist street warfare.” It’s a moment Szpak has never forgotten. “I always think of that juxtaposition,” he says about watching Wallace speak. “Him—and then her, on the couch next to me.”
The Boston College students found themselves berated by local whites at almost every turn. “When I got there I was afraid of black people,” Gundersen says. “Within 24 hours I was afraid of white people.” On Thursday morning, Downs, Greene, and a couple of black residents they had befriended walked past a mother pushing a toddler in a stroller. “I remarked how cute her daughter was,” Downs recalls. “She leaned over and told the girl, ‘Don’t you dare talk to that damn nigger-lover.'” When they and other volunteers couldn’t get a ride back to their temporary berths at night, they walked in groups and stayed in the shadows to avoid harassment. SCLC volunteers drove Gray to and from his quarters, but because Alabama outlawed integrated vehicles, he had to remain hidden on the floor under the back seat. “Try it sometime,” he says. “Pick a neighborhood that’s scary to you. Ride on the floor. How long does the drive feel?”
On Friday morning, following the orders of James Bevel, the SCLC director of direct action and nonviolent education, the Heights crew and three members of the Sodality group (the rest happened to be in church) set out on their first mission: In small groups, teaming up with black activists, they strolled through a white neighborhood, trying, as Bevel put it, “to arouse the consciences” of the residents.
The walk only aroused ire. One resident punched a Catholic priest from Chicago. A woman chased another five demonstrators off her street with a gun. At that point, the Heights group joined a growing crowd of demonstrators heading for the house of Joseph Smitherman, Selma’s mayor—and Wilson Baker, Selma’s public-safety commissioner, had them all arrested. Ushered onto a police bus, the detainees began singing “We Shall Overcome,” which incensed Baker. “This has ceased to be a Negro movement,” he told a New York Times reporter at the time. “It’s become a misfit white movement. At least we had good music when the Negroes were demonstrating.”
Baker had the detainees taken to City Hall—and so it was that the 12 students and F.X. Shea, along with the rest of the detainees, ended up facing those state troopers in riot gear behind the building. They were kept there for three hours, unsure of their fate. Gundersen remembers badly needing to relieve himself but not daring to ask permission. “They were just waiting for somebody to say something,” he recalls, “so they’d be justified in cracking heads.”
Late in the afternoon, the police finally sent the detainees inside, into overnight protective custody in an adjacent community building, and a multi-faith party ensued. A rabbi offered a blessing at the start of the Sabbath. Shea sang a Roman Catholic hymn. Baptist ministers sang spirituals. They all chanted protest songs. The police wouldn’t feed them, but Kiley remembers SNCC members wearing black ski masks broke in through skylights and delivered sandwiches and cans of warm Coke. Kiley had the science-fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz in his back pocket, and he ripped it into thirds for others to read. Schmidt met SNCC and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) members and listened rapt as they voiced opinions against the Vietnam War, the first he had ever heard. (A Boston College chapter of SDS wouldn’t form until 1967.)
The detainees were released the following morning, Saturday the 20th, at which point they learned that President Johnson had agreed to federalize the National Guard to protect those marching from Selma toward Montgomery the next day.
That evening, Kiley ran into another Boston College student: Leo Haley, a graduate student at the School of Social Work. Haley, who back in Boston volunteered for the Catholic Interracial Council, had raised enough money from classmates to fly to Selma on Tuesday morning. His appearance alarmed Kiley. Earlier in the evening, Haley said, he had been walking to a planning meeting when two white teenagers stopped him. “Why did you come down here?” they asked him. Before he could answer, one of them grabbed him and held him down, and the other pulled out a safety razor and sliced a two-and-a-half-inch “X” into his right jaw. “Something to remember Selma by,” they told him.
“Leo was an innocent, trusting soul,” says Kiley, who had gone to St. Clement High School with him. After hearing Haley’s story, he offered him some advice. “This is like a war zone,” he said. “The goal is to survive. You have to be more careful.” After talking to his parents, Haley decided not to take part in the upcoming march, and flew home the next morning—by which time most of the students in the Sodality group were themselves begrudgingly also en route to Boston. Bryan Gaynor, however, decided he would stay.
On Sunday morning, the Heights group awoke early. The men donned the sport coats they usually wore to church, Downs put on a skirt, and at about 8:00 they headed over to the Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church about a mile from the bridge. By the time Dr. King arrived, three hours later, some 3,200 marchers had assembled, and at 12:46 the march began, led by a collection of high-profile activists: Dr. King; the Nobel Peace Prize–winner Ralph Bunche; Ralph Bevel and the civil-rights leaders Ralph Abernathy, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and John Lewis; and Cager Lee, the murdered Jimmie Lee Jackson’s 82-year-old grandfather. Nineteen armored jeeps and four military trucks trailed the marchers; two helicopters hovered above.
An hour later, momentously, they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “Immediately I felt a tremendous sense of history in the making,” Hayden says. “Only 12 days before on that bridge, people were bitten by police dogs, sprayed with high-pressure hoses. . . . And there we were, marching onward.”
Black citizens cheered along the sidewalk. Some whites screamed obscenities from passing cars, one painted on the side with the words, “Coonsville, USA.” Bryan Gaynor was appointed as a marshal with a charge of leading and protecting about 50 other marchers. “I was terrified all day,” he says. At one point, teenagers started to throw rocks at them. Gaynor ran over to a National Guardsman standing in front of an armored Jeep. “Someone’s going to get injured!” Gaynor said. The guardsman, no older than Gaynor, stood with his arms folded, smiling. “Yeah,” he responded drily. “You gotta look out. Try not to get hit.”
