By MATTHEW M. BURKE
February 24, 2008
Robert Walsh, a 63-year-old former fisherman, boat builder, computer
programmer, and longtime Chatham resident, lives a quiet life in a
quaint family home on School Street.
He is unmarried and has no children. He is blind in one eye. His
hands are weathered, those of a seaman, and his knees and back also
bear the wear of a life at sea.
Only a small yellowed clipping from the April 3, 1965, edition of the
Cape Cod Times links this Cape Codder to a harrowing drama during the
height of the civil rights movement.
That April, Walsh found himself a white Northerner inside a
Southern jail for having a concealed weapon in his car, after
marching with The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma, Ala.,
to Montgomery Ala. Although Walsh brushes aside his contributions to
battle for voting rights the situation certainly was much worse for
black Americans at the time he commemorated Black History Month by
telling his story, 43 years later.
"I don't personally feel significant as a part of the movement,"
Walsh said last month at Chatham Town Hall.
"I was one of many thousands of people who each made a very minor
contribution, which in total was a major contribution."
In late March 1965, Walsh was in Boston, a 21-year-old activist and
recent dropout from Ohio Wesleyan University.
He was already angry about the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a
26-year-old civil rights protestor gunned down by a state trooper in
Marion, Ala., in February. His death inspired three famous marches
that sprang out of Selma headed to the state capital, Montgomery.
The ostensible goal was to ask Gov. George Wallace to protect black
citizens as they registered to vote. The grander purpose was to call
attention to Alabama's blatant civil rights abuses.
The first march ended violently in so-called "Bloody Sunday," and the
second resulted in the death of The Rev. James Reeb, a white
Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston who was beaten to death
by angry whites.
That was the final straw for Walsh. He called two of his best friends
and invited them to Alabama for the third and final march from Selma
to Montgomery, set for March 21, 1965.
Rick Best and Jack Enke agreed to go out of their similar beliefs,
and a common thirst for adventure, said Best in a phone interview
from Dallas, Texas. Enke could not be located for this story.
"Bob was the driver of it," said Best, 63, recalling the journey.
"Bob was a very independent minded individual. I don't think he fit
well into a highly structured environment."
As they drove into Selma, the friends saw the red cross of the Ku
Klux Klan followed by another sign, "Selma Ala., Progressive and
Friendly, Coca-Cola," according to letters from Best to friends.
Best stayed only a few days because of prior commitments. But Walsh
met King as he thanked marchers at a cookout and heard two of his speeches..
It was a heady time. One evening, Walsh debated Stokely Carmichael,
who later became the honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party.
"He resented the presence of white people coming down to that march,"
Walsh recalled. "I said, 'Racism is not a black problem, it's not a
white problem, it's not a brown problem, or a red problem. Racism is
an American problem, and if we don't all work together to eradicate
it, then it ain't gonna happen.' He was very angry, but anger wasn't
going to solve the problem."
Walsh and Enke made it to Montgomery and witnessed King's rousing
"Our God is Marching On" speech at the Alabama state capital on March
25. Then, the next morning they along with other young men white
and with long hair headed home, first stopping to eat on the
outskirts of Montgomery. They were denied service because of their
Northern license plate and accents.
Walsh remembers turning around to leave and seeing a newspaper on the
stand; Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from Michigan, with whom Walsh had
worked shuttling marchers, had been murdered by the Klan.
Up the road, the men found a breakfast place that would serve them.
After they left they were pulled over and surrounded by 13 cruisers,
Walsh said. They were arrested and taken to the Montgomery County jail.
Police officers hurled insults at them and sprayed their car with bug
spray saying that they might have bugs for being in the company of
blacks. But they weren't told the charges and their constant pleas
for information fell on deaf ears, Walsh said.
The next morning, police loaded Walsh and his companions into police
cruisers and took them back down the road. Then they pulled off onto
a dirty country road.
"Oh God," Walsh said, thinking back.
Thinking that they were being taken to "some backwoods place where
they were going to be shot or clubbed to death, Walsh started to
scream at the officers.
They finally arrived at a small house trailer with a sign above it
that read "Justice of the Peace." A lawyer from the Southern
Christian Leadership Conference, King's organization, was waiting for
them. They were finally told they had been arrested for stealing the newspaper.
Walsh said they had paid for the newspaper. The restaurant owner
refuted their claims. With no evidence, Walsh thought they would be
taken back to the jail and released. He was wrong.
"They kept us another night," he said. "They had found a flare gun in
the car. It never occurred to me to clear out my car before we left."
Walsh and his friends now found themselves charged with possessing a
concealed weapon. They were held on $1,000 bail and were put in a
cell with five career criminals and two whites from Mississippi
accused of running over a black man and critically injuring him.
While playing a card game, one of the Alabama inmates punched Walsh
in the mouth, then accused him of cheating. He and his friends got
under a steel table, and began calling for the guards.
At that, all five prisoners pulled out a brand new black sock,
swinging it as a weapon loaded with a new bar of soap. Walsh believes
they got them from the guards.
"God those things hurt," Walsh recalled. "Really stung. They gave us
a real working over."
