Grauer teacher part of historic 1965 Alabama march with King
When students at The Grauer School in Encinitas learn about the civil rights movement, they don’t just read their textbooks for a history lesson. They talk to teacher Bill Harman.
Harman was 25 on March 25, 1965, when he walked the last 10 miles from Selma to the Alabama state capital of Montgomery, following the footsteps of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was among hundreds of white clergy who traveled to Alabama for the historic march.
“It was very much a clergy-led movement,” said Harman, who has lived in Encinitas for more than 30 years. “King was a pastor, and everybody connected with that. Christians and Jews, Protestants and Catholics — they were all involved.”
A little more than two weeks earlier, Harman, like many Americans, had watched news reports from March 7, 1965, or “Bloody Sunday,” when white law enforcement officers brutally attacked peaceful protesters who wanted to exercise their constitutional right to vote.
At the time, Harman had graduated from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and was attending the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Inspired by another student who participated in the following march on March 9 called “Turnaround Tuesday,” Harman recruited five fellow students to join him in the third march.
The 54-mile march to the state capitol began March 21 in Selma.
“I was a little bit frightened — we all were. We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Harman recalled. “But justice had to be done. The injustice had gone on far too long.”
With faith, Harman faced his fears and took a train with his peers from Chicago to Montgomery. While aboard, they were harassed by other passengers and called “Yankee trash.”
“We just had to ignore them,” said Harman, noting he was dressed in his clerical collar.
The group joined the march on March 25 about 10 miles outside of Montgomery. By the time they reached the state capitol building, there were about 25,000 marchers, Harman recalled.
“In those years, considering the U.S. was half the size it is now, that was a big march,” Harman said. “It was impressive to see so many people.”
The 50th anniversary of the historic Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march is next month. President Barack Obama and other officials are expected to commemorate the occasion, which will include stops in Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery from March 6-8.
Although it’s been five decades, Harman described the details as if it were yesterday.
“We were marching for justice,” he said. “We were marching for change. We knew we were right, and we knew the Southern culture was wrong. It had to be changed.”
Harman recalled those in opposition lining the streets, holding Confederate flags and spitting on the marchers. Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who is remembered for his Southern populist and segregationist views, was also unwelcoming.
In addition, Harman recollected marching alongside the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leader in the civil rights movement who was among the front row of marchers with King. And, of course, he vividly remembered King’s speech “How Long, Not Long.”
“We were all in solidarity,” said Harman, who later joined Cesar Chavez in the historic farm workers’ march from Delano to the California state capitol in Sacramento.
Now 75, Harman has two adult sons and four grandchildren. He works as a teacher ambassador at The Grauer School, where he’s taught for about 12 years. He is also a chaplain for palliative care at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas.
For 40 years, Harman was a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He served as pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Encinitas for 25 years until retiring about nine years ago.
In recent years, Harman and his family visited the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. His grandchildren toured an exhibition about Jim Crow laws, amazed at how much the country has changed. Like the students at The Grauer School, they asked their grandfather questions about his first-hand experience walking with King and thousands of others in the last of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, landmark legislation that prohibited racial discrimination in voting.
“A lot has changed in 50 years, especially in the South,” Harman said. “It was an important turning point in our society. I think we did make the world a better place.”