Harriet Ludwig, a beloved community activist who had a long career as a writer and news reporter died Thursday evening June 28. She was 93. Harriet was born in South Dakota, and began her writing career there before moving to Florida, first in the Clearwater-Tampa area, and then to Gainesville. Always an advocate for young people, education and civil rights, she often contributed to the Gainesville Sun and other publications, but as well, regularly attended meetings for various organizations including the NAACP, the Labor Party (now Labor Coalition) and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. She was among the core group of co-founders of the Civic Media Center in 1993. She wrote the following piece on the opening of the movie “Selma” that ran in the Gainesville Sun on Jan. 11, 2015, and we offer it in her memory.
News of the historic movie “Selma” awakened strong memories of the time my husband and I spent with a black family there after the televised report of Bloody Sunday challenged American law and order and democracy itself on May 5, 1965.
We had the greatest respect for the Rev. Martin Luther King’s leadership, but we felt the ordinary black people who lived the harsh days of first organizing the vote drive deserved more recognition.
Political experts regard the Selma event as the critical turning point in a battle to preserve not only the American justice system, but also democracy itself.
The TV news film that aroused the public showed Sheriff Jim Clark’s forces, armed and on horseback, riding into the ranks of workers in the black vote protest group to prevent their crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge. The workers wanted to carry their cause to the Alabama capitol, Montgomery, to obtain greater public attention.
We had come from our Chicago suburban home of Hinsdale to attend the funeral of the Rev. James Reeb, who died after a Bloody Sunday attack. A Unitarian minister, he came from Boston to help the black vote workers.
As Unitarian Church members, we had responded to the national church call for both clergy and laity who were able to make the trip to come to the Reeb funeral. It was held in Brown Chapel, center of the black vote drive, with Dr. Martin Luther King giving the eulogy.
King was preceded by numerous white American leaders of churches, federal offices and civil rights groups. He spoke to a chapel filled to a standing-room-only capacity with large numbers of white people of all ages.
Looking around the mixed race crowd, he said, “Last week a black man was killed for trying to register a neighbor to vote. We held his service here, and black people from the community attended.
“But when it happens to one of their own, the whole white country turns out. We need to talk about this.“
At the end of the service, King announced that the city had given permission for the funeral attendees to march to City Hall to hang a memorial wreath for Reeb on the door.
With King as leader we walked silently to our goal, past lines of men in dark suits, taking our pictures and busily writing in notebooks. We never knew who they were or who they represented. After King placed the wreath and spoke a few words, he dismissed us. We already knew the common advice: Be careful and stay out of the white community.
For most of the white visitors, bed that night would mean a black church floor, but we had lucked out. Mrs. Beulah Wagstaff had offered us a bedroom in her home across the street from Brown Chapel. We returned there and met her daughter, Brittany, and granddaughter, Pamela, age nine.
Brittany was a secretary who lost her job when she tried to register to vote.
Beulah, a seamstress whom white ladies wouldn’t give up, was the sole support of the family. We were glad we had brought some groceries.
That evening we listened as the women talked about life in Selma for supporters of the black vote protest.
Many accounts exist about the start of that protest, but our hostess said the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) brought the idea to Selma.
Their leader was Stokely Carmichael, a top black organizer who worked with King.
They sought city cooperation but met only hostility. As SNCC gained supporters, that hostility increased. Jobs were lost to people who tried to register to vote. Clark and his deputies harassed black residents daily. Evenings they came into the black community and broke up meetings.
In residential areas they ordered people off their front porches and into their homes. Electric lights were banned.
People lived in fear, but the support grew. Finally the march to Montgomery was planned and ended on Bloody Sunday.
At this point, I looked at Pamela, who quietly listened and took in every word spoken. “How do you raise a child in such a tense atmosphere?” I asked. “What do you tell her about these terrible conflicts?“
Beulah answered calmly: “We tell her we are going to be free, just like they are. Some of them won’t like it, but most of them won’t do anything.
And those who will? Well, they can only kill you once.”
We took a break to digest that one.
I thought of the well-educated women in our very prosperous suburb who told me they would like to join the Fair Housing Group we had started but feared the social stigma it would place on their children.
Then Beulah continued.
“After Bloody Sunday, Dr. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came in to help. Many white people (like Reeb) also began to arrive, as did other churches and just plain citizens who were angry at the injustice TV made visible.“
Beulah thought another march was being planned, but a problem existed with the leadership qualifications and the permission approval.
She still believed black people would win the voting reform.
Her faith was justified when the U.S. Department of Justice gave King permission to lead the successful march to Montgomery.
There will be a memorial tribute to Harriet Ludwig’s life planned in the future at a date yet to be determined. D