By Major Jerry Bell
Every year when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day arrives, I start to have very vivid memories of where and what I was involved in, in the spring of 1965. I was at Ft. Bragg. To be more specific, I was in B company, 503rd MP Battalion, 1st Platoon, 3rd squad leader. In late March, the 503rd MP Battalion was the go-to Battalion for all riot control events in the nation. We had just been alerted that we were going to Maxwell AF base, located in Montgomery, Ala.
We drove all our jeeps and other vehicles to Pope AFB, just two miles from the Battalion, loaded every piece of equipment on C-130s and started winging our way to Alabama. It did not take long to get there. We were billeted at the air base there. We were then told what our mission was. We were to provide security for Dr. King on his march from Selma to Montgomery. I believe that it was on Mar. 21, and it was going to be a 5-day around 50-mile march.
We started planning just how we were going to do this because the event was in a couple of days. My squad had the mission of paralleling the route and be on the look-out for snipers. We were armed with M-14 rifles and our jeeps were fitted for the M-60 machine guns. I was hoping that we never had to use either one. The Alabama National Guard was federalized to also provide security for Dr. King and for crowd control.
The march was very uneventful as pertaining to security. I do not know of any incident that we responded to. Every night the marchers, and there were thousands of them, would bed down in the fields alongside Hwy. 80.
Just before the marchers arrived in Montgomery, the whole battalion was placed on both sides of the street, going straight to the Capitol building. Our mission there was mainly crowd control.
I was standing next to an Alabama National guard soldier. Suddenly we looked down the road, we saw thousands and thousands of people from all races marching up to the Capitol. In front of the crowd was Dr. Martin Luther King and his people that were close to him. I knew at that time that I was witnessing something, and that people would talk about this march for years to come.
It was a peaceful march and that was the way that Dr. King wanted it. I saw blacks and whites, and Asians and other races holding hands and singing. I was 18 years old and did not fully realize at that time that I was becoming part of an historical event.
I do remember seeing Dr. King walk past me. He and many marchers were wearing a Hawaiian lei around their necks. They all marched up to the Capitol steps. Before Dr. King gave his speech, I heard Peter, Paul, and Mary and Harry Belafonte sing on the Capitol steps. There were other singers, but I don’t remember them.
I was standing there and heard Dr. King talk. I was very close to the Capitol steps. Being just 18 years old, I really did not understand at that time about Dr. King and all that he had done. I had just come back from overseas and had not been keeping up with what was going on.
I now know that he did so much for his people and that he will forever be a part of our American History and I hope that young people today realize what he was preaching and subscribe to his peaceful protests.
I am thankful that I was part of the history of the Civil Rights Movement and that Dr. King was not hurt on that march. Every day since that time, when I was standing on the side of the street and seeing all those marchers walk by and singing “We Shall Overcome,” my heart has always been in the right place as it pertains to people of all races.
We should never judge anyone by the color of their skin. What is important is the content of their character. We also should never look down on the poor. I have tried to treat all people equally.