On a gray Sunday in March, former Hollister resident Brian Quinn stood alone in the middle of the historic stretch of U..S Highway 80 connecting Selma, Alabama to the state capital, Montgomery. Beaming with pride, Quinn made the 600 mile trip from his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina to honor his father, the late Dr. Bob Quinn of Hollister, who had stood in that exact location 50 years ago to the day.
The African-American civil rights movement is full of iconic images: black college students defying segregationist policies by sitting at a lunch counter; Freedom Riders bravely boarding a bus that later became an inferno on wheels; and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. staring through the bars of a Alabama jail cell, contemplating the words that filled his essay, Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Included in this tapestry are the events that unfolded in Selma a half century ago.
On Sunday, March 7, 1965, hundreds of courageous individuals began a peaceful march from Selma to Montgomery, fifty miles to the east. With each step participants hoped to shed light on the racist policies that continued trampling on the rights of African-Americans at the voting booth, despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that sought to remedy such injustices.
As unarmed marchers began to make their way across the Edmund Pettus Bridge toward Montgomery, they became victims of unbridled brutality committed by law enforcement. Tear gas blinded and choke some victims, while truncheons wielded by state troopers on horseback found their way to the back of the head of others. As terror-stricken marchers retreated, K-9 units pursued their prey.
The fleeing marchers sought refuge in Selma’s African-American neighborhood, where their wounds were tended to. Meanwhile, organizers enlisted the help of Dr. King and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Emboldened by Dr. King’s presence, a second march began two days after what became known as Bloody Sunday. As the contingent of 2,000 made its way down the blood-stained bridge, law enforcement officials ordered that the group halt or once again face their wrath. True to form, Dr. King knelt in prayer, as marchers followed his lead. After this short respite, Dr. King led the group back to its base.
Sensing that public opinion was exponentially growing in their favor, organizers called for a third march to be held on Sunday, March 21. And this time, Montgomery would be reached.
In an effort to bolster their ranks, organizers called out to volunteers across the country. Almost overnight, Selma swelled with a menagerie of individuals, including religious leaders, suburban mothers, and white college students.
At the urging of his dear friend and the former minister of Hollister’s First Christian Church, Reverend David W. Havens, Dr. Quinn decided to enlist, too, despite opposition from his friends, neighbors, office staff, and patients. According to the doctor’s autobiography, “My Best Trip,” Hollister’s “very conservative” sentiments often obfuscated one’s responsibility to right a wrong.
Dr. Quinn and his first wife, Reva, arrived in Hollister in 1955, where all six of their children were born and raised and where the doctor built a successful, private practice that lasted over 40 years. During that time, he earned his pilot’s license, purchased a single-engine plane, and began making humanitarian trips around the world with his medical bag in hand.
In Selma, Dr. Quinn’s medical expertise was sorely needed, as bands of roaming, white racist youth scoured the city and assaulted supporters of the march, especially those from the outside.
Dr. Quinn, Rev. Havens, and three others, including Reverend William H. Phillips of Hollister, departed from California aboard Dr. Quinn’s plane. The group arrived in Montgomery—Selma’s airport was too full—and then shuttled its way west.
For two weeks, Dr. Quinn and the others called Selma’s Green Street Baptist Church home, sleeping “behind the pulpit”, according to an email sent by Mr. Quinn.
He added that in the basement of the First Baptist Church his father and several other doctors administered treatment to the victims of racial violence that plagued the city. When Dr. Quinn wasn’t tending to the injured, he and the others from California attended speeches by renown civi-rights leaders and learned the particulars of non-violent civil disobedience that might be put to the test during the upcoming march.
On Sunday, March 21, the third march began with over 3,000 following Dr. King’s lead. Hours before, Dr. Quinn and another physician stationed themselves on the median strip of US Highway 80, preparing for the casualties that U.S. Army and the federal, Alabama National Guard failed to protect. Despite his grizzled World War Two experience (a gripping and moving account of his wartime service is chronicled in his autobiography), these were tense hours for the doctor.
As Mr. Quinn explained in a telephone interview, his father was told by a National Guard member that protecting marchers was the priority. In other words, Dr. Quinn was on his own. And if he were confronted with violence, Dr. Quinn was instructed by organizers not to retaliate, rather to “curl in a ball and take it”, Mr. Quinn added.
This was difficult to fathom, especially for a man who arrived in the European Theatre as a young 18 year old from Idaho and was immediately thrust into the throes of war, engaging with members of the Nazi army in hand-to-hand combat as a member of U.S. General George S. Patton’s 3rd Army.
Fortunately, Dr. Quinn encountered no violence as he waited for the marchers. As the throng began filing past him, he reached for the 35 mm camera he had packed for the trip and began snapping pictures.
Following Dr. Quinn’s death in 2011, Mr. Quinn inherited his father’s collection of photographic slides. Numbering over 1,000, these slides include nearly 40 of Selma. Some of the images capture the solidarity that characterized the marcher’s cause, like Dr. King walking hand-in-hand with fellow marchers, while others photos, like that of a black, 1960s era Volkswagen Beetle covered in racial epithets, symbolized the challenges ahead.
