Marching with King and a medical bag

WASHINGTON - Most of us remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963 .However, we should be aware that wasn’t Dr. King’s only marquee event.

Alvin F. Poussaint, now a professor at Harvard Medical School, was a 31-year-old just completing his residency in psychiatry at UCLA in 1965. That is, when he wasn’t taking his marching orders.

“It was dangerous times,” Poussaint said, “but it also was exciting times.”

It was March 1965. Dr. King led civil rights workers during the 54-mile trek from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. The cause was voting rights for black citizens in the South. Many have labeled the Selma march as the second most important one during the civil rights movement.

With his medical bag in tow, Poussaint served a dual role — a foot soldier in the civil rights movement and a medical doctor for the marchers. “I had every medication you could imagine in that bag,” recalled the 79-year-old Poussaint.

From Selma to Montgomery, the marchers camped along the route on supporters’ lawns, setting up sleeping bags and tents. They were entertained at night by singers such as Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte, both of whom also walked for the cause.

They covered between seven and 17 miles per day on a two-lane highway. The march began with about 50 civil rights workers, but a beginning isn’t necessarily synonymous with an end.

By the time the marchers reached Montgomery, their ranks had ballooned to about 25,000.

Marching for a higher purpose was emblematic throughout the 1960s.

All of those walking paid off because in August 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Voting Rights Act. Dr. King and his aides were present for that momentous occasion.

“Andrew Young advised me to stay close to Dr. King - in case something happened,” said Poussaint.

So Poussaint would always be no more than four to six rows behind Dr. King’s front line of marchers.

Was he afraid? “I always felt when we walked to any of those small towns in the South, something could happen,” Poussaint said. “You never knew when someone may jump out of the woods and take a shot at Dr. King, especially in those rural areas.

“We had protection from state troopers, but you never knew whose side they would be on. And many times, they were on the side of the racists and segregationists.”

Though Poussaint wasn’t a member of Dr. King’s inner circle or a confidant, he was close enough to engage in dialogue with King and his lieutenants during hotel meetings, especially in Memphis. They discussed a wide range of subjects.

“We talked about keeping the marches going, keeping the marchers healthy,” recalled Poussaint, who co-authored the book “Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors” with Bill Cosby. “What to do if people were arrested. We talked about the media. About renewing people’s vows to the cause of nonviolence.”

Those, like Poussaint, who sacrificed their time and their livelihoods were emboldened by a socio-cultural revolution that changed the United States and thus the world. They bore witness to a transformative era we will never again see the likes of.