Last week I watched the movie “Selma.” When it first appeared in 2014, many Americans, even if well-along into middle age, had no idea about the times it depicted, when African-Americans for all practical purposes could not vote in Southern elections, aside from enduring a myriad other outages.
Of course, the U.S. Constitution, the Alabama Constitution and Alabama laws denied no citizens the right to vote and saw all African-Americans as citizens, but long-standing custom kept blacks away from the polls. “Red tape,” never required of Caucasians, made even registration impossible for blacks. If any blacks attempted to register, let alone to vote, they often lost their jobs, or worse.
As part of the civil rights movement, African-Americans began, peacefully, to demand that they be permitted to vote.
Selma became the epicenter of this effort when, on March 7, 1965, police viciously descended upon a group of blacks who, again, peacefully, were publicly marching to draw attention to their wishes to vote.
Shocked by the sight of police brutality rarely equaled in U.S. history, President Lyndon B. Johnson, Congress and the public overall resolved to make real the rights of blacks to vote.
The movie brings it all back to life.
An unsung story of heroism from that very incident, and indeed from the era when conscientious people of all ethnicities worked to assure equal rights for American blacks, is about the Sisters of St. Joseph from Rochester, New York. They operated Good Samaritan Hospital in Selma, since closed.
At the hospital, the nuns cared for the sick and injured of the community without regard for race. They trained African-Americans to be professional nurses. They reached out to the poor and forgotten, again regardless of race. The hospital was not large; its staff and resources were limited, but it had the reputation of providing top-notch medical care.
When the police turned upon the demonstrators, many in the march were injured, some quite seriously. They were taken to, or stumbled on their own to, Good Samaritan. It was Sunday. Many hospital employees had the day off. Others, on duty, fled, fearing retaliation if it were known that they had assisted the marchers, even by providing emergency medical attention.
This left the sisters, all of whom suddenly had to do many jobs at once. Many of the injured had to be admitted to the hospital. The nuns were there for them, irrespective of the hour or the gravity of the patients’ conditions. It is not exaggeration to say that without the utterly unselfish nuns, many of the marchers hurt by the police would not have survived.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, the leader of the movement and of the demonstration at Selma, personally visited the hospital to thank the nuns for their efforts on behalf of the marchers.
Looking more broadly, Catholic women religious have left a golden chapter in the history of Catholicity in this country by seeing the needs of people and by responding.
At this time when national health care is being discussed, it is interesting, and heart-warming, to remember that not that long ago every major American city, Anchorage to Miami, Honolulu to Boston, had at least one Catholic hospital run by nuns.
When the vast majority of these hospitals opened, they served the poor without charge. There was no health insurance, no Medicare, no grants from great foundations, no public aid, only the total generosity of the sisters, literally spending their lives in imitation of the Lord.
Caring for the troubled simply is Catholicism.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.