Memories of a Momentous Time: 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday & The Role of Religious Sister Nurses During The Civil Rights Movement

Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester with Martin Luther King Jr.

Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester with Martin Luther King Jr. Image courtesy of the SSJ Archives. All Rights Reserved.

Originally published in Blessings newsletter of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester. Republished with permission

March 7, 1965, was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement: the day known as Bloody Sunday when peaceful demonstrators marching from Selma to Montgomery were viciously assaulted by local police and Alabama state troopers. The injured were taken to Good Samaritan Hospital where the Sisters of St. Joseph were called to extraordinary service.  Not only Sisters who were nurses, but also those who taught at St. Elizabeth’s School hurried from the convent to assist the victims. (The Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester who staffed the hospital and school had been serving in Selma since 1940.)

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Sister Liguori Dunlea, nurse supervisor at the hospital and instructor in its school of nursing, wrote the following account of Bloody Sunday a year later. Her thoughtful recollection (unedited  excerpt below) is a powerful account of that historic day.

We were relaxing in the community room at St. Elizabeth’s when we heard sirens going past. Sister Michael Ann called from the hospital and asked Sister Mary Paul to have all the sisters come over immediately. . . .

By this time, there were already some sixty people – men, women, boys and girls. The injuries included severe head lacerations, cuts and bruises, as well as fractures of ankles caused by horses trampling on these poor victims.  . . . All were suffering from tear gas, which caused severe irritation of the eyes. Before long we, too, were feeling the effects of it.

 Ambulances and private cars kept bringing more victims. . . . One reporter was talking with me and I quote, “Sister, I have covered many riots in various parts of our country, but I never have seen such uncalled for brutality as I just witnessed.”

 What was the “crime” committed by these victims on that Sunday afternoon?  They had planned a peaceful march to Montgomery . . . They wanted to be able to register to vote. . . . At the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers, under Governor Wallace’s order, stopped them.  It was there that the brutality occurred.  If I did not actually see it with my own eyes, I would not believe that man could so treat his fellow man, because of his color. . . .

By 10 PM, all the victims had been sutured, bandaged, x-rayed, casts or splints applied, as the injury called for. All were treated with eye drops to relieve the pain and discomfort in their eyes. Approximately one hundred had been treated and of this number, fifteen were admitted. We were quite exhausted when we got back to the convent. . . .

[The next day] the first group of priests, sisters, and lay people flew in from St. Louis to bear witness and openly express their indignation at the atrocities committed in Selma. These groups continued to come until April 12, each group remaining for a few days. Many of them were given hospitality at Good Samaritan Hospital. We used beds as long as they lasted, and then we set up dormitories with mattresses on the floor. . . . The roster signed in the hospital lobby contained the names of five monsignori, 108 priests, 25 ministers, four rabbis, two members of the US Air Force, 90 laymen, and 25 laywomen from 26 states, the District of Columbia, Canada, and Germany. . . .

In 1965, President Johnson signed the voting rights bill, which provided for the registration of all eligible American citizens.  However, like everything else for the Southern Negro, voter registration proceeded at a snail’s pace until the federal government sent registrars into the Deep South to assure voting rights.

Democratic Primary Day – May 3, 1966 – dawned bright and clear in Selma. It was a wonderful feeling to see the Negroes, some old men and women, most of them voting for the first time in their lives. . . . As I stood in line, waiting my turn to vote, I recalled vividly the cattle prods, beatings, countless arrests and, yes, even death suffered by Negroes and their white friends in Selma during the spring of 1965. Beyond doubt, the suffering they endured helped in large measure to make today’s triumph possible.

Biography of Sister Liguori Dunlea

Sister LiguoriSister Liguori Dunlea entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester in 1928 after graduating from St. Joseph’s Hospital School of Nursing in Elmira, NY.  She later earned baccalaureate and master’s degrees in Nursing Education at Catholic University.  Sister Liguori served at St. Joseph’s Hospital for almost thirty years in various capacities including director of nursing service, director of public relations, and supervisor of continuing care.  Sent to the SSJ mission in Selma, Alabama, in 1961, she was nursing supervisor and teacher in the school for practical nurses – the only vocational program for African-Americans in Alabama at the time.  From 1968 until her retirement in 1975, she worked as pharmacist at St. Joseph Convent Infirmary in Rochester.

Additional resource: Wall, Barbra Mann. (2009) “Catholic Sister Nurses in Selma, Alabama, 1940-1972.” Advances in Nursing Science. 

One thought on “Memories of a Momentous Time: 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday & The Role of Religious Sister Nurses During The Civil Rights Movement

  1. Pingback: Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities – 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday/The Role of Catholic Sisters

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