The next day, Walsh explained that the flare gun was his. His friends
were immediately released. Now Walsh was all alone. He went into
survival mode. He flushed razor blades left for him on the sink down
the toilet. He noticed that his food had been messed with so he
stopped eating. He was beaten every night by the men until he bled.
He would get under the table and get in the fetal position, covering
his face. He went three days without food, he said.
Finally, after five days, his court case came up. Before him in court
were the two men from Mississippi. He watched in utter shock as they
were given the option of 30 days in the county jail or a $300 fine.
Walsh stepped up to meet the judge, barely able to talk because of a
fat lip. His white shirt was brown, stained with dried blood. He
received the same sentence: 30 days in county or $300.
Walsh knew he would not last 30 days in jail, and he didn't have any
money. His lawyer appealed immediately. The judge begrudgingly
released him and told him to leave the South.
When his car was brought to him, his clothes, luggage, spare tire and
just about everything that had not been bolted down had been stolen.
His money was missing from his wallet. He was trapped. At one point
he started to complain, but his lawyer quickly reminded him that he
was lucky to be leaving with his life.
Fortunately, he still had $100 in a clip stashed under his dash.
"I breathed a sigh of relief," he said with a smile. "I had enough
money to get home. I asked the lawyer what the quickest way out of
In the end, Walsh lost his appeal. He sent the conference the $300 to
pay for the case. And every year since, despite his modest finances,
Walsh sends them a donation for saving his life.
He moved to Chatham permanently after joining the movement against
the war in Vietnam. He saw Best one more time before a 42-year gap
that ended when they spoke earlier this month.
Best's letters detail what he knew of the abuses.
"Jack and Wally were pulled over somewhere in the South and
arrested," he wrote. "Both were roughed up in jail by other inmates.
Wally was convicted of carrying a flare gun in his car and got 30
days in jail and a $300 fine. He is currently appealing."
Walsh has been a permanent fixture in Chatham ever since, a place
that his family has had roots in for generations. In the summer, he
is the town's landing officer; in the winter he performs data entry.
He also served on the town's charter review committee seven years ago
and is on the current committee as well, bringing valuable experience
to the table, according to town officials.
Besides a few Florida trips, he has never returned to the South, not
out of hatred he says, rather out of fear.
"I didn't have 10 years in the civil rights movement or anything like
that," he said. "I should have probably done more but Selma scared
me. I was afraid I was going to end up like Viola Liuzzo, Vi as we
knew her, but I was OK ... We all were all OK ... Not her, unfortunately."
Matthew M. Burke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The origin of Black History Month
On the American cultural scene, February has long been recognized as
Black History Month. The origins of the tradition can be traced to
the late historian Carter G. Woodson, dubbed "the Father of Negro History."
Author of the noted book, "The Miseducation of the Negro," and editor
of the scholarly quarterly, "The Journal of Negro History," Woodson
believed it was vital to the health of the nation that the
contributions of African-Americans be acknowledged and studied.
To that end, Woodson led a campaign to establish a national
celebration of black heritage, culminating in 1926 as "Negro History Week."
"Besides building self-esteem among blacks, (Black History Week)
would help eliminate prejudice among whites," Woodson wrote at the time.
But it wasn't until after the civil rights movement of the 1960s that
Black History Week caught on outside of African-American communities
and expanded into Black History Month.
February was chosen as Black History Month because the birthdays of
the famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass and the celebrated poet
Langston Hughes fall during that month. It is also the month that the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded.
Civil rights: Fifty years of struggle
Dec. 1, 1955: Rosa Parks refuses to give up her bus seat to a white
passenger. The Montgomery, Ala., black community launches a bus
boycott which lasts until the buses are desegregated on Dec. 21, 1956.
Jan. 1957: Martin Luther King Jr., along with two others, establishes
the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which King is made president.
Sept. 1957: President Eisenhower sends in federal troops and the
National Guard to help nine students integrate into an all-white high
school in Little Rock, Ark.
Feb. 1, 1960: Four black students from North Carolina Agricultural
and Technical College begin a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth's
lunch counter in Greensboro. The event triggers many similar
nonviolent protests throughout the South.
May 4, 1961: "Freedom riders" or student volunteers begin taking bus
trips through the South to test out new laws that prohibit
segregation in interstate travel facilities.
May 1963: Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene "Bull" Connor uses
fire hoses and police dogs on black demonstrators during civil rights
protests in Birmingham, Alabama.
Aug. 28, 1963: Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his "I Have a Dream"
speech at the Lincoln Memorial. More than 200,000 people join the
March on Washington.
July 2, 1964: President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Feb. 21, 1965: Malcolm X, black nationalist, is found shot to death
in Harlem, N.Y.
March 7, 1965: In Selma, Ala., blacks begin a march to Montgomery in
support of voting rights but are stopped by a police blockade. Fifty
marchers are hospitalized after police use tear gas and clubs against them.
Aug. 10, 1965: Congress passes the Voting Rights act of 1965, making
it easier for Southern blacks to register to vote.
April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr., 39, is shot as he stands on
the balcony outside his hotel room in Memphis, Tenn. James Earl Ray
is convicted of the crime.
Oct. 24, 2005: Rosa Parks dies at the age of 92.
Sources: Cape Cod Times archives, www.infoplease.com