Forty years ago, 12 ministerial students disobeyed their seminary president's advice to 'be students of the civil rights movement, not participants in it.'
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. can be "a bit manipulative," concedes the Rev. Gary Massoni, a close friend of Jackson's for more than 40 years.
The two met in 1964 in the parking lot behind Chicago Theological Seminary's McGiffert House dormitory, while moving in.
A few months later, thanks to a place called Selma, Ala. - a small, racially-segregated town some 800 miles away - Massoni and Jackson would become lifelong friends and compatriots in the struggle for racial and economic justice.
"Jesse basically organized our group [to the 1965 march], and said we needed to do this if our faith was to be real," Massoni remembers. "He told one of our friends, 'You need to go, because Massoni's going' and he told me, 'You need to go because he's going.' That's how he got us to say yes."
Twelve students from UCC-related CTS made that now-historic journey, and it's a ride that offered a life-changing glimpse into the gospel's transformative power.
The trip was planned hastily after students heard news about "Bloody Sunday" - March 7, 1965 - when police officers savagely beat those attempting to participate in a 54-mile Selma-to-Montgomery march to underscore the need for federal voter-rights protections.
Responding to the violence, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to members of the clergy, including seminarians and other people of faith, "to come to Selma and join the marchers on the way to Montgomery," Massoni says.
CTS' then-President Howard Schomer made plans to join King in Selma, but implored his students to remain in class and prepare for their upcoming mid-term exams.
"[Schomer] thought we should be students of the civil rights movement, not participants in it," Massoni recalls. "We violated that advice."
The students' "frightening" car ride from Chicago to Selma began the next day on March 8, Massoni remembers. "We were an integrated group, and people were looking at us very negatively," he says. "In one town, we were followed closely by a pick-up truck for miles. It became real that we could be in serious, serious danger."
But once they arrived in Selma, any residual fear melted away when they were greeted so warmly by others at Selma's Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church, the home of the march.
"There was this huge sense of relief and welcome," Massoni says, "and one of the first persons we saw there was Howard Schomer, who was surprised to see us, but welcomed us none the less."
Massoni remembers how Alabama's racist white community was determined to stop the march.
"When we came out of the church, all we could see along the streets were police - a literal, physical barricade of police. We were literally hemmed in. Rows and rows of police cars," says Massoni. "It was quite a contrast to experience the hatred in the white community and the love and acceptance in the black community."
For three more days, the students stayed in Selma and were among the 600 to 700 people attempting to launch the march, each time facing blockades and court injunctions. It would take nearly two weeks before the march concluded successfully, a feat that added significant momentum toward the eventual Aug. 6 signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As the students were en route back to Chicago, Jackson's wife, Jacqueline, gave birth to the couple's second child. According to Massoni, Jackson seriously considered naming their new son, "Selma," but to this day, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) is "relieved he didn't," Massoni jokes.
Today, the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail "stands as a testament to the sacrifices made in the triumph to preserve the 'right to vote' as the bedrock of American democracy," according to the U.S. National Park Service.
Massoni says the events at Selma shaped not only his seminary experience, but his lifelong commitment to social justice ministry.
"It had a major impact on those who decided to go, and even on those who stayed behind and were glued to the news," he says. Transformed by Selma, they would never the same.
This month, on April 5, CTS' participants in the Selma campaign will gather for a 40-year reunion led by their fellow alumni, Massoni and Jackson. It's part of the seminary's 150th Anniversary Ministerial Institute and Homecoming, and an occasion for CTS to honor Massoni with its 2005 Alumni/ae Award.
"We're trying not to use the word 'reminisce,' but we're really trying to look back at the impact of that period on us and on our ministries," Massoni says. "My story was very heavily impacted by the Selma experience, and I know that's true for others as well."
CTS President Susan Thistlethwaite says CTS' Selma connection is one of many ways the seminary's history has intersected with God's mission of justice.
"This is our institutional DNA," she says. "These people are genuinely our identity and what we try to live up to. The challenge today is to do so in a way that is relevant to our context and our time."