Jim Jenkins

Jenkins: A witness to history in Selma

Paul Carr is one of those people who looks so much younger than his years that you’d be tempted to accuse him of making a “deal with the devil.”

Only devils don’t make deals with ministers.

Carr, who recently turned 79, started his professional life as a Methodist minister, and later got an MBA degree and turned to fundraising for non-profits. These days, he’s raising money and awareness about issues surrounding literacy out of Chapel Hill’s Friday Center.

But 50 years ago, he was an associate pastor at a Methodist church in Bethesda, Md., when he and some other young ministers of all denominations and faiths boarded a plane to Selma, Ala., to take a one-mile walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

They were joining the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a risky follow-up march over the bridge. Risky because it was to take place on March 9, 1965, only two days after “Bloody Sunday,” when civil rights demonstrators were beaten by Alabama troopers trying to cross the bridge to walk from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery.

“A lot of people my age,” Carr said, “we’d just gotten out of seminary, and we’d gone to the (U.S.) Capitol to pay our respects when John F. Kennedy was killed, and we were trying to get involved in as many things as we could.” Carr already had been in the March on Washington in August of 1963.

And he’d grown up with idealism in him, through his father, Paul Carr Sr., a progressive superintendent of the Orange County schools. The senior Carr had watched over school desegregation, for example. (The younger Carr retains the lessons of his upbringing, and remains a member of Raleigh’s liberal Pullen Memorial Baptist Church.)

In March of 1965, trouble was roiling over the continued disenfranchisement of black voters in the South, despite the Civil Rights Act. King was going to Selma to call attention to the problem. At the time, the young preacher was under surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, Hoover viewing him as some kind of subversive. King would die only a few years after Selma, cut down at the age of 39 by an assassin’s bullet.

After Bloody Sunday, Carr remembered, “I was at home by myself in the parsonage, and The Washington Post had a big story showing people getting beaten by the troopers. Martin Luther King had called for white clergy to come and join the next march, and I was talking to several ministers on the phone, and so someone chartered a plane and there were about 40 clergy from Washington.”

He remembered that some of the ministers were invited into the homes of others who were participating in the march. “A young fellow invited me to his house, and when I got there, I really wanted something to eat. But he and I looked all through the kitchen,” Carr remembered, “and there was nothing. No food at all.”

It wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last time the young minister saw poverty up close.

The ministers were taken to Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, where a young man named Andrew Young stepped up to instruct the group as to the importance of making the walk a non-violent one.

“In the movie (currently playing) it looks like a very small meeting,” Carr said, “but it was really quite large. Andrew Young talked about the history of non-violence. And anyone who disagreed was not going to be allowed to participate. They really emphasized the importance of that.”

Today, Brown Chapel is a national historic landmark, and 82-year-old Andrew Young can look back on a career as a congressman, mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations. John Lewis, another key figure in the march of 1965, has been in Congress for 28 years and remains a touchstone of the civil rights movement. He was beaten on Bloody Sunday.

One minor issue Carr takes with the film: He remembers singing “We Shall Overcome,” the civil rights anthem, at the church and later.

As the film and history note, King did indeed lead a march over the bridge on March 9, but he stopped to lead a kneeling prayer and then turned around. His reasons for not continuing remain somewhat mysterious. “Some said he was in touch with President Johnson (over voting rights), but no one has really explained it,” Carr said. “I did see him at one point talking to some people, and I walked over to shake his hand, which I did.”

Carr was in Selma for less than 24 hours, but King had made his point to authorities and to Johnson, who would successfully pursue a federal law to stop discrimination against black people who were trying to register to vote.

And 50 years later, Paul Carr would sit in a movie theater and bring a critical but sympathetic eye to a film he lived for real.