Fifty years ago, Chuck Fager had his eye on Martin Luther King Jr.’s dinner: a steaming plate of collard greens snuck in by a jail trustee.
Fager, then 22, a white man from Kansas, was sharing a jail cell for the night with King, after being arrested for marching for voting equality in Selma, Ala.
But King had committed to fasting in jail, and he and two other civil rights leaders passed the greens to Fager.
Ravenous, Fager ate through the greens, and found a surprise.
“Underneath them were two big slices of Alabama country ham,” he said. “I ate it all, every bit. That one meal has nurtured me ever since.”
Fager was arrested three times in Selma in 1965, during the nonviolent campaign that compelled Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He shared memories of that experience on Monday during a visit to N.C. Central University’s School of Law.
“If I have a role now in the movement, it’s to tell the stories,” he said.
Fager, who lives in Durham, has republished his book, “Selma 1965: The March That Changed the South,” for the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches. Originally published in 1974, the new version includes photos and research from Fager’s visit to Selma last fall.
The republishing also coincides with the release of the movie “Selma,” and Fager can pinpoint scenes in the film where he, in real life, participated.
He recalled a cold Feb. 1, the day he and about 250 others were arrested during one of the marches. As the protesters filled the jail’s central room, King called for a Quaker-style service: people spoke when they felt the spirit. Soon, the room’s small windows had steamed up.
“We were singing and carrying on. We made the place rock,” Fager said.
Fager watched King reach out to the jail’s long-term inmates.
“He went to one end of the cell block and he started talking to the prisoners, quietly. ... He was doing pastoral work. ... Almost nobody in there was convicted of anything, even though they had been in there for months and months.”
“(King) didn’t have any food to give them, but he was able to give them what a pastor can give them: encouragement and hope.”
Inspired by Gandhi
When Fager, King, Ralph Abernathy, and another leader were led to a cell for the night, Fager learned that King and other leaders had drawn inspiration from Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi.
After traveling to India to study Gandhi’s nonviolent strategies, King and Abernathy adopted the Indian activist’s use of jail time as a religious retreat. They would fast the first two days in jail and take time to reflect and learn from each other – and rest.
“I got to see Dr. King do something almost nobody ever saw him do,” Fager said. “I got to see him take a nap.”
Out of jail, Fager worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, first as a field secretary and then as a bodyguard for King.
The bodyguards walked circles around King in public to shield him from potential assassins. Fager remembered guarding King while marching to Jimmie Lee Jackson’s funeral. The 26-year-old Jackson was shot by an Alabama state trooper during a peaceful protest – a scene depicted in “Selma.”
Fager recalled asking movement leader James Orange what would happen if a sniper, while gunning for King, hit Fager instead.
“(James) just slapped me on the shoulder and chuckled and said, ‘If you get shot, I promise Dr. King will preach at your funeral.’”
Return to Selma
After the Selma marches, Fager’s life path included divinity school, working for the Postal Service, writing books and essays, and running the Quaker House in Fayetteville. But, 50 years after the marches, Fager wanted to know how Selma had fared.
While the city has made some strides, including electing a black mayor and hiring a black police chief, Fager said he was dismayed by its poverty and redrawn voting districts which, he said, consolidate black votes and restrict their impact. According to the U.S. Census, 41.9 percent of Selma residents lived in poverty in 2013.
“My original book had a happy ending,” Fager said. “But the happy ending has been rolled back a lot.”
Fager found the grave of Jimmie Lee Jackson used for target practice. A photo in Fager’s updated book shows the bullet dents in the gravestone.
In 1965, Fager had rented a room from Amelia Boynton, who is portrayed in “Selma” walking with Coretta Scott King, giving her a pep talk before a meeting with Malcolm X.
Although Boynton is still alive at age 104, Fager found her Selma house, once envisioned as a small civil rights museum, abandoned. A photo shows paint peeling off the house’s sagging boards.
Law student Marissa Meredith said Fager’s talk showed her how much an individual can accomplish.
“(I took away) how one person spearheaded the movement for Selma … and how much that affected the movement,” she said.
Law professor Scott Holmes said he regularly seeks inspiration from Fager’s stories. “Whenever I’m trying to figure out what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, I call on Chuck,” he said.
As for Fager, he said he’s been inspired by North Carolina’s Forward Together Moral Movement – he was arrested during a Moral Monday protest in 2013.
But most movements take time, he said. What worked 50 years ago won’t necessarily solve lingering poverty and inequality today.
“The Selma movement was the culmination of a process that lasted over 64 years,” he said. “We haven’t gone all the way back, but we’ve gone steps back.”