SXU grad marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Former student protested in Selma and Chicago during volatile 1965
(Right) Saint Xavier grad Mary Cray (’66) with Senator Barack Obama and Celestial Ministries members at the 2006 Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Jefferson Award Ceremony. From left: Cray, Donnie Graham, Stanley Ratliff, Antoinette Ratliff and Obama.
Chicago (Feb. 6, 2008) In honor of Black History Month, Saint Xavier University graduate Mary Cray recalls traveling with a fellow student to Selma, Ala., where they marched with the Civil Rights movement in 1965. There they met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as civil rights activists Ralph Abernathy, C. T. Vivian and James Bevel.
“King was great,” said Cray, class of ’66, now a Riverside resident. “He was very interesting and a tremendous speaker. These were some of the greatest civil rights leaders in the country.”
The retired teacher and environmentalist also saw the dangerous side of the movement. She was arrested while marching in Selma and was struck in the head with a rock later that year while marching in Chicago.
“It was very exciting and it certainly influenced my life,” she said. “It opened a whole lot of areas that I was not yet familiar with, especially race and cultural relations.”
Cray and other northern white students had been inspired to travel to Alabama after law enforcement officials’ infamous attack on protesters during attempted marches to Montgomery in 1965. The peaceful demonstrators were subjected to billy clubs, tear gas and bullwhips in the presence of the media.
“Everybody was shocked to see that kind of treatment,” said Cray, who was student council vice president at the time.
The Chicago Area Lay Movement asked the council for volunteers to travel to Alabama in support of the protesters. The council loaned airfare to Cray and Kathy Brown, SXU class of ’65, and the pair headed south less than a day later.
Upon arriving in Alabama, Cray said a young black man drove them to Selma. On the way, the man stopped the car and had the two women hide under blankets because they were entering Lowndes County, Ku Klux Klan territory.
“He said, ‘If I’m seen with you all and you’re seen with me, we’re all going to die,’” Cray said.
Cray and Brown reached Selma unhindered. After several successful marches to the center of Selma, Selma’s mayor banned further demonstrations. Cray was among the many arrested while marching to the mayor’s house in protest.
“[Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark] looked at me and said ‘Girl, you must be crazy coming down here. I should be taking you to the state mental institution instead of jail,’” she said.
Cray was released from jail after about three days, and she and Brown returned to Saint Xavier. She found the campus “in an uproar” over her trip. Some students were upset Cray and Brown borrowed money from the student council for the trip, while others argued the college should be doing even more in to support civil rights.
“We were very surprised to see the level of debate going on at the school – and very pleased, too,” she said. “I think after that, things were discussed much more openly at Saint Xavier.”
It wasn’t long before Cray saw King again. She and about 5,000 other people marched with King through Chicago later that year as part of the Chicago Freedom Movement.
“Somehow, it was tougher to march here than it was in Selma because you knew these people,” Cray said. “This part of the Midwest is segregated in many ways.”
Indeed, King was met with a surprising level of violence and threats as he and his peaceful demonstrators marched through white Chicago neighborhoods with throngs of people throwing rocks and bottles.
Cray said local gang members, who pledged to behave peacefully, marched alongside the protesters and attempted to catch thrown objects. Despite their efforts, a woman struck Cray‘s head with a rock in Marquette Park on Chicago’s Southwest side.
Cray is no longer directly involved with civil rights but volunteers as a tutor with Celestial Ministries, a group supporting the families of prisoners on Chicago’s west side. Cray said the Civil Rights movement made definite progress, but America still has a long way to go.
“When you get involved with civil rights, it just keeps coming up because it hasn’t ended,” she said. “There’s still a lot to be done in education, affordable housing and other areas.”
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