During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the Sisters of Saint Joseph in Rochester played an integral role in the march from Selma, Alabama.
The march became known as Bloody Sunday, for the violence the demonstrators faced from police.
Sister Barbara Lum says every time she tells the story of her friend Jimmie Lee Jackson, it takes her back to February 18, 1965.
“When I would go to visit him, each day he would take my hand and say, ‘Sister, don’t you think this is a high price to pay for freedom?’” said Sister Barbara.
Jackson, a civil rights activist in Marion, Alabama, was beaten and shot by state troopers while participating in a peaceful voting march.
He was then transported to the Good Samaritan Hospital that was run and operated by the Sisters of Saint Joseph from Rochester.
This was the only facility in 9 counties that would serve black people. Jackson died eight days later – sparking the start of the march from Selma to Montgomery.
“When I was in high school and in grade school, the Sisters of Saint Joseph had talked about the Selma missions,” Sister Barbara said. “But I had no idea what it was going to be like.”
In Selma, there was the White Citizens’ Council – a group of white segregations that controlled the city, including the mayor and judges. This group used scare tactics to keep black voters away.
Sister Barbara would write about the doubt she would hear from black people at lunch counter sit-ins and from freedom writers about the march.
“It will never come to Selma. Selma is way too tightly controlled for it to ever come here,” she recalled.
That is, until days later, when she was approached by a teacher and a reverend – asking for a favor.
“There is a group that’s going to march this afternoon, and would you fix a first aid kit,” said Sister Barbara. “Oh, sure, I’ll fix a first aid kit in case someone turns an ankle. I never imagined, nor did they, what was going to happen to them.”
At the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, 600 peaceful marchers were met by state and local police.
They were chased down by horses, beaten with billy clubs, and sprayed with tear gas. Soon, Good Samaritan Hospital was flooded with victims.
“People were saturated with tear gas and we had a small three bed emergency room, so all of us were saturated with tear gas,” Sister Barbara said. “And people just leaped in and did what we knew how to do.”
On Bloody Sunday, that horrific day, Sister Barbara saw over 100 patients – one of which would become a U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district.
“John Lewis, who was one of the leaders of the march, was severely beaten,” she said. “He had a concussion.”
Last October, Congressman Lewis paid the Sisters of Saint Joseph a visit and expressed his gratitude for their compassion 50 years ago.
“I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said. “You blessed us. You saved us.”
The march from Selma to Montgomery was an inspiration for future marches in the civil rights movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I think that high price for freedom isn’t finished yet,” said Sister Barbara.
The courage of ordinary people to fight for equality continues – over fifty years later.