Ken Steigler spent four days in Alabama in 1965, marching alongside civil rights advocates and collaborating with Martin Luther King Jr.
As a young, white seminary student at the Boston University School of Theology, Steigler gathered 80 of his peers and boarded a bus headed to the deep South to fight for voting rights for African-Americans.
They marched from Selma to Montgomery with thousands of others at a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement.
“It was a righteous thing to do, to stand with our brothers and sisters,” said Steigler, 73, of Wake Forest. He works as a minister at Wake Forest United Methodist Church and All Nations Church in North Raleigh.
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Steigler will return to Selma next month to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic march.
He said the experience half a century ago had a lasting impact, shaping the way he practices religion in his everyday life.
“We had learned how to pray in a liturgical manner, but this was spiritual warfare we had never heard of,” Steigler said.
During his stay, Steigler and his peers received training from King in conducting nonviolent protests. King also talked about prayer, said Steigler, who interacted personally with him.
It was powerful to see how much King relied on his religion to guide the Civil Rights Movement, Steigler said. The students were encouraged to pray for the police, Alabama’s political leaders and others who pushed back against rights for African-Americans.
Steigler was 22 at the time and served as chairman of the his seminary’s social concerns committee. He took the position because he figured it would be a fairly easy job.
Then King called on seminarians to join him in Alabama, where he would lead thousands on a march.
Steigler said the dean of the school instructed him to gather students, black and white. They wrote their wills, in case they didn’t make it back, and traveled 1,200 miles.
In Alabama, the students encountered what had become familiar sights in the South in the 1960s. Police lined the streets, and Ku Klux Klan members intimidated protesters. Some people threatened to release aggressive dogs, Steigler recalled.
He said local newspapers referred to the students as “northern agitators.”
They stayed with local pastors the first night they arrived. When they awoke, Steigler said, they realized non-supporters had fired shots at the pastors’ homes.
Steigler recruited Kent Millard, a fellow seminary student, for the trip. Millard, who now lives in Indianapolis, will join Steigler next month in Selma.
Millard said the way King instructed the protestors to pray had a major effect on his religious and personal life.
“It helped me see the Bible put in practice,” he said. “Jesus said love your enemies, but nobody ever practiced that.”
Years later, after Millard was married, he and his wife adopted a biracial baby girl. He named her Koretta, after King’s wife, Coretta Scott King.
Steigler said the experience in Alabama prompted him to create ministries that focus on bringing different groups of people together to foster deeper understanding.
He’s done that kind of work in Wake Forest, where he and his wife, Marilyn, have lived since 2007. They moved to the Triangle to be closer to friends.
“Everybody needs to be respected, and everybody needs to be honored,” Steigler said. “You did the best for everybody.”