The look in their eyes

January 1, 2021 -- Nancy O'Donnell

The look in their eyes
Marching in 1960s Alabama for civil rights burned some images in my soul. But I still had to dig deeper to rip out the racism within

By Nancy O’Donnell

March 1965. A college freshman, shortly after her 18th birthday, is lying on her bed in her college dorm in Pittsburgh, studying for a test. A close friend throws open the door, saying: “We’re going to Alabama. Come with us! Just call your parents and get their permission!”

She jumps, runs down the corridor to the phone and calls home. Her father only comments, “Thank God someone in our family is doing something.”

Little did she know that those words would launch her on a totally life-changing adventure.

That college girl was me.

A march had been attempted from Selma to Montgomery but was stopped brutally by the police. That day became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

In the group was Reverend James Reeb, a minister from Boston, father of four, and active in the Civil Rights Movement. Two days later, he was murdered in cold blood on the streets of Selma. This event prompted us, a group of college students to travel about 1,000 miles to march for justice.

Together with other young women from our college, my friend and I joined other students from neighboring colleges and climbed aboard a bus headed for Montgomery, Alabama. We sang protest songs, talked, slept and reflected on what lay ahead.

At one point, a young man went up front to the mike. He was wearing the typical denim overall of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) of which I was a member. It must have been a little after dawn and we were in a very poor section of the South.

He began instructing us on how to protect ourselves in various possible scenarios: police on horses, police with billy clubs, tear gas, etc. I’m not sure what showed on my face but inside I felt dread and uncertainty, feelings that I promptly squashed, trying to put on a brave face. One advice remained with me: don’t get separated from the crowd; you will most certainly be beaten.

We arrived in Montgomery toward evening. There was a rally where we joined other students from cities around the country. They informed us of the plans for the following day.

We did a “sit-in,” where someone told me to turn my sweatshirt inside out. It had my school’s name “Mt. Mercy College.” He explained, “The only thing worse than being a northern white girl coming here to march for the Negroes, is being a Catholic.” Another lesson in life hit me straight between the eyes.

The warm Alabama sun was shining the next day, as we started off on the planned route. I remember singing, arm in arm with those around me, looking at the people in the neighborhoods we passed who watched wordlessly. I wondered what they might be thinking.

Suddenly I realized I was very close to the last marchers and no longer linked with the others. We turned a corner, and the State Capitol Building loomed in front of us. The march stopped, the singing stopped. For some moments there was silence. I turned around and saw a line of police officers on horseback, ready with their billy clubs. There were similar lines on both sides of the street for as far as I could see.

At a coordinated signal, they all moved at once toward us.

Panic and screams erupted, mine among them. I started to run and ended up on my own, having lost a shoe in the process. There was nowhere to go, and a police officer was right behind me, swinging his billy club. I crouched down and covered my head when someone grabbed me and pulled me back into the crowd that was retreating away from the onslaught. I felt the blow pass over my head like wind that parted my hair.

Once safely (relatively speaking) surrounded by other demonstrators, I looked back at the police officer. He was following right behind me at a short distance.

When I looked into his eyes, all I could see was hatred. He was not seeing me as a person, but rather what I stood for: the end of the world as he knew it, a challenge to beliefs he had internalized from his childhood, to which I was a threat. I continued walking, feeling the breath of the horse on my neck. The look in his eyes burned into my soul.

We finally reached some sort of safety when we entered the black neighborhood of the city, where we were welcomed warmly with hugs and support, and sang to keep strong. We began to disperse, the majority of us just sitting along the curb of the street in a state of shock. There were some injuries, but nothing appeared to be serious.

I have little memory of the rest of the afternoon. Toward evening, we received the news that Reverend King was arriving; we all moved to the end of the street where his car would pass. This time I was out front. As his car stopped briefly right in front of me, I reached in through the open window and shook his hand. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Thank you for coming.”

I have no idea what I responded, but his eyes I will never forget.

They transmitted love and goodness, exactly the opposite of what I had experienced earlier. The look in his eyes took its place in my memory beside the earlier one. In the coming weeks and months, these two images came to represent the most fundamental question of my life at that time: Would love or hatred win? Goodness or evil?

I returned to my college life, but I was changed forever. When King and then Bobby Kennedy were assassinated in 1968, the hopes of my generation were dashed to pieces. I was on my way to graduate school in New York, practically convinced that evil had won. At one point, I felt we should just blow up the whole world and start over.

What saved me was a meeting I had attended the year after my experience in Alabama. There were people, followers of Chiara Lubich, who were profoundly convinced that God, who is love, is the most powerful force in the world. I was deeply attracted to their ideas and their lifestyle. It took me a while, but in 1969, I decided to hook my wagon to Chiara’s star and follow a way that I believed was powerful enough to bring positive change to a broken world — and to me.

I left for a two-year experience in an international center of the Focolare Movement located outside of Florence in Italy. Here I met young people from all over the world. It was scary but exhilarating. When four young women arrived from Africa, I took them under my wing. I had learned a few words of Italian and therefore could give them a hand with translations.

One evening we had to wash the dishes using an industrial dishwasher. As I was explaining how to use this machine to one of my new friends from Cameroon, I discovered within me an attitude I could not believe I had: I felt like a colonizer, teaching something to an inferior people. I felt sick to my stomach and had to leave to try to process what I believed God was trying to tell me. I needed to dig deeper if I wanted to rip out the roots of racism in me.

Another pivotal moment was years later when I was working as a psychologist in a clinic in upstate New York. An African-American colleague and I got into a conversation around the use of the word “black.” I realized that many uses of the color black indicate something negative or dangerous. I even remembered the old Westerns where the “bad guy” wore black and rode a black horse. So many subliminal messages nourish distance and fear between white and black. I resolved to never use those expressions again and have tried to be faithful to this over the years.

Today, I may be much older than I was in ’65, but my passion for social justice has only grown over the years. I firmly believe that we are all called to be positive change agents in every wise way we can.

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