Alumnus recalls March in Selma
Emily McConville | Wednesday, March 25, 2015
In March of 1965, to protest the lack of voting rights for African American citizens and violence against civil rights activists, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) planned a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery to talk to Alabama Governor George Wallace. Wallace promised he would prevent the demonstrators from marching, but despite his warnings, they set off from Selma on March 7, 1965.
They made it to the Edmund Pettus Bridge before they met state troopers equipped with nightsticks and tear gas. The ensuing violence, which became known as Bloody Sunday, was broadcast on national television and prompted a condemnation of the brutality from then president Lyndon B. Johnson.
Two days later, another march began, this time led by Martin Luther King, Jr. The SCLC had asked for a court order preventing the the police from stopping the march, but since it had not yet gone through, the marchers turned back at the bridge. That night, a Unitarian Universalist minister by the name of James Reeb was beaten by members of the Ku Klux Klan. He died two days later.
Over the next two weeks, demonstrations took place across the country, and Johnson presented a voting rights bill to Congress. Soon after, a judge ruled that the marchers had a First Amendment right to demonstrate. Johnson federalized the National Guard and sent troops to Alabama to oversee a final march.
On March 21, 300 people set off from Selma, protected by the National Guard and media attention. Over the next four days, their numbers grew, and by the time they reached Montgomery on March 25 — 50 years ago today — they were 25,000 strong.
Among them was Jim Muller, class of 1965, a senior pre-med student at Notre Dame.
Muller, an Indianapolis native, had not been involved in the Civil Rights Movement, but voting rights for African Americans was a prominent issue at Notre Dame. Few black students attended the University, but University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh was on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and he had imparted his vision of equality on many of his students.
Muller said Reeb’s murder spurred him to action.
“We were all horrified that a minister would be beaten to death just because he was helping a minority group get voting rights,” Muller said. “So a call went out from the march for people to join them, and that’s what I heard.”
Muller took a bus from South Bend to Indianapolis, where he, his brother John, class of 1969, and his sister Joanne, a student at Maryville Catholic College, headed to the Greyhound bus station. There, they received a crash course on nonviolent civil disobedience.
“The trainer said, you might get attacked by dogs and beaten, and the best thing for you to do is get in a pile,” Muller said “That way, only the people on the outside of the pile will be bitten by dogs.”
The bus traveled through the night, arriving at the City of St. Jude on the outskirts of Montgomery on March 25. Having been told to dress properly, Muller and his siblings donned dapper apparel.
Thousands of people filled the City of St. Jude’s athletic field, preparing for the final march to the governor’s mansion. National guardsmen ringed the edges. Muller said he remembered looking up into a sky full of helicopters. Muller said in spite of the National Guard’s protective presence and the media’s close coverage, he did not feel entirely safe.
“I felt there was some risk involved, but people do many things with risk when there’s a benefit to doing it,” he said. “So I accepted that risk, but I was a little afraid.”
It helped, Muller said, to see King a ways away, conferring with the other march leaders. He also saw a group of young African American girls, unafraid, singing “Ain’t Scared of Your Jails.”
“I thought, if those girls are doing this, then I shouldn’t be afraid,” he said. “That helped me as we walked down the street that day with lines of guardsmen with guns.”
The crowd marched from the field to the state Capitol building, where King gave his “How Long, Not Long” speech. They then marched to the governor’s mansion to deliver a petition to Alabama Governor George Wallace.
After that, the Muller siblings boarded a bus, and Jim Muller was back at Notre Dame by the morning of March 26.
“I think [my classmates] were glad that we went,” he said. “They were glad that Notre Dame was represented.”
During the summer of 1965, the Voting Rights Act that Johnson had proposed in March was passed, though voter registration remained difficult.
“We were exposed to some danger, but the good part was that the march led to voting rights, and that changed many, many things and gave a voice to African Americans in the South in the political process,” Muller said.
Muller had no further involvement in the Civil Rights Movement after that last leg of the final Selma march. Even so, Muller said the same concern for social justice that led him to board the bus to Selma motivated him years later to campaign against nuclear war — and win a Nobel Peace Prize.
Muller had studied Russian at Notre Dame, and at John Hopkins Medical School, he became more aware of the possibility of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1980, he and several other Soviet and American doctors formed the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which worked to educate governments and the public about the impact of a nuclear war.
“If one side loses 10 million people and the other side loses 20 million, then the side that loses 10 million is the winner,” Muller said. “That was policy, that if necessary, we would fight a nuclear war and win it. The way the medical story came into play was, we tried to help people by helping the public and the Pentagon planners understand just what 10 million deaths would look like.”
The organization, and Muller through it, won the 1985 Peace Prize. Over the next several decades, Muller also started Voices of Faith, a Catholic discussion group born from outrage over priest sexual abuse scandals. A cardiologist, Muller also started a company, Infraredx, which manufacturers spectrometry systems to identify plaques that might cause heart attacks.
“I have chosen to help with other large social problems,” he said. “The way I’ve put it, I’ve had the privilege of working against nuclear war, child abuse by priests and heart attacks. Those targets are things that are good to work against, and they’re motivating, and I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of good people on those projects.”