Religion

He answered King’s call to come to Selma in 1965. On Monday, King’s holiday, he died.

In this March 10, 1965 photo, demonstrators, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stream over an Alabama River bridge at the city limits of Selma, Ala., during a voter rights march. King’s participation in the 54-mile march from Selma, Ala., to the state capital of Montgomery elevated awareness about the troubles blacks faced in registering to vote.
In this March 10, 1965 photo, demonstrators, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stream over an Alabama River bridge at the city limits of Selma, Ala., during a voter rights march. King’s participation in the 54-mile march from Selma, Ala., to the state capital of Montgomery elevated awareness about the troubles blacks faced in registering to vote. ASSOCIATED PRESS

When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked fellow clergy to come to Selma in 1965 to help push for voting rights, the Rev. Clark Olsen was among those who answered the call.

On Monday, the national holiday honoring King, Olsen died.

A retired Unitarian Universalist minister, Olsen was 85 and lived in Asheville.

During those tense days in Selma in 1965, Olsen was beaten by white supremacists and witnessed the murder of the Rev. James Reeb, another Unitarian minister.

In 2015, the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches, Olsen spoke at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte.

“Clearly, Clark was highly respected in our ministry,” the Rev. Jay Leach, minister at the Charlotte church, said Thursday. “The fact that he showed up in Selma was completely consistent both with what he was about and what Unitarian Universalism is about: A religion that isn’t about belief. It’s about what one does in the world.”

As Olsen told the story many times in the decades since then, he was a young minister from Berkeley, Calif., in 1965.

Once in Selma, he and Reeb and a third Unitarian minister were on a sidewalk after leaving a dinner spot. Three or four white men came at them, shouting racist slurs, Olsen recounted. One of the attackers was wielding a club.

“We whispered to each other, ‘Keep walking,’” Olsen told a gathering at the National Museum of History in 2017. “They came up behind us. I looked behind just as the guy swung the club. ... Jim fell to the ground immediately.”

Olsen said he ran, but one of the other men caught up with him, slugging him several times in the head, knocking off his glasses.

Olsen held the fallen Reeb’s hand until his new friend lost consciousness, Olsen said over the years. Less than two days later, Reeb died from the attack, becoming a martyr of the civil rights movement.

Olsen later testified in court against the men who murdered Reeb, the Citizen Times reported, but an all-white jury acquitted them.

King’s call for clergy to come to the Deep South city to march for voting rights for African-Americans came in the wake of “Bloody Sunday,” when Alabama state troopers beat marchers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. The event, which was widely televised on the national news, led to a second march, from Selma to Montgomery, and spurred Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It outlawed practices by mostly Southern states that denied many African-Americans their right to vote.

In an interview with ABC News in 2015, the year the film “Selma” was released, Olsen called Reeb’s death “a turning point in American history.”

Members of two churches -- one black, one white -- sat down together Saturday afternoon to watch SELMA, the movie about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the 1965 marches in Alabama that led to passage by Congress that year of LBJ's Voting Rights A

Tim Funk: 704-358-5703, @timfunk

Tim Funk has covered faith & values for the Charlotte Observer for 15 years. He has won three national awards from the Religion News Association and numerous awards from the North Carolina Press Association. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri.

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