54 Strong: Protecting and Marching with Martin Luther King Jr.
On a cold night in late March of 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. found himself in a not so unfamiliar situation, running from the Klan. Earlier in the evening he had delivered a speech at a mass meeting in Greensboro, Alabama and was on his way back to Selma when he received the news that cars filled with armed men were on the lookout for him. There was also news that several churches had been burned to the ground. King quickly turned to an old ally, Mrs. Theresa Burroughs, for a safe house where he could weather the storm. With little thought, Mrs. Burroughs and her family, obliged.
Mrs. Burroughs, in fact, had been actively involved in the pursuit of civil rights since even before Rosa Parks ignited the modern Civil Rights Movement. In 1947, at the age of 18, Mrs. Burroughs was actively involved in voter registration efforts in her local community. But she wasn’t done there. Once the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, she regularly offered her hair salon for local civil rights organizers and was an active participant in many historic civil rights marches throughout the South.
So, when the call came from Selma in March of 1965, Burroughs dropped everything to be there. On March 7, she joined 600 others in Selma on a march destined for Montgomery. They would get nowhere near. After crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in downtown Selma, they were met by Alabama state troopers who attacked them with tear gas and billy clubs. But that day, now known as Bloody Sunday, did nothing but reinforce Burroughs’ dedication to the cause. And so, almost two weeks later, Mrs. Burroughs was there again to march behind Dr. King all the way to Montgomery. And just last year, some 50 years later, at the foot of that same bridge, Mrs. Burroughs stood tall as the country’s first black president, Barack Obama, presented her with a medal celebrating her courage and leadership in the Civil Rights Movement.
“I’m one of the original footsoldiers that walked from Selma to Montgomery. 5 days and 4 nights we walked. And would you believe, it rained every day! I slept wet. Walked wet. Ate wet. I’ve never been so wet in all my life! Those 7 days was not pleasant, but they had to be done.”
It is suffice to say that Mrs. Burroughs is a living example of the power and leadership that women bring to civil rights movements and our 54 strong group was lucky to meet her. Bellevue College Students Tye Ellis, Gigi Huang and Shreyas Raman caught up with Ms. Burroughs, now in her 90s, to get her take on the role that women play in civil rights.
“We always need to take this togetherness. I just love to say the spirit of this movement, if it had not been the spirit, nothing could have got you here. But you had the spirit within you saying ‘I want to do this.’ And you know what? Ya’ll are going to keep on doing it too.”