Marchers honor civil rights turning point

When Brooks Anderson took five University of Minnesota Duluth students to Mississippi in 1965 to register voters, he didn't know they would be part of civil rights history.

When Brooks Anderson took five University of Minnesota Duluth students to Mississippi in 1965 to register voters, he didn't know they would be part of civil rights history.

It was March, and deputies and state patrolmen had beaten protesters in Selma, Ala., in an event known as "Bloody Sunday." In response, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led a mass march to Montgomery, Ala.

Anderson, a Lutheran campus minister, and his students joined the throng as they approached the state Capitol. Along the way, kids dressed in Confederate uniforms pointed guns at them. But the event, which swelled to more than 20,000, prompted President Lyndon Johnson to propose the federal Voting Rights Act.

"It was such an eye-opener. It was all new to us," Anderson said. "That experience -- sort of the accident of going there -- affected my life a lot."

Away from the marching, Sue Sojourner was in Iowa raising money for a community center in rural Mississippi. She and her late husband handed out clothing, organized a health clinic, read stories to kids and helped register voters. Those were dangerous times in the cotton fields and under the pecan trees, she said. Armed, black supporters guarded their home.


"It was really dangerous," she said. "It was a scary place to be."

This week, Anderson and Sojourner will return to the South. They are among more than 20 Duluthians who will take part in a 72-mile commemoration of the great civil rights march.

Living the Dream 2006 will take a different route. Some participants will stay in motels. And police protection probably won't be needed.

But organizers hope the event will bridge one of America's past historical struggles to one that continues today -- protests against what is known as the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., a training ground for soldiers and law enforcement officers from around the world, some of whom have been linked to murder and torture. The U.S. Army has long denied those claims.

The Living the Dream 2006 march came to Anderson in a dream. After attending a "Bloody Sunday" memorial in March, he passed the idea on to Judy Collins Cumbee, who lives in Fredonia, Ala.

"It just seemed like this is a very precious thing that we should nurture," Cumbee said. The event will include speeches, training and music.

In the South, Cumbee said, the civil rights struggle continues. Recently, opponents tried to remove four black legislators from the ballot. Some still are afraid of going to the polls. And there always is a struggle for jobs and adequate education.

"We have to speak out," Cumbee said. "It's just imperative that we do so. We have to be proud citizens claiming our rights."


On Sunday, participants were scheduled to re-enact the crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., before a rally at the capitol steps in Montgomery, Ala. The march starts today.

After each of five days, nightly mass meetings will be held in five Alabama and Georgia towns, much like they were 41 years ago.

Cumbee said she expects a core group of 55 marchers. But with participants coming from as far as Cambodia and Ireland, numbers could swell, she said. Members of the Duluth-based "Echoes of Peace" choir are scheduled to sing.

It doesn't surprise Cumbee -- a native Southerner and former University of Wisconsin student -- that so many Northlanders fill the ranks.

"They realize that we are one world," Cumbee said. "It's very appropriate that people join together."

Sojourner said her trip to the South is nostalgic.

After five years of organizing in Mississippi, which included a week in a Jackson jail, she opened a feminist bookstore in Washington, D.C. She later moved to Duluth -- home of her sister's family -- to write a book. Photos of her time in Holmes County hang in the Center for Non-Violence's building at 202 E. Superior St.

Anderson said a Martin Luther King Jr. speech on the perils of racism, materialism and militarism led him to a life of activism.


Now retired and living on Park Point, he said he is committed to School of the Americas Watch, the group actively opposing the training school. Anderson was one of six jailed in 1999 for crossing a line around the facility in Georgia. He served three months in federal prison for the act.

Anderson and Sojourner see a connection between the civil rights movement and the School of the Americas protests. The Living the Dream 2006 march is a way to pass the baton to a new generation of activists, Sojourner said.

Joel Kilgour is one of those.

The veteran Duluth protester is making his ninth trip -- and, he says, hopefully his last -- to Georgia. At least 60 Northlanders will be on hand for the Fort Benning protests.

Kilgour was jailed for 30 days in 2001 after an arrest for trespassing at the base. Last week's election changed the political landscape in the United States, and may have tilted the scales in favor of those wanting to close the school, Kilgour said.

Although protesters have not succeeded in closing the School of the Americas after 17 years, they have drawn larger and larger crowds.

Their goal is lofty, Anderson said.

"Our goal is to change the world and turn this country around," he said. "We're going to sing and we're going to say there's a new way."


JASON MOHR covers the Duluth community and city government. He can be reached at (218) 723-5312 or by e-mail at .

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