Sunday, January 11, 2015

Looking Back on a Canadian Journey to Selma

(an edited version of this story first appeared in NOW magazine)
By Matthew Behrens
            When Dr. Martin Luther King issued a call for clergy to descend on Alabama for the 1965 Selma-Montgomery march – a landmark 5-day event marking its 50th anniversary this year with numerous celebrations and a major motion picture – Rev. Ed File was working as superintendent of a North Winnipeg United Church mission. File, who as a seminary student had first heard King speak at Boston University before the civil rights leader became an international figure, had no second thoughts about entering the cauldron of violence and racism that characterized daily life for African Americans south of the Mason-Dixon line.
            Indeed, still fresh news of the high-profile murder of three northern civil rights workers during the previous year’s Mississippi Freedom Summer failed to deter File and others (including the late Toronto priest and MP Don Heap) from joining the Selma march. In fact, those tragic events spurred him to take up King’s challenge. “Those three young people had been very much in my mind, a feeling of solidarity with them and what they had done and suffered as a consequence, and how important it was for more of us from the North to go down and join in what they were doing,” File says from his home outside of Belleville.
Ed File in the late 1960s, during the grape boycott of the United Farm Workers
King’s call came after millions of people had been horrified by the televised images of what became known as Bloody Sunday. A group of marchers led by, among others, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s John Lewis (now a U.S. Congress member), was brutally beaten and tear-gassed at the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. News coverage of those events interrupted a major network screening of the film Judgment at Nuremberg, and were as shocking then as last summer’s paramilitary attacks on peaceful protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting death of unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown.
            File immediately sprang into action, contacting a fellow pastor who, after having worked in a Winnipeg church adjacent to File’s, had headed south to Louisiana, where he was subjected to damaging attacks on his church after heavy involvement in demonstrations against segregated beaches.
“We had kept in touch and when I called him he was working in Philadelphia,” File recalls. “I told him, ‘I feel the call that I’m meant to go to Selma and I believe you’re feeling the call too, although you probably aren’t feeling it as strongly as I am’.” File laughs, figuring that after a significant bout of first-hand violence, another southbound journey was not necessarily top of mind for his Philly friend. However, arrangements were made and, after flying down separately, they met up at the home of a white Montgomery family hosting a number of marchers. 
Upon their arrival, they were greeted with the news that James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who had also answered the call from Boston, had just been murdered after eating in a black-owned Selma restaurant, the only one that would serve marchers.  Shortly thereafter, “the phone rang, and someone made threats against the family for having white marchers staying in their house,” File recalls. “The owner of the house calmly went to his closet, pulled out a gun, and put it by his front door.” While the image seems inconsistent with a movement often characterized as purely nonviolent, such moments were more frequent than most realize. Indeed, as documented in Charles Cobb’s recent book This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, the civil rights movement was also populated by numerous armed self-defence groups, like the Deacons for Defense and Justice who, from time to time, intervened when local or federal officials refused to provide necessary protection for demonstrators or during voter registration drives.
While there were tensions across the generational divide of the civil rights movement – younger people, especially women, were shouldering a significant share of the burden while relative elders like King enjoyed the lion’s share of the credit – they were smoothed over during the course of the march itself. File recalls joining the march shortly after it began in a large park where he and his associates gathered quite close to King and set out for the day’s walk. The only tension he saw was white violence directed against African Americans and, especially, white clergy.
“They were screaming lots of negative, nasty things, especially to white people like me. As ministers we always wore our church collar, and the police would yell at us, ‘You’re a phony!’”
While Selma was one of the last large-scale southern marches of the civil rights era, File says there was no real sense of the event’s place in history at the time. Rather, it was another one of countless marches, rallies, and campaigns that had been part of social justice movements for decades focused on full citizenship rights for African Americans. For File, it was part of a continuum that would keep him busy to the present day, agitating for everything from nuclear weapons abolition and First Nations solidarity campaigns in Ontario to peace actions in Japan and Taiwan, a country with which he has had a close connection for over 35 years.
Like many participants in the civil rights movement, File’s role in the struggle was part of a larger vision for transforming the world. Just before he left for Selma, he was preparing to take on a new job that would train clergy from across Canada in social development and community empowerment at the ecumenical Canadian Urban Training Project for Christian Service (known as CUT, where he worked for the next 20 years). The Toronto-based CUT program, which also developed regional organizations in the Atlantic and BC, as well as a First Nations leadership training program, led File to Taiwan, where he worked with community groups for decades, beginning when the country was under martial law. “The people we trained there played a major role in getting rid of the dictatorship and forming opposition parties,” says File, who just received the first ever Taiwanese Human Rights Association Award.
Fifty years on from Selma, File sees the seminal demonstration as “just one engagement that I could be involved with that I felt called to, and over the years I have had the privilege to be involved in so many other projects like that.”  He also sees similarities between grass roots civil rights activists of the 1960s blocking highways and staging sit-ins and today’s youth-led campaigns, like Black Lives Matter, that have engaged in similar activities, from occupying the St. Louis airport to thousands flooding the Minneapolis Mall of America just before Christmas.
“I try to see things in the framework of the teachings of Jesus and the ethical ideals of the world’s great religions,” he says. “Those ideals are permanent through the centuries, and people who are touched by those or see them as the focus of their lives see that it is an ongoing struggle for justice in what we used to call the civilized world. I see steps that we had taken toward making societies more civil are being backed away from. It’s horrendous what humans are doing to each other all over the world when we have the resources to be inclusive and to have equity for all.”
As File contemplates seeing the new motion picture Selma (starring David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo), he starts humming the lines of one of his favourite songs, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and concludes, “The saints were marching in Selma, in South Africa against apartheid, with Gandhi, with so many others, throwing nonviolence against violence. And the saints are marching still in Ferguson, in Washington, in New York, all around the world.”

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