By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — The Public Broadcasting Service documentary, Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change, produced, directed and edited by Jayasri Mayumdar Hart, first aired in the fall of 2005. Earlier that spring, however, it was previewed at Avila University, on March 7, the 40th anniversary of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Those of us old enough to remember the Civil Rights demonstrations, marches and riots of the 1960s, probably recall being glued to televisions or radios, waiting for the latest news about what was happening in Montgomery, Selma or Birmingham, Al., and other southern states. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young, later Ambassador to the United Nations, along with Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks and Malcom X became household words, not always positively.
Black citizens of Mississippi, Georgia and especially Alabama were deeply disturbed and frustrated by the inequality evidenced on buses, in schools, stores, parks and playgrounds, hospitals and government offices and in voting rights. They had been protesting for a number of years for equal voting rights, but in 1965, little or nothing had changed. At Dr. King’s suggestion, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and local residents planned a 5-day, 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery to raise awareness of the voting problems of African-Americans.
A number of priests, ministers and rabbis, and religious sisters of several different orders, including the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the Sisters of Loretto and the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, some with ties to Kansas City or St. Louis, joined the marchers in Selma. The Sisters, marching the whole 54 miles in full habits, were the inspiration for the documentary.
Jayasri Hart had contacted Dr. Carol Coburn, Avila’s Professor of Religious Studies, Women’s Studies and Gender Studies, as well as Director of the CSJ Heritage Center on campus, and asked her to serve as academic advisor for the film. For many reasons, Avila was interested in acquiring Sisters of Selma.
Thanks to its sponsorship by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Avila recently acquired the licensing rights and archival materials and footage from the making of the film; PBS had ceased licensing the documentary five years ago. Three Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Sisters Rosemary Flanagan, Barbara Moore and Roberta Schmidt, were featured prominently in Sisters of Selma, as were several local priests, now deceased.
A grant from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet allowed the university to expand its archives and upgrade to a temperature-controlled facility. Hart said all the materials and footage are on DVDs and the upgraded facility will preserve them for many years.
Hart added that the acquisition was in part a way of honoring the university in its 100th year and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in their 150th year in Kansas City.
“The Civil Rights Story is told from many different perspectives,” Hart, who is Hindu, said. “Sisters of Selma tells it from the nun’s perspective.”
On August 22, the incoming freshman class and other interested students gathered in the Goppert Theater for a screening of the documentary, followed by a Q & A period with Jayasri Hart and Dr. Coburn. The screening was part of the freshman class’s required summer reading assignment, “While the World Watched,” by Carol Mauli McKinstry. The story is about a survivor of the Birmingham Bombing who comes of age during the Civil Rights Movement.
The Second Vatican Council in some ways was part of the different Movements of the 1960s, Hart said.
She said the impact of Vatican II came just at the moment when the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements coalesced. But it took some time. The sisters who marched in Selma were in the full habits of their orders, including wimples and veils. “Like the Second Vatican Council,” Hart said, “Sisters of Selma was a film about change, change that took long-term efforts to happen.”
Coburn added, “It seemed to be a time when expectations diverged from reality; when experiences no longer met reality. Then you start questioning, ‘Why?’”
Technological advances in the 1960s allowed the media to bring photos, videos of Civil Rights struggles and of Viet Nam, to the forefront of people’s imaginations and experiences, Coburn said.
Two Avila students, freshman Kennedy Bacon, from Bonner Springs, Kan., and senior Karis Pruitt, who grew up in Atlanta before moving to Colorado as a teenager, shared their thoughts on Sisters of Selma.
Kennedy wasn’t certain of the meaning behind Selma in part because she had never experienced the racial discord and oppression that kept black men and women from voting and other civil rights belonging to American citizens. She saw “Selma” as “a platform for growth that has to continue.”
Karis, who is African American, is convinced that “white supremacy strives to remain uppermost and the media help keep it that way.”
She said Americans are brought up in a society that teaches race first, not how it affects people — mentally, economically and politically. “Race impacts many parts of our lives, economics, physical oppression/slavery, but the worst is not having a father! All these are the face of our people’s demise. Physically we are freed from slavery but there’s still a mental mindset of oppression.
“The Civil Rights era,” she said, “was a significant moment in time when people of different mindsets and experiences came together and talked to each other, working for change.”
Kennedy said she now has a new perspective on races and cultures. Thanks to “While the World Watched” and” Sisters of Selma,” she intends “to keep an open mind, see different sides of a story, the pros and the cons, and apply them to what is going on in my world and globally.”
Karis said she is glad Avila bridges the gaps between students from so many different cultures and places through its academic, service and faith-based programs.
“Selma still exists,” she said, “Both the images and the challenges. It’s no longer simply a black/white problem. At the end of the day, we still have to work for, through love, an integration of humanity.”