© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A civil-rights bridge with Obama's visit

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 10, 2010 - Tonight Sister Antona Ebo will deliver the invocation at the fundraising dinner at which President Barack Obama will be guest of honor. Forty-Five years ago to the day, she was part of a group of St. Louisans who went to Selma, Ala., in reaction to "Bloody Sunday," three days before on March 7, 1965.

The Sunday march had been organized in part as reaction to the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot by police in Marion, Ala., two weeks earlier while protecting his mother from a beating. Sister Ebo had flown in the early morning to Selma with 48 St. Louis Christian and Jewish clergy and other nuns on a plane chartered by the Archdiocese to stand with the brave people of Selma who simply wanted to allow African-Americans to vote. 

The St. Louis delegation was the largest and most religiously diverse group that responded to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s call for clergy to come to Selma in a show of solidarity. Leading the march on Sunday had been John Lewis (now a member of Congress) who suffered a concussion. The day before the St. Louis group arrived, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, the Rev. James Reeb, had been attacked and beaten so severely that he would die.

For safety sake, the St. Louis plane landed on a improvised landing strip in a farmer's field, not the city airport.

Sister Ebo would later say that she had realized that if they were all arrested, she would be put in jail alone and separate from everyone else because of her color. Mayor Joseph Smitherman of Selma would later tell her that he did not even believe she was a nun since at that time he had never seen a nun who was not white. (Sister Ebo was one of the first three African-American women who joined the Franciscan Sisters of Mary in 1946.)

With the media of the world now covering the event and with a focus on her, Sister Ebo explained why she was there, saying, "I am here because yesterday I voted in St. Louis and I want to bear witness to the right to vote by all the citizens of Selma as well as the whites."

This past Saturday, Sister Ebo received a call from Sen. Claire McCaskill's office. The caller said the senator was aware of and inspired by her story and would like her to give a (non-political) prayer at the fundraiser.

Sister Ebo was supposed to have been in Selma this past weekend marking the 45th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday. But the circumstances that made it impossible for her to be in Selma allowed her to be home and take the phone call inviting her to meet and offer prayer for President Obama and our nation.

In talking about how she feels today, Sister Ebo said in part "Martin (King) was a man of faith. I see now President Obama as an instrument of hope. I want to hope in his presence and in what ever God blesses him to do that he is able to do it. The struggle is not over now and it will not be over when President Obama is no longer in the White House. ...

"Each of us is called to be people of peace and love, to spread God's love and we need to be listening to that call and work with whatever our talents and abilities are. I was not thinking about who would be in the White House when I was in Selma, but now it is part of our reality and I never thought about my being in his presence. But to be there (this evening) and see him as president of the United States ... I have been praying for this man at a distance - it is a privilege to be there in person, today of all days."

The echos of Selma have brought about a fair amount of recognition for Sister Ebo.

In 2000 the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma presented Sister Ebo with the Living Legend Award. In January 2002, Sister Ebo received the Distinguished Humanitarian Award from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. State Celebration Commission of Missouri. Later that year, Archbishop Justin Rigali presided over services dedicating the seminar room named in her honor at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center in Shrewsbury. In 2005, AARP chose her to be among the six people honored at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. representing their collected first-hand stories recorded from across the country called "Voices of Civil Rights" (www.voicesofcivilrights.org). In January 2006 Jews United for Justice St. Louis and the Missouri Historical Society jointly honored here at the annual Rev. King and Rabbi Heschel Celebration. PBS has aired a documentary called "Sisters of Selma" which features Sister Ebo.

Philip Deitch is a St. Louis-based freelance photo-journalist.