Residents recall time with 1965 Freedom Riders

CouplesArticle
(From L to R) Dave & Toko Ackerman and Elaine & Bob Tiller all participated in civil rights marches that helped to lay the groundwork for the Selma march in 1965. (Photo by Chris Taydus)

By Almeda Girod
Resident Writer

Dave Ackerman and Satoko (Toko) Ito were students at Chicago Theological Seminary, who had begun dating in the spring of 1965 when their persuasive classmate, Jesse Jackson, “commandeered” an evening meeting challenging those present to go to Selma, Alabama, to support African-American citizens trying to gain their constitutional right to vote. Jesse said “I am going. Who is coming with me?”. Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended some forms of legal segregation, only two percent of African-Americans were registered to vote in some counties, with literacy tests and barriers widely employed to stop them from voting.

Bob and Elaine Tiller were newly married and taking a year away from their studies at Yale Divinity School for specialized study and ministry in Chicago. As they watched TV coverage of beatings in Selma on “Bloody Sunday” and heard the plea of Dr. Martin Luther King, “We need you,” they knew they needed to act. On Monday the Tillers joined other students on an overnight train for Montgomery, Alabama. Elaine recalls seeing the segregated drinking fountains, with the “colored” one being dirty and shabby, providing a reminder of why they were there—to support equal rights for all people. They took a chartered bus from Montgomery to Selma and joined the demonstration for three days.

Dave, Toko, Jesse, and other classmates drove from Chicago to Selma. Toko commented that “Jesse was so passionate” that they felt they needed to go, even though there was opposition from school administrators due to upcoming final exams.

Brown Chapel in Selma was the gathering place for singing, preaching, praying, and instruction on non-violent protest as well as survival skills. Dave comments, “We were there to put ourselves under Dr. King’s direction.” They were fed and housed by local black residents, who took great risks by helping the outsider protestors.

The days in Selma were filled with emotions that remain seared in the participants’ memories more than fifty years later. The excitement of joining a crucial push for basic human rights was coupled with a deep concern about the potential for violence by local residents and police. Heavy-duty water hoses, snarling police dogs, and hostile segregationists ringed each day’s march.

Vivid memories include an all-night vigil after the fatal beating of a Unitarian minister from Boston, James Reeb. Toko recalls the camera lights of the press offering some protection by illuminating white state troopers with their batons ready. At sunrise the protestors sang the National Anthem, causing consternation among troopers who eventually removed their helmets.

These events preceded and laid the groundwork for the federal-sanctioned march that left Selma on March 21, 1965 and concluded with King’s speech at the state capitol in Montgomery. On August 6, in the presence of King and other civil rights leaders, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Elaine says, “The time in Selma, marching for voting rights, solidified my determination to pursue working for the rights of all people, even in the face of personal danger.” Bob was “honored to be part of history.” Toko was moved by the power she felt locking arms with others and “knowing more can be done together with others in a community.” Dave says this was “One time when I put my life on the line for a moral cause.”

The two couples did not know each other in 1965, but are now friends, living at Riderwood and attending Christ Congregational Church (UCC) in Silver Spring, which is known for its social justice ministry.

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