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Columbia resident recalls Selma's third march and its impact

Columbia resident Sherman Howell was 22 years old when he joined civil rights protesters in the third march on Selma, Ala., in 1965, the only march that succeeded in reaching Montgomery, Ala.
Columbia resident Sherman Howell was 22 years old when he joined civil rights protesters in the third march on Selma, Ala., in 1965, the only march that succeeded in reaching Montgomery, Ala. (Staff photo by Brian Krista, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

After traveling 300 miles through the night from Memphis, Tenn., to Selma, Ala., in March 1965, 22-year-old Sherman Howell joined with his fellow civil rights protesters in convincing their bus driver to stop on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Just two weeks earlier on March 7, state troopers and a sheriff's posse had attacked 600 black citizens marching for voting rights after they crossed the steel span over the Alabama River, which was named for a Confederate general, senator and Ku Klux Klan leader.

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"Everybody wanted to touch the ground and get off [the bus] to walk on the bridge" because of the events of "Bloody Sunday," which the confrontation had come to be called, Howell said.

Howell, who moved from Washington to Columbia in 1971 for its promise of racial inclusiveness, will share some of his recollections as an eyewitness to history at a local screening of the Academy Award-nominated film "Selma."

The 2014 movie and introductory talk are set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday and sponsored by The Village in Howard, a group formed in January for residents aged 55 and older who aim to live independently in their homes by forging community connections. The three-hour event is open to the public.

"This will be a nice package," said TVIH board member Judy Pittman. "Hearing Sherman offer his reflections will make it much more personal."

With limiting seating available, Pittman said she hopes no one will have to be turned away from the screening, which is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Selma protests.

The first of the three marches ended abruptly when peaceful demonstrators, who had set out to walk the 50 miles from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery, were confronted by law enforcement officers armed with clubs and tear gas.

A second, symbolic march was organized two days later by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in order to obtain court protection for the mass march on March 21.

Howell and the other bus passengers had traveled to Selma to join in the third march, which succeeded in reaching Montgomery on March 25.

Along the way, their bus driver made a wrong turn at 5 a.m. and the group was met by white people wielding ax handles and guns, he recalled. But they persevered.

"Voting rights were a matter of life and death for black people [on trial] since only voters could serve as jurors. If there were no blacks on the voter rolls, you would end up with an all-white jury," explained Howell, who grew up in western Tennessee and had participated in demonstrations to integrate public facilities there.

Howell, who is 72, was finishing college after serving in the Army in Vietnam for two years and was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Memphis. His SNCC group was led by the late Marion Barry, longtime mayor of Washington, and had joined with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by King.

"I was prepared to go [to Selma] because I could see the relationship between voting and basic democracy," said Howell, who is vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County.

Gov. George Wallace was out in front of efforts to suppress minority voting rights, Howell said.

"Wallace was basically concerned about losing state's rights if blacks were allowed to vote," he said. "The long march was fairly peaceful but it was important, because to get our message to Wallace we had to make it to the capital."

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Less than five months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Howell said he and the other demonstrators faced their civic duty to protest with stoicism.

"We didn't get too deeply emotional about it. It wasn't a Sunday evening social event; it was a must for us and you didn't see a lot of tears," he observed. "We had to do it, and everything we did brought about change."

C. Vernon Gray, former head of the county's human rights commission, recommended Howell to Pittman not only because he was in Selma, but because he is an accomplished writer and speaker who continues his involvement in civil rights, Pittman said.

Howell said he moved to Columbia because of founder James W. Rouse's philosophy of equality.

"Jim built the city we were aiming for, fighting for in the civil rights movement," he said. "When I got here and heard him speak I said, 'This is it. This is what King was talking about.'

"I don't need rewards from being a pioneer because I did what needed to be done," Howell said. "But I've been rewarded anyway. We got Columbia - what else could I ask for?"

While Howell regards Howard County as progressive, he said he believes there is still work to be done to refine police-citizen relations.

"I think community members should be strong advocates for the police, but I also think county police officers should be required to take courses in non-violence and Constitutional law," he said. "The relationship between democracy and protests is the key."

Tickets cost $6 and will be sold on a first-come, first-served basis. Doors to Slayton House, located at 10400 Cross Fox Lane, will open at 6 p.m. For more information on events sponsored by The Village in Howard, including a public informational meeting on April 13, go to thevillageinhoward.org.

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