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Selma: How Faith Fueled the Fight for Justice in America

AP File

Christine S. Weerts - published on 03/06/15 - updated on 06/07/17

A black nurse recalls what she saw on a fateful night that changed nation's history.

As night shift nursing supervisor, Vera Booker had just gotten to work at Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma when the call came in: A young man had been shot in Marion, about 30 miles away, during a voting rights march.

It was nearly midnight when his friends got him to the hospital. As they lay him on a gurney, Nurse Booker pulled up his shirt and saw "his intestines sticking out of a hole in his gut about the size of a grapefruit."

Her notes told the story:

Feb. 18, 1965, Jimmie Lee Jackson 11:55 p.m. Gunshot wound of abdomen, noted hole in left side, also laceration on back of head approximately 2 inches long.   Morphine sulfate… .atropine….xray of abdomen, prep for surgery. V Booker RN

As she called the physician, she had no idea she was about to play a part in a drama that would change forever her community—and the nation.

This weekend, thousands of people from around the countryand worldare coming to Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a  movement which grew from the work of unsung heroes into the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters; former President George W. Bush and wife Laura, and over 90 congressmen will commemorate the courage of people like Jimmie Lee Jackson who believed in the simple right of African-Americans to vote.

It is also the commemoration of a movement led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that was deeply embedded in the church, as the single evening proved: Jimmy Lee Jackson, at 26, was the youngest deacon at his Baptist church in Marion. Nurse Booker was the wife of the pastor at Morningstar Baptist in Selma, and the hospital, the primary hospital serving blacks in nine counties, was operated by the Fathers of St. Edmund and staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph. 

Nurse Booker’s heart went out to the young 26-year-old serviceman who had a four-year-old daughter, as she did. Jackson had joined a peaceful march that night that was met by brutality. When the young man stood between his mother and the state trooper’s billy club, the trooper shot him.

Jackson never recovered from his injuries. His death eight days later shocked and grieved the movement. Leaders resolved to march to Montgomery to ask the governor why this young man was killed.

The next Sunday—March 7from the doors of Brown Chapel A.M.E church, over 600 marchers walked Selma city streets to the Edmund Pettus Bridgenamed for a Confederate generalto begin their long trek to Montgomery, carrying the burden of Jackson’s death on their hearts.

But they never made it. They were stopped on the far side of the bridge by a line of mounted armed sheriff deputies and state troopers who began attacking them with billy clubs and whips, releasing 40 canisters of tear gas and 12 cans of smoke. The violence and bloodshed that injured over 100 peaceful marchers gave the day the name "Bloody Sunday."

Dianne Harris, a retired school teacher, was just 15 when she headed out with the marchers to cross the bridge that day. She remembers the pounding of horses and the thud of billy clubs hitting marchers, as tear gas burned their eyes and skin.

"We were chased all the way back to Brown Chapel, but the horse couldn’t get up the steps, so we escaped," said Harris, who with her brother Isaac had been arrested twice in marching for their mother’s right to vote.

Nurse Booker remembers the call she got that afternoon from the sisters at Good Samaritan. The Catholic hospital had become the triage center, a place of mercy and care in the midst of the shockingly violent turmoil.

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