EAST PEORIA — When the seniors at the University of Illinois were going to Florida for Spring Break in 1965, Dick Williams and his roommate Bill Krajec decided to go to Selma, Alabama.
When the seniors at the University of Illinois were going to Florida for Spring Break in 1965, Dick Williams and his roommate Bill Krajec decided to go to Selma, Alabama.
Williams, a longtime attorney who has his practice Williams, Williams & Bembenek in East Peoria, said he knew there was a protest march taking place in Selma concerning blacks and the right to register to vote. He and his roommate thought it would be a fun weekend, he said. Looking back, Williams said he never realized at the time that the march would later have such historical significance.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., along with other prominent religious leaders, led the three marches from Selma to the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery March 7, 14 and 21, Williams said. The march turned violent when protestors were attacked by Alabama State Troopers.
While attending the U of I in 1962, Williams said he learned about racial
inequality from a black professor who taught political science.
“He said that in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that black people didn’t get to register to vote because they had poll taxes and tests and things so very few black people got to register to vote,” Williams said.
Because blacks were not allowed to vote, they also could not serve on a jury, Williams said.
“So you have all white people. The most famous county in Alabama where George Wallace was governor was Selma. They had a sheriff named (Jim) Clark. He was an angry white man. We would sing, ‘Ain’t gonna let Jim Clark turn me around.’”
Williams said the march became violent because Clark was instructed by a judge to keep people from marching.
“They applied for a permit to assemble and march and the judge denied it. The sheriff carried out, at least in his perception of what he had to do, was to not allow this huge group of people to march down the highway. To enforce that Clark had armed his guys with clubs and things to beat on people who disobeyed the order,” Williams said. “They were surprised by the violence. People down there who talked to me expected to get arrested, but not beaten.”
The first march on March 7, 1965, became known as “Bloody Sunday.” During the second march the following Sunday, Williams said the group still did not have a permit and the police were still present.
“So King decided to turn back. Then the third Sunday, the group was 3,500 and there was a hope that President Johnson would send the National Guard down there, which he did,” Williams said.
When Williams and his roommate decided to travel to Selma, they had been watching the news in their dorm room.
“The first week it made the news was when they crossed this Edmund Pettus Bridge, and on television you could see the brutality of the police beating up on people,” Williams said.
However, Williams said he wasn’t afraid because he and his roommate marched on the last Sunday when the National Guard was there to protect the participants.
“I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the trip down and meeting the black people from Selma, just talking to them,” Williams said.
During the visit, Williams witnessed King speak at Brown Chapel.
“It wasn’t a long speech. He just reminded us there was this bill pending and we’re trying to get it passed,” Williams said.
However, Williams stressed the power that King had when he spoke.
“The experience of hearing a real orator is something you never forget,” Williams said, adding that he also saw John F. Kennedy speak on the U of I campus in 1960.
“(Kennedy) was a star because he could speak in a certain way. He just had the ability to cause people to really like him and King was the same way. He had skills at speaking and he knew how to phrase things. He was not just a preacher; he was a theologian.”
After the speech, Civil Rights songs were sang to get the crowd fired up.
“Then they had captains that walked along the side of the marchers, about 10 across one lane of traffic. We’d march along. Then, the captains would start a song and we’d sing,” Williams said.
Sitting at a table in his law office, Williams showed a piece of paper with a quote by King: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is what are you doing for others?”
Williams takes this philosophy seriously. He belongs to the East Peoria Rotary, which has a motto of “Service Above Self.”
Williams said he was raised attending church and his parents believed in civil rights. Through attending church, Williams said he developed a desire to help people, which led to him practicing law.
“That’s the reason you do law. You figure out that if you connect with trying to help people, then law’s the natural place to go, it’s the good place to go,” Williams said.
Williams said his advice for young people regarding protests today is to choose wisely.
“Not every protest is deserving of your time, but sometimes something important comes along, and if you believe it’s important, you’ll regret that you didn’t do it. It’s a lack of concern for other people that causes us to not do things,” Williams said. “If you go to church on Sunday and learn like we do, problems that people are having, you support (organizations) to try to address the needs of people.”
Recently, Williams went to see the movie “Selma” that is playing at movie theaters. Williams said he thought the movie did not capture the spirit of the time.
“The Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s was a spiritual thing I thought, in a way, therefore immersed in the music of the Civil Rights Movement,” Williams said. “Songs that we sang all the time like ‘We Shall Overcome, ‘Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around,’ ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ so the thing left out, they had music, but it was written as a rap song. We didn’t have rap in the ’60s.”
Williams said the movie also had references to the events in Ferguson, Missouri, which had nothing to do with the Selma to Montgomery Marches.
He also said another thing omitted from the movie, something he never hears mentioned, is the fact that U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen, a Republican from Pekin, was a huge proponent of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“Dirksen got all the northern Republicans to vote for the bill,” Williams said.
Seeing the movie did, however, bring back the memory of when he marched seven miles in Selma on a warm March day in 1965.
“I felt good, that it was a good cause, and it was a beautiful day to walk and the music was good,” he said. “I wouldn’t drive down there just to march. I had the background of information from my political science of why it was important, so I really understood that,” Williams said. “And I also knew from the news that it was a bill pending that would wipe out a 100 years of not being able to vote for black people, and I thought, ‘Well, ‘If it’s not important, then what is?’”