Looking for America, getting beaten up in Alabama (a series)

“I’ve gone to look for America.” Simon and Garfunkel

Part 2

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

It wasn’t only white people who feared the disruptions that came with young civil rights workers in the 1960s South. Black communities were wary of the violence and retribution they would face after the volunteers had left.

Enraged by the Life magazine photo of the sheriff of Neshoba County, Mississippi, sneering during his arraignment for the murders of three civil rights workers, Roger Daly, dropped out of Dartmouth in the fall of 1964 and heeded the call of activist clergyman William Sloane Coffin to get involved in the movement. (“I went to him for advice. Two hours later I walked out of his office a civil rights volunteer.”)

In early January 1965 Roger, my friend and high-school football captain (“We’re small,” our coach told a reporter, “but we’re slow,” a prescient description of a team that lost every game but one), boarded a bus for Jackson, Mississippi, to train with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. A week later he arrived in “a town I had never heard of before in my life.” Selma, Alabama.

“I had never witnessed such dark hostility, never encountered anything like the violence” in Selma. Whenever he traveled out of town, he had to lie down in the back of a station wagon, covered from view by blankets. “The whole time I was there I was scared shitless. I came to expect hostility around every corner.

“I began to understand the meaning of the word ‘dread’.”

While SNCC had trained him in the techniques of non-violent resistance, it had not prepared him for the loneliness he would constantly face, nor the fear. “I was not part of the community I was working with,” he says. “I didn’t have a single friend. I was alone.”

The only person he could talk to about what he felt was John Lewis, now the Georgia Congressman. “He became my pastor, responding with understanding, compassion, and strengthening my resolve.”

His last and worst beating occurred in the parking lot of the library built by Andrew Carnegie in 1903. He had gone to meet a high school student who had asked to talk to him. He met instead a guy who held a gun to his head while three others beat him bloody.

Shortly after that he left Selma. “I left because I could,” he says with regret. “I left because I was scared I would lose my life.”

In the late 1960s, in the face of the horrific violence its members daily faced, SNCC abandoned its commitment to non-violence. Roger, who will turn 75 next month, has committed his life to it. Both he and his wife Sandy are ordained ministers of the United Church of Christ. They operate a retreat in New Hampshire whose mission is “to provide hospitality in the deepest sense of the word . . . a welcoming and sacred space for rest and renewal, deepening relationships, a setting for contemplative practices and creative possibility.”


James G. Blaine

About James G. Blaine

Most of us undervalue what seem our tiny contributions to our communities and the world. As a result, we feel powerless, even victimized. But, like the butterfly effect in science, the lives we lead with our families, in our communities, and at work – all the so-called little things we do – collectively change the world. As I grow older, my ambition grows more modest but not less important: to participate fully and to contribute what I can. That’s my goal with this blog.