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Issue Date:  January 25, 2008

-- Photo courtesy of Catholic Theological Union

Sr. Antona Ebo, left, presenter for Catholic Theological Union's Martin Luther King remembrance event, stands beside Dr. Vanessa White, assistant professor of Spirituality and director of the Augustus Tolton Pastoral Ministry Program.
Selma nun recalls Dr. King's legacy


It has been more than 45 years since Sr. Antona Ebo became the first African-American nun to take part in the historic voting rights demonstrations and marches in Selma, Ala. But Ebo, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, now 83 and battling lymphoma, has lost none of her zeal. She seemed to be almost channeling Dr. Martin Luther King in her impassioned, wide-ranging talk at the [Chicago] Theological Union Jan. 9. “Why do they tell us to keep the dream alive?” she asked. “That was Martin’s dream, for his time. Where are the dreams now, where are the dreamers for today? He told us we’d waited too long. Well, we’re still waiting.”

Ebo’s talk was part of a prayer service at the theology school honoring King’s memory. The national holiday in his honor was observed Jan. 21. The service also featured a 55-minute documentary film, “Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness to Change.” With extensive footage from 1962, the film recorded the violence and mounting tension in Selma as black citizens sought the right to vote in a city where only 300 of an estimated 15,000 blacks were registered voters. But the film’s focus was on six sisters from St. Louis, the first to answer a call for outside support. “I wasn’t too eager to go down there,” Ebo told the gathering. “I didn’t want to be a martyr, but another side of me said it was time to put up or shut up.”

Ebo and the others arrived on March 10 and were immediately ushered into a packed rally at a Catholic church in Selma. The crowd fell silent and seemed almost stunned as these women in full religious habit, five white and one black, moved to the front of the church. Then the crowd rose up and applauded. The rally leader said, “I am seeing a Negro nun. To see her it tells me you don’t have to be white to be holy.” Asked to speak, Ebo said simply, “I am privileged to be here. I believe every Negro has the right to vote.”

As the attempt to march was organized, Ebo and the other sisters were placed near the front of the line where they came face to face with the sheriff, a line of state troopers in riot gear and Selma Mayor Joe Smitterman, who forbade anyone to move forward. Ebo said that when she met the mayor years later, he said he had been convinced she was not a real Catholic sister, just “a little Negro woman dressed as a nun.”

During their time in Selma, neither Ebo nor the other nuns encountered brutality, but their presence, featured on national TV, helped galvanize the support of other religious women. When the march from Selma to the capital in Montgomery was finally allowed on March 21 by federal court order, the film showed dozens of nuns participating in full habits.

Ebo said there is no question their religious garb served as a powerful witness to who they were and what they stood for. However, she acknowledged that after Vatican II she changed to secular clothing, keeping only an identifying veil. “Then I took the veil off too,” she said, “because it let me sit on a pedestal where my black sisters could not sit. They sat in the street like Jesus who didn’t choose to sit on a pedestal either.” Five years after her Selma experience, Ebo became the first African-American nun to head a U.S. Catholic hospital when she was named administrator at St. Clare Hospital and Health Service in Baraboo, Wis. She is now a pastoral assistant at a church in St. Louis.

If Dr. King were to return today, she told the CTU gathering, he would put to us the same questions he asked in 1962: “Do we speak for peace? Do we live for justice? Or do we soft-pedal the message for fear of causing trouble?” In determining tactics, she declared, there is only one question King considered relevant: “Is it right?” Too few base their actions on that question, she noted, and that’s why progress on human and civil rights has slowed. “In fact it’s going backwards.” Young people today want to be “numero uno,” yet have no idea on whose shoulders they stand, she said, suggesting the documentary “Sisters of Selma” (available at could be a good educational start.

After her presentation, Ebo was asked if she was energized by the presence of Barack Obama in the presidential campaign. “Yes, I’m energized to the extent that he’s there,” she said, but she indicated she’s not ready to vote for him because she’s unsure if he’s “in line with the concerns of the black community on issues like unity, cooperation and self-determination.” She added she is energized by Hillary Clinton’s presence too but needs to know more about her priorities as well.

The Chicago Theological Union service was organized by the Augustus Tolton Pastoral Ministry Program, which promotes and funds education for African-American laypersons who intend to work for the church.

Robert McClory is a longtime contributor to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2008   [corrected 02/08/2008]

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