50 years after Bloody Sunday, St. Louis’ Vatterott family returned to Selma
Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, a civil rights march in Selma, Ala., that ended when hundreds of demonstrators were attacked and beaten by police.
Two days after Bloody Sunday, Charles F. Vatterott Jr. funded, coordinated and participated in a St. Louis delegation of religious leaders and laypeople who traveled to Selma for a one-day peaceful protest.
“He was a man who lived his whole life for civil rights,” Vatterott’s daughter Claire Vatterott Hundelt told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Thursday. “It was in his value to do this.”
Jerry Holden accompanied Vatterott on that trip to Selma in 1965.
“I just had that feeling that we should be there, that it was important,” he said. “My father-in-law thought it was very important. Everybody was very serious. Everybody was good-natured. We met with a variety of people in Selma, both blacks and whites, who were sympathetic with the cause.”
Vatterott died in 1971, but several of his family members, including Hundelt, traveled to Selma last weekend.
“To be in that moment was very powerful,” said Jim Coughlin Jr., Vatterott’s grandson, who went to Selma. “Everyone there was striving in the same pursuit, firstly to acknowledge the struggle for equal rights and how far we’ve come as a people, and also to acknowledge how much more work we have to do in our society.
“My grandfather, to me, was an inspiration when he went down there. He stood up for the dignity of all men by his actions and his words. To walk in his footsteps and to be present in the efforts for interracial social justice is just phenomenal.”
Holden didn’t return to Selma this year, but he did watch coverage of the anniversary and talked to his family members about it.
“I felt that there was a more profound commitment to change with this group, and I was astounded with the number of young people,” he said. “A lot of young people were there. There were very few young people 50 years ago. I just felt that the commitment was stronger, that it was more universally accepted, that more and more people were aware and committed to racial justice and found racism just repugnant.”
Holden said in 1965 there was a sense that the delegation was part of history in the making.
“We knew that this was the start of something in Selma, and that it was broader than just Selma — that it had a national significance,” Holden said. “I think everyone was committed to energizing this effort, striving for justice and equality.”
When Vatterott left for Selma, he carried with him a briefcase, packed with $25,000. At the time, Holden said he didn’t know what was in the briefcase, or why. Vatterott took the cash in case any of the nuns in the group were arrested: He didn’t want them to have to spend the night in jail. The bail money wasn’t needed.
“I think 50 years ago, my dad was called to take a stand,” Hundelt said. “It was uncomfortable but he did it because he believed in it. I think that meant a lot to Martin Luther King and all the others who wanted this type of support. It was important to get off the bench and take a stand.”
But there’s still a long way to go, Holden said.
“We don’t have 50 years worth of change in the past 50 years. I think we need more in the next 50 or next 20 or next year,” he said.
“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.