At the end of March 21, Dr. Quinn and his group from California decided that their work in Selma was done. They packed their belongings and headed home. The return trip was anything but uneventful.
At the Montgomery airport the group was harassed by locals. And disaster was narrowly avoided while flying over New Mexico. Rev. Havens explained in a telephone interview last year that the plane dodged several mountains before landing safely in Albuquerque.
In January, Mr. Quinn’s older sister, Judy, posted a picture on Facebook of their father standing in the center of U.S. Highway 80. After seeing the photo, Mr. Quinn’s wife, Mary, immediately suggested to her husband that they visit Selma on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
Mr. Quinn thought this was a great idea, but traveling to Selma and fully appreciating his father’s time there would be difficult given the number of dignitaries and tourists scheduled to attend the event’s commemoration.
But the more Mr. Quinn thought about making the trip to Selma the more he began to consider it’s timing. He thought to himself, “ ‘it would be so cool to go down there and stand in the same spot where Dad was at 50 years later to the day.’ “
On Friday, March 19, the couple set out for Selma. Among their luggage was a photo album containing the colored images captured by Dr. Quinn’s camera a half century ago.
Arriving early on Saturday morning, Mr. Quinn began retracing his father’s historic footsteps.
His first priority was to find the church where his father had slept. Lost, he pulled the car over and was soon approached by an Alabama state trooper on his way to a conference. When Mr. Quinn explained what he was looking for and why, the officer was spellbound. He then walked over to his patrol car and returned with a shiny, new Challenge Coin. These coins, awarded by “high officials” within the state troopers, recognize “outstanding feats” of “courage and character,” Mr. Quinn stated in an email. The officer, an African-American, handed Mr. Quinn the coin in honor of his father’s efforts in Selma.
The encounter with the state trooper was an auspicious beginning to an unforgettable weekend.
After touring the Green Street Baptist Church, Mr. Quinn and his wife headed to the First Baptist Church. Here, they met Louretta Wimberly, a civil-rights activist, a preservationist, and the church’s historian.
Ms. Wimberly, who was in Selma in 1965, recalled Dr. Quinn. In fact, while giving the Quinns a tour of the church’s basement that served as a makeshift medical clinic in 1965, Ms. Wimberly explained that until Mr. Quinn’s visit, the name of one doctors who had served there eluded her—Dr. Bob Quinn. Mr. Quinn spent several hours with Ms. Wimberly during his weekend visit, explaining that she was “just a joy to listen to.” At the end their last conversation, Ms. Wimberly extended an invitation to him to attend the church’s 150th anniversary in October. The event, which Mr. Quinn is planning to attend, will showcase institution’s history, including the role it play during the month of March 1965.
Mr. Quinn visited other landmarks while in Selma, including the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the Brown Chapel Church where Dr. Quinn listened to speeches by Dr. King, and the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, where in 1995 Dr. Quinn visited with his third wife, Laura, and saw the photo of himself standing in the center of US Highway 80.
At each location, Mr. Quinn found himself surrounded by other tourists who were intrigued by his father’s experiences in Selma and captivated by the colored photographs, something rarely seen of a time largely encapsulated in black and white.
National Park Service rangers at the Selma Interpretative Center were so fascinated by Mr. Quinn’s revelations that they asked permission to enter his father’s written account in its archives. Another pair of rangers taking video and photos along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail asked Mr. Quinn for a video interview that they conducted on the spot.
Mr. Quinn’s whirlwind weekend ended on Sunday, March 21, at the exact location that brought him here.
Standing tall with a smile as wide as the two-lane highway he was on, he posed for a picture. While he fought back tears, a sense of pride swelled inside of him.
Dr. Quinn often told his son that of all his achievements, and there were many, he considered his participation in Selma to be his “ ‘proudest moment’.”
Of his 48-hour sojourn in Selma, Mr. Quinn said, “ [I]t was big honor..it was an honor to me…to be there to honor my dad. It meant a lot to me.”
On March 25, 1965, twenty-five thousand marchers arrived at the steps of Alabama’s state capital.
Back in California, Dr. Quinn and Rev. Phillips were in Gilroy participating in a march of solidarity to mark the momentous occasion. According to that day’s Hollister Evening Free Lance, “[t]he procession was led by Burt Howard, a Gilroy High School teacher,” and three nuns from St. Mary’s Catholic School. The group assembled at the Catholic school and made its way toward city hall. Along the way, teenagers harassed the marchers, hurling racial epithets, insults, and eggs.
At city hall, the doctor and the reverend spoke of their time in Selma.
When he took the microphone, Dr. Quinn explained that the impetus for his trip was two-fold. The images of police brutality shown on television and the newspaper headlines inked in the blood of innocent victims forced him to make a choice—continue to watch and read or do something about it. As Dr. Quinn concluded his speech, he stated, that he believed “changes will come” but only through “peace and love.”
With the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 changes did come. Recents events in Ferguson, Missouri, North Charleston, South Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, have underscored President Barack Obama’s remarks at the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, that the march “is not yet over.”
If he were alive today, Dr. Quinn would be there every step of the way.