In your biography on Amazon it says that you marched with Doctor Martin Luther King in Selma. Did you actually get to meet him? What impact has this experience had on your life and your writing career?
Meeting Dr. King and marching with him in Selma were really the key events in my whole life. Yes, the march itself was an event I will never forget.
This is a little section from my latest book, Once a Priest:
That evening a rally was held at St. Jude’s, including singers Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Nina Simone, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter, Paul and Mary. It was a great concert and rally. I felt happy and fulfilled that night. I was with my people – these protestors, black and white, young and old, clergy and lay. The night felt like the high point of my life, more important to my identity than my ordination day.
When the rally was over most people slept outside, but the priests from St. Jude’s insisted that all priests were to sleep in a big room filled with cots. Nuns from the march stayed in a separate room.
Around noon the next day we walked the remaining distance to the state capital. By now there were about twenty-five thousand people. Of course, Governor Wallace did not come out to greet us.
Dr. King gave a terrific speech that day, encouraging us to struggle on for voting rights. He promised that the struggle would not be long. I don’t know whether he had inside information, but a mere five months later President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
One part of Dr. King’s speech affected me deeply:
“Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.”
Standing there in the sun that day, I felt that my life had reached an apex. Finally I was a Christian. I was working with this saint of a man, Doctor King. I was surrounded by other Christians who were fearless in their determination to bring justice to America.
It was hot, I hadn’t had a shower in days and I was hungry and tired. But I was happy.
I met Dr. King twice in my life. Let me quote a few sections of the same book.
From Chapter 10, "Selma"
I called another priest, Father Tom Gallagher, a good friend. He and I flew down to Selma a few days later. At the Cleveland airport we were amazed to see about ten policemen go through the airport surrounding Doctor King. He had been in Cleveland giving a talk that night.
It’s difficult to imagine now, but Doctor King was not the revered figure he is to people today. Ten policemen protecting him was appropriate in 1965. People threatened to kill him. My mother said he was moving too fast.
On the plane, Tom and I were sitting about fifteen rows behind him. I turned to Tom. “Come on, let’s go talk to him.”
“I don’t know. He probably wants to rest.”
“Ah, come on. Let’s go.”
Tom and I stood and walked to the front of the plane. “Doctor King,” I said, “I just want to tell you that we really admire what you’re doing in the South. We’re on our way to join the march.”
“Wonderful, wonderful, ah... Fathers, I presume. Catholic?”
Tom shook his hand and introduced himself and then me.
“How are you Fathers getting to the march?”
This surprised me. I expected a statement about the importance of his efforts, but instead, he asked about our travel plans. I explained how we were going from Atlanta to Selma by air, but we hadn’t figured out how we’d get to the march.
“Here,” he said, and wrote something on a piece of paper. “The white cab companies in Selma won’t help you, but this company will. It’s owned by blacks. Use my name.”
We thanked him and wished him well.
“Well, God bless you, Fathers. I’m going to spend a little time with my family and I’ll rejoin the march tomorrow.”
We went back to our seats.
“Man, he’s just like an ordinary guy,” I said to Tom.
“Hardly ordinary,” Tom said.
“No, I mean, here he is leading a great march, a great effort for voting rights and the guy concerns himself about our travel plans.”
“Yeah,” Tom said, “he’s something.”
I couldn’t get over how he paid attention to us. For him, two more Catholic priests would be nothing special. Was this what made a great leader, attention to every little person?
Please continue on to the next article for the rest of Mr. Griffin's answer to this question.