III - The First “Quaker-Type” Meeting
There were about 250 of us in the march, and it took hours to book us. The police herded us into the parking lot behind City Hall, and we stood there shivering in the cold, waiting our turn to go inside.
Eventually I was led in, fingerprinted and had a mug shot taken. Then I filed upstairs to the third floor, to what I now learned was the county jail. The city jail, too small to hold us all, was on the second floor.
Here the cells ran along two walls; above them, out of reach, was a row of small windows. Across from the cell block was a large day room, bare except for a couple of steel tables bolted to the floor, and a toilet in the corner. The marchers were crowded in the day room, and I moved in to join them.
There wasn’t much for us to do but mill around, talk, and try to rest on the steel floor. We were all waiting for Dr. King to arrive, and tell us what to do next.
Busted: The author’s Selma mugshot
Finally, after what seemed hours, he and his right hand man, Ralph Abernathy, appeared. Later we found out that Wilson Baker had kept them till last, hoping they would decide not to be arrested after all. We greeted Dr. King with applause, expecting something like a resumption of the mass meetings at Brown Chapel.
But Dr. King was very subdued. He told us he was feeling hoarse, and would rather not preach. He suggested, instead, that we have “a Quaker-type meeting,” in which people would speak simply “as the spirit moved,” and he would listen along with the rest.
This was the first “Quaker-type meeting” I was ever part of, and it was like none of the thousand-plus Friends meetings I have attended since becoming involved with Quakers a year or so later.
It was, for one thing, much noisier. The spirit not only moved some of us to preach that afternoon; it also moved all of us to sing, several times, both freedom songs which I knew and gospel hymns which I didn’t.
Being in jail added a special intensity to our voices and rhythmic accompaniment; the result was more than just music. Those of us pressed up against the walls soon found that if we slapped them in rhythm, they resounded like muffled calypso drums. When enough of us did it, the whole floor began to vibrate, as if the building itself was rocking and reverberating in time with us. And perhaps it was, because through the walls we soon heard an answering chorus from the other end of the third floor, where the women were being held. How I wish someone had recorded us!
Another intriguing feature of this meeting was that, notwithstanding Dr. King’s invitation to anyone so moved to speak, the spirit nonetheless seemed to move rather directly and carefully down the local status hierarchy, until all the local dignitaries and preachers among us had had their say. Finally ordinary folks chimed in, and I even spoke up at one point, though I can’t recall my message.
This meeting also went on longer than any “regular” Quaker meeting; two to three hours, it seemed. But finally, after one more heartfelt chorus of “We Shall Overcome,” sung in muffled, echoed harmony with the women in their cell block, the meeting finally broke up, and we sank into a happy, exhausted disorder within the confines of our pen. Glancing up, I noticed that the windows above us had all been steamed over by our lusty exhalations.
As the group relaxed, Dr. King reverted to his pastoral role, and began moving along the edges of the day room, speaking through the bars to the regular county prisoners in their cells. Our coming had deprived them of access to the day room and the little chance to stretch that they had. Dr. King talked with each of them, listening sympathetically to their tales of woe and injustice, which carried a special poignancy on this afternoon.
He was still, I think, making these rounds when there was a clanging at the far end of the cell block, and the heavy barred door suddenly rolled back a few feet. We turned at the noise, and recognized Sheriff Clark’s grim visage.
His eyes swept over the group, and then he began pointing and calling out: “You – King. Abernathy. Over here.”
He peered some more and pointed again, first at another staff worker. Then he pointed at me. “You.”
All at once I felt cold. It was safe in that crowded day room. Where would they take us now? We had all heard stories of people who disappeared from southern jails, never to be seen again, unless to turn up floating in the river.
I moved reluctantly toward the door, aware of the suddenly sober expressions on the faces of the men I passed.