What’s in a memory?

Civil Rights activist recalls marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Lynda Blackmon Lowery has memories of a monumental moment when she walked from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
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Lynda Blackmon Lowery has memories of a monumental moment when she walked from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Some memories stick with you for the rest of your life.

This is the case for civil rights activist and author Lynda Blackmon Lowery who at age 15 marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965,  considered one of the landmark moments in the struggle for African American civil rights.

Lowery, who came to Lincoln High School in Jersey City on Jan. 16, recalled several vivid memories. Jailed prior to the historic march, she remembers being served black eyed peas for meals.

“I haven’t eaten black eyed peas since,” she joked.

She also remembers hearing Dr. King speak for the first time. She was 13 and King had come to the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Selma.

“That first time, his words just flew by me,” she said. “But the second time, it was as if he was speaking directly to me.”

King’s message settled in her bones. “He said you can get anybody to do anything with steady, loving confrontation,” she said.

This was 1965. Racism was widespread in the U.S. In Selma, to speak out openly against it put a person of color at risk, something Lowery’s grandmother well knew. Her grandmother told her to sit down and be quiet. But a fire had ignited in Lowery which even cops with water hoses could not douse.

She said she saw this as a call to arms for her to get involved in the movement that would lead to the passing of the federal Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Deep-seated prejudice 

Long before King had inspired her, Lowery remembered her father taking her downtown to buy shoes when she was nine, and her father, a large man, shrinking when the clerk called him the N word.

Her mother died in childbirth. She needed a blood transfusion, but the local hospital in Selma would not supply it. They had to send to Birmingham and by the time the blood arrived, it was too late.

Lowery also remembers being gassed and beaten by Alabama state police and others during the first attempt to march from Selma, a moment caught on news film and shown on a large screen behind her as she spoke. Lowery celebrated her 15th birthday with stitches on her forehead and the back of her head, before being allowed to make the even more historic march with King to Montgomery a short time later.

She said she remembered how in the march in which she got beaten, they were told to walk along the side of the road and not to interfere with traffic.

Police turn violent 

“I was very near the front, maybe in the 15th row,” Lowery recalled. She was beaten in the historic confrontation on the Edmund Pettis Bridge.  When they started to cross the bridge, she said she saw men in blue, Alabama State Troopers along with Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies, and his posse on horseback.

In an event that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” the protesters were told to disperse.

As was routine, protesters then knelt in prayer, at which point fire houses blasted protesters. Then Lowery heard “pop, pop, pop” which she first thought was someone shooting at them, but it turned out to be tear gas.

She tried to flee to the local church only to have someone grab her from behind.

“I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “I was scared. I was still on my knees when somebody grabbed the back collar of my coat, and started pulling me backwards. I guess I was resisting because they grabbed the front of my lapel and I bit the hand.”

Then she heard the N word, and the man hit her twice.

She passed out; when she later woke up, she was being treated for wounds to her face and the back of her head.

Lowery returned to march a few weeks later, one of only 300 people allowed to start from Selma again, cross the bridge—with an escort of National Guardsmen—and walk for days to Montgomery, where they were joined by thousands of people.

“We were only supposed to be 300 but people kept joining us along the way,” she said.

“Racism still exists, and we must continue to fight it the way Dr. King said we should, with steady, loving confrontation.” — Lynda Blackmon Lowery

Lowery brings living history to Jersey City students

In her appearance at Lincoln High School, Lowery presented students with her memoir, “Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom,” which tells her story as the youngest person to walk all the way from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on the Voting Rights March of 1965.

Her book was released in 2015 to mark the 50th anniversary of the march and the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Jailed nine times before her 15th birthday, Lowery fought alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to secure the right to vote for African Americans. She went on to serve as a case manager at a health center in Selma where she still lives.

During an informal gathering in the school library, Lowery said that she and her siblings did well, each making his or her contribution to Selma society just as she had.

“Racism still exists, and we must continue to fight it the way Dr. King said we should, with steady, loving confrontation,” she said.

She said if King were alive today, he would be making a stand for immigrants and their struggle.

To comment on this story online, visit hudsonreporter.com. Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com