This piece is taken from a series of interviews with Rev. Dr. Kent Millard, retired United Methodist Clergy, who went to Selma, Alabama as a Boston University School of Theology student, after hearing Dr. King call for seminary students to come to Selma to support the voting rights marches.
RETHINK CHURCH: Dr. Millard, thank you for spending some time with me today to share your experiences at Selma. What brought you to Selma in the first place?
DR. KENT MILLARD: It was in March 1965 that Dr. King called Dr. Harold DeWolf, his major professor, to enroll some seminary students to come to Selma to support the voting rights marches. A total of 80 students from Boston University School of Theology (22 students) Harvard Divinity School, and Andover Newton Seminary went to Selma to march for voting rights.
Segregation laws all over the south effectively prevented African Americans from voting, and some places required people to be literate before they could vote. But it wasn’t the same requirement for everyone. If a white person came to register to vote they were given a first graders book to read. If a Black person came to register they were given something written in German, French, Italian or some other foreign language, and if they couldn't read it, were declared illiterate and disqualified from registering to vote.
I had heard Dr. King speak on television in August, 1963, when he gave his "I have a dream" speech at the Lincoln memorial in Washington DC and was moved in his dream of a time when African Americans "would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
I followed the Civil Rights movement closely and was inspired by Dr. King's sermons about loving our enemies as a model of what Christ called us to do and by offering "non-violent resistance" to those who oppress others. When Dr. King called and asked for marchers I said "yes" because I thought it was the Christian and moral response to which God called me.
RC: Was going to Selma anything like you had imagined? Did you have any expectations, hopes, or apprehensions?
KM: We knew that Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian Minister from Boston, had been killed in Selma the previous week for marching for voting rights. We expected that there would be confrontations with the KKK and others but we just prayed that we would survive and hopefully help move the nation towards justice for all people, regardless of race.
We ended up spending about 4-5 days in Selma while Dr. King negotiated with President Johnson. When seminarians arrived, they went through non-violent training led by Jesse Jackson and Andy Young. They were pushed and shoved and called names, to simulate what they might experience on these marches and gatherings, and all they were to do was keep singing and marching. If they were hit, they were to get to the ground and cover.
We prayed that God would change their hearts of hate to hearts of love, their hearts of stone to hearts of flesh.
We were given these instructions: pair up and march, so that if law enforcement or anyone pulled you out of line, you’ll never go alone. One black woman I was paired with, said: “Sonny, you look scared. You march with me, you’ll be alright.” There were about 50-70 who marched to courthouse. Klansmen and others were shouting and throwing stones, but they didn’t attack because cameras were there.
When we marched to the courthouse in Selma, a black person would try to register to vote and be turned away. Then a Black pastor would offer a prayer praying for all those hateful people shouting ugly things at us that God "would change their hearts of hate to hearts of love, their hearts of stone to hearts of flesh."
Forty years later in 2005 I was invited to speak to a United Methodist pastor's school in Alabama where I told that story. Afterwards, a white pastor came up to me and said "I was in Selma at the same time you were but I was on the other side." I asked him "what changed you?" He said "Jesus Christ. I got so filled with hatred I couldn't stand myself. My wife convinced me to go to a Methodist revival meeting. I went forward and confessed my sins and Christ came and replaced my hatred with love. I decided to go into the Methodist ministry to try to undo some of the bad things I had done to people in my younger years."
I remembered the prayer of the Black pastor 40 years earlier: "turn their hearts of hate to hearts of love" and realized it had been fulfilled in the life of this man.
In March 2015, Dr. Millard will lead a civil rights pilgrimage to Selma, Birmingham and Memphis, and Rethink Church will share stories from this journey.
Dr. Millard was born in Texas, raised in South Dakota, educated at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, SD and went to seminary at Boston University School of Theology. He did additional graduate study in New Testament at Cambridge University in England and received his D. Min. from McCormick Seminary in Chicago.