Mural is journey through civil rights movement
Sojourn to the Past makes trip to Selma for unveiling
SELMA, Ala. — Lekeila Houser fought back tears as she described her reactions to a teenager whose actions with a quarter epitomized the philosophy of nonviolence.
“He was only 16. I don’t think every 16-year-old would be able to do what he did,” the Youngstown State University junior and social work major said, referring to the late Rev. James W. “Jimmy” Webb II. “I saw the video many times of the confrontation with the sheriff.”
Houser was in awe of Webb, who led a nonviolent demonstration March 7, 1965, to the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma before being confronted by L.C. Crocker, an angry sheriff’s deputy who towered over the diminutive Webb and demanded he and the others turn around. Instead of retaliating, though, Webb respectfully and calmly spoke to Crocker, asking if he believed in equal justice.
After saying he did not, Webb said to Crocker, “Sir, are you saying that if I have a quarter and I’m black and you have a quarter and you’re white, then my quarter isn’t worth as much as yours?”
Webb’s exchange in the face of danger brilliantly captured the principles of nonviolence and was a defining moment in the civil rights movement, many historians say. The interaction also is illustrated on a panel that is part of a new civil-rights mural that was unveiled during a special ceremony Saturday in Selma.
Spearheading the 45-minute gathering was the Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past organization, of which Houser is a member. The organization raised the estimated $4,000 for the eight-panel mural, noted Penny Wells, executive director.
Webb and every other person who played a role in the movement and made history needs to be remembered and honored, Houser continued.
Also among those who spoke at the ceremony were Mahoning Valley STTP members Kira Walker, Brittany Bailey and Jasmine Macklin.
“This mural tells me that ordinary people can do extraordinary things,” Walker said. “This mural not only shows how far we’ve come, but how much further we must go.”
She also discussed the Rev. James J. Reeb, who, at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s behest, was among those who came to Selma after Alabama state troopers had attacked about 600 marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, a day infamously known as “Bloody Sunday.”
A few days later, Reeb, of Boston, and two other Unitarian ministers were attacked by four Klansmen as they left a restaurant to walk back to Brown’s Chapel Church. Reeb was struck on the side of the head with a club and died about 36 hours later at age 38.
In her remarks, Bailey recited the events of “Bloody Sunday,” then Macklin shared the story of Amelia Boynton, a longtime activist who led voting rights efforts beginning in the 1930s. On one of the panels, Boynton is shown with President Barack Obama, both of whom attended a huge ceremony in Selma to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 2015.
Also on hand was Anthony Liuzzo of Birmingham, Ala., whose mother, Viola Liuzzo, is represented in one of the mural’s eight aluminum panels. Before a carload of Klansmen forced her off the road in neighboring Lowndes County and shot her to death March 25, 1965, Viola Liuzzo had driven 800 miles from her Detroit home to Selma to help those affected by the turmoil, her son recalled.
“She didn’t care what people thought; she cared about action. She taught me more than a textbook could about how to treat people,” he explained.
Liuzzo added that while in Selma, his mother worked tirelessly to provide food, medicine and transportation to those who needed them. She also instilled in her five children the importance of seeing and treating everyone equally, with no regard to race or color, Liuzzo continued.
“She was a great mother,” he said, adding that the family also was viciously maligned after her death.
Also happy to see her mother honored was Renee Blalock, daughter of Patricia S. Blalock, a librarian, social worker and civil-rights activist who was the Selma-Dallas County Public Library’s director for 27 years. Thanks to her work, in May 1963, the facility became the first library branch to integrate without a court order or demonstration.
The mural also powerfully symbolized that the civil rights movement’s foot soldiers kept focusing on achieving the big picture — freedom for all, said Derrick McDowell of Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past.
The project also is a timeline of sorts, because it takes viewers on a tragic yet triumphant trajectory through history that was pivotal in changing the country, he explained.
Sheryl Smedley, director of the Selma and Dallas County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Information center, recalled that Joanne Bland, a longtime civil-rights activist of Selma, introduced her to Wells, who wanted to give back to the city. The project received the green light after the Selma-Dallas County Historic Preservation Society and city council granted permission, she noted.
“Sheila (Ferrell) already had a vision; it was just bringing it to fruition and bringing it to life,” Smedley said.
Ferrell, who’s been a sign painter for more than 30 years, explained that she edited photographs for the mural, then shaped them like posters and painted the panels in an effort to preserve the past and make a statement about the future.
“A lot of stuff happened in 1965,” Ferrell said. “I wanted the shapes to define the art, not the individuals.”
She also wasn’t shy about expressing her gratitude for Wells’ work and efforts to make the project a reality.
“Penny is awesome. She’s tireless and important to promoting history,” Ferrell added. “I am so grateful to her.”