Three students from Mundelein College and Loyola University witnessed history nearly 50 years ago on the march from Selma to Montgomery, AL for voting rights and then went on to create similar events.
Judy Stephani and Adrienne Bailey were French majors at Mundelein, which later merged with Loyola in 1991. John Fitzgerald was a history major at Loyola who was on his way to law school.
In a recent interview with StreetWise, John described how the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had chosen Selma because while it was 80 percent black, only 2% of that population was able to vote. Simultaneously, organizers knew that its violent sheriff would provide a shocking display for TV news cameras, as they did on the first Selma march in early March as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delayed a second march for want of a federal permit. However, he urged the world to accompany them to Montgomery, the state capital, for the third attempt, 54 miles between March 21 and 25, 1965.
“Growing up in Chicago, it was impossible to be unaware of the Emmett Till killing in 1956 in Mississippi,” Fitzgerald said in prepared notes. “The Chicago boy was the same age as my older brother and it resonated with me. When Little Rock Central High was integrated in 1957, despite fierce resistance, I too was just entering high school. When riots erupted at Ole Miss when James Meredith tried to be admitted, my college basketball team was breaking barriers by having four black guys in the starting lineup. And they went on to triumph over Mississippi State and win the NCAA Championship in 1963.”
As he was finishing his senior year, people were watching “Judgment at Nuremberg” about the Nazi war crimes trials on television. The German authority that had permitted such atrocities bowed to international authority. Yet at the same time, Americans were permitting the crime of not allowing their citizens to vote, he said. Although the 15th Amendment to the Constitution had been passed in 1870, Southern authorities had found various tricks to prevent African-Americans from ever being able to register.
“Suddenly there was a huge cause celebre like Ebola or Ferguson, (MO}, “ he said.
He managed to get a bus from Marquette University that made a stop in Chicago.
Judy said that as soon as she saw the sign on the bulletin board seeking what would be 38 participants, “I knew I had to be on the bus.” She had grown up in central Wisconsin the second of 10 children, which she said meant she knew how to share, to be responsible for others and to do without material things. She also had a growing awareness of “the challenges to social justice faced by [those] who are not in positions of power but who are subjugated by those who are in power.”
Mundelein itself had been founded in the Depression by the Sisters of charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVMs) as a largely commuter school for students who might be the first in their families to go to college. The order was less experienced with African Americans than it was with Hispanic farm workers, according to an oral history with Sr. Mary de Cock (formerly Donatus). In order to “taste” the revolution, the order refrained from eating grapes. The college was also at that time broadening its mission to include a weekend college to help other women return to school.
Eight faculty, two guests and 28 students left Mundelein on the bus around 6:15 p.m. Tuesday, March 23, Bailey wrote soon after her return. There were mostly cheers, some sadness at those unable to go, but also a few Goldwater flags waving among those who remained.
A stop in Indiana for snacks and then Kentucky, before Bailey saw the sign “Welcome to Alabama.” “I had to chuckle at this big farce.”
She admitted to fear, however. She was conscious of slum conditions in Birmingham and of bitter stares on the faces of people they passed. Signs into town were covered with brown paper and a gas station attendant refused to give directions. A black lady finally pointed the way to the City of St. Jude, where they stopping in Montgomery to meet the march.
They had a tour of the African-American side of the city, even a mini sock hop at a social center (the white kids had to hide in the bottom of the car under a blanket since they were riding with a black woman). On the way back, a man yelled that, “you kids won’t be here always…go home” and a woman stuck her tongue out.
The Mundelein students walked the last five miles from City of St. Jude to the state capitol itself while Fitzgerald remembers arriving at dawn on Thursday and walking about four miles.
Led by the original 300 who had marched all 54 miles from Selma and camped in fields along the way, the Mundelein group fell in line six abreast around 11:15 a.m., Bailey recalled. As they walked through the black section of town, “People stood on porches and cheered us on amidst tears of joy and sadness. Children stood along the sidewalks waving small American flags and singing in their small pre-school voices “Glory Hallelujah.”