At that point, Gaynor noticed a Confederate flag sewn onto the guardsman’s chest. All the guardsmen in the area, he soon realized, had one.
Kiley was asked to lead 20 local black kindergarteners. “I kept running circles around the group to keep them together,” he says, “like a cowboy in a Western.” They asked Kiley about life in the North. What was snow like? Could they go to college? Would they be treated any better up there?
By 5:00 in the afternoon, the marchers had traveled seven miles and stopped for the day, 47 miles from Montgomery. Highway 80 narrowed to two lanes at that point, and only 300 demonstrators would be permitted to march the remaining distance, per Judge Johnson’s order.
For the Boston College students, it was the end of the march. That evening, in a field on the side of the road, they ate cornbread, spaghetti, pork, and beans with the rest of the marchers, and then made their way back to Selma, where they spent the night. At dawn, they stuffed themselves back into their station wagon, filled the tank at the one black gas station in town, and headed home.
The Heights crew, the Sodality group, and Leo Haley returned to campus changed. Newly sensitive to the racial inequality that plagued their own city, some started tutoring in Roxbury. The same week he returned, Gundersen, who had planned to be an English teacher, rushed an application to Boston College Law School and enrolled the following fall. He earned his JD in 1968 and has represented afforable-housing projects in Dorchester and Roxbury ever since. Gaynor had planned to be an accountant, but he, too, decided to become a lawyer: He attended Columbia Law School and has practiced as a public-interest attorney in California since the mid-1970s. “Selma changed my whole direction in life,” he says. Gray, Schmidt, Hayden, Peter Lareau, and Philip McCough also chose to pursue legal careers.
Marsha Downs dropped out of Boston College after her freshman year and returned to Selma, where she helped African-American residents register to vote until the following June, which was two months before Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. Kiley earned a master’s in social work at Boston College and then served in Boston’s division of child guardianship for a decade before taking up his current occupation as an information-technology executive. Greene earned a Ph.D. in African literature and taught English at colleges throughout New England for 40 years; Szpak became a Methodist minister and has worked for the AFL-CIO for 28 years. Two of the students died not long after Selma: Jay Bryant was killed in a car accident in Boston only seven months after the march, at 23, and Leo Haley died of heart failure in October 1966, at 24. (Haley House at Boston College is named for him.) Richard Minisce, who served in the Peace Corps and was a New York social worker before becoming a real estate agent in Oregon, died of ALS in 2007.
Upon their return, Kiley and Hayden reflected on the trip in the Heights. Kiley wrote that “the Negroes of Selma and the rest of Alabama and Mississippi have nowhere to go but up”; Hayden described meeting a Japanese man who had said it was “his duty as a member of the human race” to join the march, and a priest in the improvised holding pen who had called his fellow detainees heroes. Explaining why he had gone to Selma, Hayden wrote, “We wished to demonstrate by our physical presence that the white people of the North could no longer stand idly.”
After Selma, the Heights began paying more attention to the civil-rights movement. Between April and December of 1965, the paper published twice as many articles on the subject as it had in the previous three years combined—many of them written by Kiley, Gundersen, and Szpak. The editors repeatedly interviewed Robert Drinan, SJ, the dean of the Law School and an activist who criticized the University for its “basic inequality and racial imbalance.” Ad spaces normally reserved in the paper for oxford shirts and pool halls were replaced with announcements of local SCLC meetings. The Sodality helped bring civil rights leaders such as Julian Bond to campus to speak. In the fall after Selma, Szpak became the founding co-director of the Sodality’s Project Opportunity, a program to help local underserved African-American high school students prepare for and apply to Boston College. In 1967, Jesuit Superior General Pedro Arrupe wrote to U.S. Jesuits, demanding that they minister to underserved African-Americans and provide them with “special scholarships.” The next year, the University began the Black Talent Program, offering $100,000 in full four-year scholarships, and the undergraduate black population quadrupled the following fall, to about 45. Black students themselves ran the program for five years, admitting more than 300. In 1980, the program dissolved, and the Office of AHANA (African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native-American) Student Programs opened, which continues to offer minority students academic support and career counseling as the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center. Thirty-two percent of the undergraduate student body today is minority.
Fifty years after Selma, a few vivid images endure in the minds of some of the Boston College marchers. Downs remembers seeing the fold in the back of Dr. King’s neck when she sat behind him while singing gospel songs in the second row of Brown Chapel. Hayden remembers a young black girl from Selma in yellow dress and pigtails, who on the night he arrived thanked him for coming to help and hugged him as if he were “a long lost friend.”
Kiley, for his part, remembers a black man he met in the back of a farm truck on the seven-mile return ride to Selma along Highway 80. His kindergarten charges had fallen asleep in the truck bed, and he and the man talked briefly. Kiley could barely understand the man’s accent but learned that he was a farmer and former sharecropper from the Mississippi Delta. Both had taken risks in joining the march and had temporarily shared a powerful sense of purpose, but now they were heading back to dramatically different lives: Kiley’s in Chestnut Hill, and the farmer’s in the Delta. “He knew his life was in danger, but he believed this was a turning point. The spirit in him was so strong, it jumped across to me,” Kiley says. “The image of that farmer’s lean, leathery face has stayed with me for years and years, whenever I think through where to take my life.”
Read more by Zachary Jason