The fight for civil rights

| Saturday, April 5, 2008

Connellsville resident Mary Baker fought for civil rights because it was the right thing to do.

On the 40th anniversary of the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Friday, she told a group of all ages at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, of her experiences seeking equality for blacks in 1960s Alabama.

Baker was a teenager at the time. "It wasn't something you talked about, it was something you did," she said.

The oldest of 10 children, Baker was born in Alabama. When her mother died, her grandmother cared for the children; when her grandmother also died, an aunt in Montgomery, Ala., became her guardian.

Montgomery was the site of the bus boycott begun in December of 1955. Baker said that while Rosa Parks was famously arrested for refusing to yield her seat to a white man, black women of Montgomery had systematically planned the boycott, which lasted 381 days. The boycott began at Hope Street Baptist Church, which Baker later attended.

Tensions between blacks and whites reached the point of extreme violence. Baker said that in 1963, a church in Birmingham, Ala. was bombed. Four girls died. While that tragedy is well known, many who did not live through the civil rights struggles did not know that a church in Georgia -- her church, Hope Street Baptist, was also bombed on the same day. "They targeted three large black churches."

Baker and her aunt were always the first at Sunday school, she said. One of her aunts was late and "when we got to church, we saw the church was bombed. Everyone was looking for us because they knew we were always the first ones there, but by the grace of God we were late. The bomb went off two hours earlier than it should have. It was set to go off during the 11 o'clock service."

By 1965, thousands of blacks sought civil rights. The marches frequently ended with police attacks.

Baker marched. "I had a friend who was hurt pretty seriously. I never got beat up. I don't know why."

Baker said a few young white men joined the movement. Two stayed with her and her aunt. "One was an atheist. I didn't know how he got the compassion without God."

More than 50,000 people marched to the capitol at Montgomery in 1965. Baker and her atheist friend were among them. "We were holding hands, singing 'We Shall Overcome,' and as we got closer to the capitol, some people started holding back. We saw hundreds and hundreds of police with billy clubs. The crowds dispersed, but the young atheist man and I stayed. I thought, this is my day. I'm fighting for something I believe in."

The police followed the crowd back to their church on horseback, Baker recalled. "They were beating us. A policeman was beating someone and I was pulling on a policeman's leg trying to get him to stop, and someone picked me up and carried me away."

She met Dr. King. She found the experience transforming. "It was something out of the ordinary. When he shook my hand, it was a feeling that all was well with the world."

Baker said King's movement began with youth and then adults joined them. "I want to say to the children and their parents, we can all be a part of something better, to make a better life."

She hopes that the promise of the history she helped make will continue. "Dr. King did leave a door open to participate. We can all have a part of what his life was like."

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