By JOEL CUTHBERT
OBSERVER Lifestyles Correspondent
Forty-seven years ago, David Prince stood shoulder to shoulder with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement - not as a fellow activist, but as a military escort.
OBSERVER Photo by Joel Cuthbert
Fredonia Judge David Prince spoke in Fenton Hall at SUNY Fredonia this past March, coinciding with the 47th anniversary of a series of historic marches for voter’s rights in 1965 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement (top photo). Prince served as military escort for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., from March 21-25, 1965.
It was only weeks after the infamous "Bloody Sunday" of March 1965, which ended in a brutal assault on Civil Rights protestors being broadcast to a national audience. And Prince, a lifelong resident of Fredonia to that point, found himself in Selma, Ala., marching alongside an even larger contingent of protestors - now bolstered by King's presence - and an unwitting participant in the Civil Rights Movement.
"At the time, I didn't realize the importance of that march," he confessed.
But with this past March marking the 47th anniversary, Prince recalled his role in Civil Rights and United States history at both the annual NAACP Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Luncheon and SUNY Fredonia earlier this year.
It began on March 7, 1965 - a day which would come to be known as "Bloody Sunday" and greatly advance the fight for equal voting rights - when nearly 600 protestors attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., were viciously attacked by state and local police with batons and tear gas. And countless Americans sitting at home enjoying their Sunday were confronted with the stomach-turning violence on their television sets.
"It was a very important moment in history, in part, because it brought such national attention to events that simply weren't right," Jennifer Hildebrand, Associate Professor of History and Coordinator of African American Studies at SUNY Fredonia, explained. " Selma got a lot of national coverage because it happened at a time when television was becoming a part of our daily lives."
According to Hildebrand, the shooting of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson in mid-February 1965 during a peaceful rally for equal voting rights held in Perry County initially spurred protestors. The tragedy ultimately spawned the idea to march from Selma to the capital in Montgomery in an effort to continue the fight for equal voting rights by bringing it to the state's doorstep.
King joined protestors on March 9, 1965 to lead them once more to the Edmund Pettus Bridge - ignoring a federal court decreed postponement - where they stopped, knelt and prayed before returning the five or six blocks to town.
With a third attempt to complete the march planned, the Alabama National Guard was nationalized under President Lyndon B. Johnson to better control existing prejudices, and the United States Army was brought in to keep the peace. Prince arrived in Selma with the 720th Military Police Battalion - comprised of 1,000 soldiers - on March 21, 1965, a Sunday morning, he recalled.
"We were trained in crowd control and riots," Prince explained. "Our job was to protect Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Our biggest objective was to make sure no one got hurt."
Around 3,200 protestors - including King - began the 54-mile march to Montgomery that morning, according to Prince, walking hand-in-hand out of Selma. As military escort, Prince himself walked within arm's reach of King for about two miles as they marched east along U.S. Route 80. And while they only exchanged a brief "hello" and a handshake, he said King definitely left a memorable impression.
"There was just something about him," Prince said. "He jumped out of the whole group, the way he carried himself, and he was just a little guy. He really, really made an impression when you saw him."
But despite the strength of King's personality, what remains etched in Prince's memory are the crowds of onlookers lining either side of the road hurling racial slurs and obscene language at protestors. This included not only King, Prince explained, still dismayed by the intensity of their anger years later, but nuns and priests who became the target of such appalling hatred.
"It gives me a chill when I think about the seriousness of it," he said. "What bothered me the most was how those people were treated. It was shocking to me, to think that they had to live under that pressure and be called those names; it was awful."
Prince, who had spent his entire life in Fredonia until being drafted into the military in June 1964 at the age of 22, was quite oblivious to the mounting racial tensions in the south, and of racial issues in general. In hindsight, he said, he was ashamed of his ignorance at the time.
"You have to understand, being from Fredonia, I didn't know what being prejudice was; I had never experienced it," Prince, now 70, said.
He described growing up in an uncontroversial rural Fredonia, where everyone was treated equally and race relations were never considered or discussed. Little did he know he would be deployed as a Military Policeman to the focal point of one of the most momentous and contentious periods in United States history.
Being transported from Fredonia to Selma was a true culture shock, Prince admitted, one which left him reeling.
"It's so very helpful to hear the voices of the individuals who found themselves on the front lines, sometimes without necessarily having chosen to be there," Hildebrand said of Prince's role in the 1965 march. " It's a great opportunity to be reminded of how many different people from so many backgrounds played a role in this really important historical event."
After King finished his part in the march, Prince's battalion escorted protestors as they continued to walk up to 12 miles each day and sleep on the side of the road each night, arriving at the capitol building in Montgomery on March 25, 1965 without further violence along the road. By the time of their arrival, the number of protestors had swelled to upwards of 25,000. Prince said his battalion remained in Alabama for several days afterward until protestors dispersed.
In August, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law.
"I'm proud that I was there, because not many people had that opportunity," Prince, who has since served as Town and Village Justice between Pomfret and Fredonia for the past 22 years, said of the small part he played in history. "Of all the people around here, I don't know of anyone else that was there. Think about it, I'm part of history."
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