Father Leonard Tartaglia was sometimes called Hartford’s “Hoodlum Priest.” Like the 1961 film of the same name, Tartaglia ministered to the city’s poor and disenfranchised. He challenged institutional racism wherever he found it, in the state and in his own Church.
On March, 11, 1965, Tartaglia and a handful of other clergy from New Haven and Waterbury left for Selma, Alabama.
Later that night, Unitarian minister James Reeb died from his wounds, the victim of a Selma lynch mob attack. Reeb had traveled from his Boston home to support voting rights marchers under attack. His story is dramatized in the current film Selma, an important chapter in the fight for civil rights.
Most of the people who enlisted in the war against Jim Crow, like Father Tartaglia, never ended up in docudramas or history books. They were ordinary people, both black and white, who took extraordinary risks:
* In 1961, Rev. Arthur L. Hardge, an African American minister from New Britain, joined the Freedom Riders in Florida to test the federal law banning segregation at interstate bus facilities. He was convicted for “unlawful assembly” with eight other clergy and sentenced to 60 days in prison. After four days of lockup, and pressure from the ACLU, all nine were all granted clemency;
* Seventy Yale students traveled to Mississippi in October, 1963 to assist a young African American who ran for Lt. Governor. They returned after the election with stories of bogus arrests and beatings;
* Elizabeth Faith Brown, a 44-year old Salvation Army worker and UConn student, spent a week in a St. Augustine, Florida jail in March, 1964 on trespassing charges. She and other Connecticut residents were arrested while working to desegregate a motel restaurant;
* In Voluntown, the Committee for Non Violent Action (CNVA) responded to the Selma call by sending 19-year old Peter Kellman. He worked behind the scenes, raising and lowering tents each day for the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. Peter stayed on after the march, building the Selma Free Library, registering voters, and organizing an alternative political party with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Father Tartaglia’s trip was motivated by the vicious actions of Alabama authorities who were desperate to stop the 54-mile voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. The now-famous event was brutally triggered by Sheriff Jim Clark, whose posse of deputies attacked 600 peaceful activists with clubs and tear gas.
The violent police response on March 7, 1965 was dubbed “Bloody Sunday.” The first march had been called to protest the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a local deacon and veteran voting rights activist. He had been shot at point blank range by police during a peaceful rally, while protecting his mother and grandfather.
Connecticut Responds to Selma Outrages
The second attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge into Montgomery ended in a standoff. That same day, March 9th, Hartford high school students and activists vigiled at the governor’s residence to focus local attention on the Selma attacks. They brought legislative business to a standstill a short while later, simply by entering the State Capitol where an unusually large number of anxious police officers had assembled to meet them.
Thousands of Connecticut people rallied and marched to mourn James Reeb’s death. At New Haven’s Woolsey Hall, 1,500 gathered to protest the murder. In Stamford, another 1,500 marched to the old town hall, demanding that President Lyndon Johnson take action to protect voting rights. In Norwalk, 700 marched from the police station to city hall, challenging federal priorities that sent troops to Vietnam but none to protect civil rights workers. In Greenwich 600 marched, and in Hartford 350 gathered at the State Capitol. In Middletown 300 marched down Main Street singing “We Shall Overcome.”
On March 25th at the Montgomery state capitol, a victorious rally of 25,000 people celebrated the third and final attempt to cross the bridge. Among them were the Reverend Richard Battles who led 90 other Hartford people to join the southern march.
That night, the Ku Klux Klan assassinated Viola Liuzzo, a volunteer from Detroit who shuttled walkers between Selma and Montgomery.
Liuzzo was murdered on Highway 80. Reverend Richard Albin from the Greater Hartford Campus Ministry saw Liuzzo’s wrecked car as he rode a bus along the highway. Albin acted as security at the church that had been Liuzzo’s base. He did his best to control his own fear as he calmed others.
Exactly a week earlier– to the hour– a young black teacher from Hartford and her coworkers had been harassed and almost run off the same road, possibly by the same men.
Voter Suppression Today
The Voting Rights Act was signed into law on August 6, 1965. It has been amended many times, as states– including Connecticut– have found ways to sabotage the law’s intent. It was not until 1972 that Connecticut was forced to eliminate literacy tests and long residency requirements.
In 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court ended oversight of states that have systematically violated the Act. Before the November, 2014 elections, voter suppression initiatives in North Carolina, Kansas, Virginia and Florida denied hundreds of thousands of registered voters “their basic right of citizenship,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Selma is not just a story from the past. It is today’s moral imperative. As Father Tartaglia told an audience in 1966, the challenge still remains to “reshape the community befitting the dignity of man.”