This Martin Luther King Day, Sister Madeline Dorsey’s memories have been casting back 50 years, to when she was on the front lines of the civil-rights battle’s seminal moments, one that is the focus of an Oscar-nominated film.
There she is — in a black-and-white photo taken on March 7, 1965, “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama — her arms crossed, her hands joined with other nuns in the front line of marchers, singing alongside black marchers.
“It was wonderful,” said Dorsey, who is now 96 and who has lived in Ossining for 22 years. “There was a real togetherness.”
The Brooklyn-born Maryknoll nun hadn’t intended to be up front. She had flown from Kansas City, where she had founded and was leading one of the nation’s first integrated hospitals, Queen of the World. She had arranged to be in Selma that weekend to march 50 miles to the state capital, Montgomery, to lend her voice to the call for voting rights for blacks.
She was there to march, yes, but not to lead the march.
When she got to the staging area on Friday, at a vast grassy space near a public housing site next to downtown, she said a Jesuit priest on the march planning committee approached her and two other nuns.
“He said, ‘Come with me’ and he put us on the front line,” she said. “We had nothing to do with being on the front line, except we were placed there.”
The imagery — three white nuns among the black marchers — sent a message: This is not a black march.
Dorsey, whose toothy grin and calm manner could not be less imposing, said she soon came face to face with pure hatred.
“In front of us was this lineup of — they were called ‘posses’ — but they were police, with their ugly clubs ready to strike at us if we took one step. And I experienced something that I have never in my life. I’ve never seen hate in eyes. And honestly, they were blue eyes, which is disheartening. That was just sheer hate on them facing down us, who supported the whole movement. It was sad. It was tragic because it was so obvious. And those clubs were pretty nasty looking. They were really ready to beat up anybody who moved.”
By design, Dorsey never made it to the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
“We were there all day Friday and all day Saturday, singing the wonderful themes, ‘We Shall Overcome’ and some of the Negro spirituals. Cross arms and cross hands. Now, I couldn’t do it, because of my arthritis and frozen shoulder.”
The plan called for a group including Dorsey to be “the marching and the singing crowd in the front” at the staging area, while a group at the rear would slip out the back and go over the bridge.
“That smaller group were the ones who got it,” Dorsey said. “We were to be the protecting link for the rear end. We never left the staging area.”
When that smaller group of marchers made it across the bridge, they were ordered to disperse by state troopers, under orders from Gov. George Wallace. A minute later, the officers advanced on the crowd, setting off a chaotic scene of tear gas, clubbings and beatings that made national news reports that night. ABC interrupted the airing of “Judgment at Nuremburg” — a film about the prosecution of people for Nazi atrocities — to show scenes from Selma.
The idea of two worlds — the integrated world Dorsey and her team created at Queen of the World Hospital juxtaposed with the hate of that weekend — was stunning to her. When she returned to Kansas City, she followed the news events from Selma, “but it took two solid weeks to get federal troops” clearing the way for the march from Selma to Montgomery, led by King.
Dorsey said her role in history was minor but important. Having lived the history, she plans to see the movie “Selma” this week.
“I’m happy to have been able to do it, really, because it was something that should be changed,” she said. “That was primarily about the vote and to get kids into schools. That was still on the list of ‘to-be-dones.’”
There’s still a list of to-be-dones.
“Today? It’s disappointing,” she said of the work still to be done. “So much was done then and recognized then. However, a lot of good was done in that period and Martin Luther King was tremendous. He was a real Gandhian figure.”
She never met King, but she attended Kansas City events at which he presided.
“I was certainly following the good he was doing,” she said. “But I had a hospital to run.”
Dorsey’s final mission was in El Salvador during that country’s bloody civil war and the reign of the death squads. When four church women were killed by Salvadoran troops in 1980, it fell to Dorsey and another nun to identify their bodies. The following year, missionaries were sent out of the country, the government said for their safety, but Dorsey remained in the region, waiting seven years before being permitted back in.
She remained there until the 1992 Peace Accords, when she returned to the Maryknoll Sisters Center in Ossining.
Standing shoulder to shoulder, in Selma or El Salvador, Dorsey said she learned something valuable.
“When you walk with people,” she said, “you see the truth through their eyes.”