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Panelists discuss creation of “Sisters of Selma”

| Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Filmmaker Jayasri Majumdar Hart and professor of religious studies and film consultant Carol Coburn took part in a viewing and discussion of the PBS documentary “Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change” on Tuesday evening.

The event was sponsored by Saint Mary’s Center of Multicultural Services, Campus Ministry and Student Diversity Board (SDB) and was moderated by Deacon Melvin Tardy, Jr., an academic advisor in Notre Dame’s First Year of Studies and assistant professorial specialist. Tardy is also the chair of the Black Catholic Advisory Board for the diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

The documentary features the testimonies of Catholic sisters who went to Selma in 1965 to peacefully protest for civil rights, alongside thousands of activists and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. According to the documentary, the goal of the protest in Selma was to exercise African-Americans’ legal right to register to vote without encountering harm and intimidation tactics.

Hart said she found the story of the Catholic sisters while doing research.

“What amazed me was how much news footage was available, and I thought ‘I have to make this film’” she said. “[PBS] makes sure everything you put in your film is authentic. They are very supportive but very demanding, so they require a history consultant.”

Coburn said she was honored to work with Hart on the documentary.

“I am all about words, and she is all about images,” she said. “Selma has literally brought us together. I had been researching Catholic sisters for over a decade, and the work that Catholic sisters have done historically, and women’s history, is very important to me. Looking at records of social justice among sisters, I saw a box labeled ‘Selma,’ and I asked to see it.”

Unlike most women at the time, Catholic sisters in the 1960s were gaining advanced degrees from prestigious universities, Coburn said, and after the Second Vatican Council, sisters began advocating for social justice.

“As a woman and as a historian, that was very profound to me,” she said.

Hart said her Indian and Hindu background gave her an understanding of the idea of living a life centered around faith.

“I heard from the sisters a lot and it began to make sense to me,” she said. “We serve [others] because they are less fortunate than us. For the sisters, social service was something they already had been doing. The social justice part was what I had needed to understand in my life.”

Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement was “religious from the beginning,” Tardy said.

“It was a moral issue as opposed to a social issue,” he said. “I don’t think what people knew what it was like to see an African-American sister at the march. Many people were outraged that they were involved with a social issue, rather than moral issue.”

Many sisters who came to Selma were from the Midwest, Coburn said, while the bishops on the coasts were more conservative.

“These bishops could take away Catholic identity in a diocese. The bishop in St. Joseph ignored the telegraph from bishops on the coasts that said not to send sisters to Selma. It was a very complicated interaction of power, race and religion,” she said.

Concluding the panel, Tardy said the fight for justice is an ongoing process.

“Sometimes people get the sense that the church is perfect already — that King fixed these race problems already,” he said. “We win some, and we lose some for justice. Just because you see Ferguson happening and events in Baltimore, it doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been gains. … We all have a role to play. There are these stories out there like this story. We have to think about who is missing from the story. We have to dig and find these stories and find who’s missing, and then we can come together in solidarity.”

Vice president of the SDB Angela Bukur said the film and panel were designed to connect the topics of religion and race.

“It’s such an important topic to talk about because many people don’t know about the social justice of the nuns,” she said.

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