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St. Louis nuns were on the front lines for civil rights

6:22 PM, Aug 27, 2013   |    comments
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By Mike Bush

ST. LOUIS (KSDK) - The past is always present in Sister Mary Antona Ebo's small north St. Louis apartment.

Opening her scrapbook is like opening a history book and she's far more than a footnote.

It's Selma, Ala. 1965. Only two percent of the African-American population was registered to vote because they were repeatedly denied access.

The struggle came to a head on March 7 of that year, when 600 Selma blacks were clubbed by state troopers during a voting rights demonstration. It came to be known as Bloody Sunday.

Just two days later, Sister Ebo was packing for Selma.

"People were calling me and saying that I didn't know the south," she recalls. "They wanted me to go down there, stay with the group and keep my mouth shut. Well, I couldn't imagine that."

The St. Louis Archdiocese answered an appeal from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to join a voting rights march in Selma. Fifty one people made the trip including six nuns. As the only African-American, Sister Ebo knew there could be consequences.

"If we get arrested, I won't be with the rest of these sisters because they have segregated prisons," she remembers thinking.

"It was a very profound experience in my life," says Sister Barbara Moore.

Sister Moore was also aware of the risks. A few days after the St. Louis group was in Selma, she went with a delegation from Kansas City. Just the ride from the airport was eye opening.

She recalls seeing "trucks with shotguns in the back and people standing on their porches with guns in their hands."

In the 1960s in places like Selma, nuns were not allowed to participate in public activities. So the sight of these Sisters stunned the locals.

With priests by their sides, Sister Ebo and the other nuns marched down a Selma street before being stopped by police. The procession lasted just a block but it seemed like miles especially after someone in authority confronted Sister Ebo.

She recalls, "And he said sister if you can see without your glasses on, it might be well if you took them off. And when I get really scared, I get silly. And my thought was, oh lord we're not down here to play pick-up sticks are we."

"You know I faced the state troopers in full riot gear," says Sister Barbara. You know, you talk about intimidating but when you look at people's eyes it seemed that they were just as nervous as we were."

Though Sister Ebo and Sister Barbara were only in Selma a short time what happened in Selma was lasting. It spurred Congress to pass the Voting rights act which banned intimidation and other tactics that denied the ballot to millions of blacks.

"It was a moral movement. It was calling the public to consciousness," said Sister Barbara.

If we don't get involved when we know it's happening and we know that injustice is happening, then we are failing also," says Sister Ebo.

It's been nearly 50 years since Selma and while both Sisters agree that we've come a long way, they also agree that we still have a long way to go. Dr. King's dream where we will walk together as sisters and brothers has not quite been realized.

"We need to be kind, be compassionate, be loving. That's what we need. We don't need people who agree on everything but we need people who are going to treat people with dignity and respect."

"It's kind of like on the last night that Dr. King preached. He said I've been to the mountaintop and I've seen the promised land but even Moses didn't get to the promised land."

 

KSDK

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