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Schlafly: When Martin Luther King called, St. Louis answered

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St. Louis clergy board plane for Selma in 1965

Some of the 54 clergy board a chartered plane at Lambert Field in March 1965, preparing to depart for Selma, Alabama.

Post-Dispatch

In early March 1965, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and other civil rights leaders organized and led a group of protesters from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in support of civil rights for all Americans. Tragically, many of the marchers were beaten and bludgeoned at the foot of the Edmund Pettus bridge as they tried to leave Selma, an incident that became known as Bloody Sunday.

In the wake of the first Selma march and Bloody Sunday, King reached out to religious leaders around the United States, seeking their support and solidarity by appealing to their own congregations to join other marchers for planned marches to Montgomery later that month.

Roman Catholic Cardinal Joseph Ritter of St. Louis answered the call from King. No stranger to the civil rights movement, Ritter had ordered an end to segregation in the Indianapolis archdiocese in 1938 while he was bishop. Further, in 1947 he ended segregation in the St. Louis archdiocesan school system, fully seven years before the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Given his background in civil rights, it is no surprise that Ritter sprung into action and called key members of the Catholic laity and others in St. Louis to respond to King in his call for support of the Selma marches.

Within the Catholic laity in St. Louis at the time, the Vatterott family stood out as strong supporters of the civil rights movement. Charles F. Vatterott and Greg Vatterott recruited both Catholic lay people and clergy to travel to Alabama and join the marches. The Vatterotts even provided two large charter aircraft to transport marchers from both Kansas City and St. Louis to Selma. During the actual march, Charles Vatterott Jr. even carried a suitcase containing $25,000 in cash to provide bail money if needed.

As it turned out, the Selma marches, aided by St. Louisans and many others from around the country, successfully led to the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and other measures designed to promote the cause of civil rights in America.

Fifty-seven years later, at a ceremony led by Congressman Lewis, members of the Vatterott family received the Congressional Gold Medal for their contributions to the Selma marches. The Gold Medal is the highest tribute bestowed by Congress on an American citizen.

While King and Ritter are both long gone, it is not unlikely that they knew each other. As a fierce proponent of desegregation in archdiocesan school systems in Indianapolis and St. Louis, well before others, Ritter provided the kind of leadership that King yearned for as he pushed for civil rights reform during the middle part of the 20th century in America.

As we celebrate the legacy of King this year and strive to do better as a nation in the area of civil rights, let us also pause to remember those St. Louisans who rallied to the support of King and Lewis in Selma.

Joe Schlafly lives in St. Louis.

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