Judy recalls celebrities such as Harry Belafonte, Shelly Winters, Peter, Paul and Mary helicoptering in to add their prestige to the endpoint of the event: the Alabama state capitol at Montgomery.
Bailey quoted Dr. King’s speech there: “Our bodies are tired, our feet are sore but …my soul is resting. Others said we would never get here or it would be over their dead bodies. We are here today and we ain’t going to get nobody turn us around.”
It had been no accident, he said, that Montgomery had been the site of such a great march because it had been the site of the first protest 10 years before: the bus boycott ignited by /Rosa Parks.
“Montgomery was the first city in which Negroes united to face their oppressor. A new idea was born and the Negroes carried it across the south and everywhere.”
. Bailey said the mantra she took away from the experience was Mohandas Gandhi’s “Be the Change in the World that you Want to See.”
The students wound up changing themselves as much as they changed the world after their bus trip to Selma.
Bailey received her bachelor’s degree in French from Mundelein, her MEd from Wayne State University and her PhD from Northwestern University. She has followed a social justice path in the desire to open educational doors for vulnerable and disenfranchised children across the globe.
She has been study director for the Standards and Assessment Partnership, Consortium for School Research at the University of Chicago; senior consultant at the Council of Great City Schools; deputy superintendent for instruction at Chicago Public Schools and vice president for academic affairs at the College Board, where she also directed a 10-year educational equality project.
Bailey has also managed the education grant-making program at the Chicago Community Trust and served at Northwestern University, Xavier University in New Orleans and the Governor’s Office for the State of Illinois. She served as lead consultant overseeing education reform across the U.S., Jamaica and Southern Africa and eight years as a charter member of the Illinois State Board of Education and president of the Association of State Boards of Education.
She is now senior consultant with the Panasonic Foundation, where her primary assignment is providing strategic coaching to leaders in Elizabeth, NJ and Highline, WA school districts. This June 6 at Loyola University Chicago’s 14th annual Founders’ Dinner, she will receive the Coffey Award, named for Sr. Justitia Coffey, BVM, Mundelein College’s first president; the award is given to an alumna in recognition of leadership and service ideals.
Judy Stephani arrived home from Selma the day after the Thursday, March 25 march and on Sunday night her church pastor invited her to the rectory to meet another participant in the march: John Fitzgerald. After a couple of hours, the priest asked Fitzgerald to walk her home. A couple of weeks later, Fitzgerald called to ask her out.
“I was curious to learn if there was more to talk about than Montgomery and wondered what kind of person he was so I said yes,” Stephani Fitzgerald said. “We became inseparable; we would go for long drives and talk and talk and talk. We found out we were on the same wavelength and enjoyed each other’s company. Three years later we got married, at St. Jerome’s, with ‘matchmaker’ Father Brennan giving a lovely homily.”
Before they started a family, the Fitzgeralds were active in civil rights organizations and equal rights campaigns as well as Vietnam War protests. Judy became a stay-at-home Mom, which allowed her to assist him in setting up legal services for mostly rural poor across the U.S. Later, she worked with an agency that assisted war refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Ethiopia. Still later, she worked at the Illinois State Medical Society; her income allowed her husband to choose work based on their shared social justice beliefs and political convictions rather than pay scale.
Besides working as a storefront legal aid lawyer, an immigration attorney, a legal aid office supervisor, a regional director with the federal Legal Services Corporation, Fitzgerald was executive director of the Howard Area Community Center, which provides social services to low-income people in Rogers Park.
As an almost-graduating senior, he wrote a long story on his Selma experience for the Loyola Phoenix (then known as the Loyola News). Now he says his marriage deserves to be included in the experience.
“It was the transformational event in my life in that it led me to Judy. It gave me the opportunity to meet and fall in love with my life partner, a beautiful young woman who has supported and participated and enabled our working careers and family life without worrying about material gain or social standing or the sometimes negative opinions of others about our choices. As a result, we have had what I believe are decent lives of integrity and child raising and progress in the continuing quest for justice in America.”