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Armed only with a crash course in civil disobedience and the determination to march for what they knew was right, Sister Roberta Schmidt and five other nuns from St. Louis flew to a rural Alabama town in response to an appeal by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

It was March 10, 1965, and King had called on the nation's religious leaders to address the violence in Selma that erupted just a few days earlier. Police had bloodied many of 600 marchers who had gathered in support of blacks' voting rights. Dozens were wounded under the police baton, and that March day would be dubbed "Bloody Sunday."

Schmidt, currently the director of education at the Diocese of Venice, Fla., did not see herself as an activist or radical nun, she said. She knew she might be harmed, but the sisters were impassioned.

"I was just doing what I believed in," said Schmidt, now 79.

Wearing the traditional nun's habit at the time, Schmidt and her fellow sisters in a sea of thousands of civil rights protestors made a dramatic visual and historic impact on the Civil Rights movement—so much so that 40 years later, they would become the subject of a PBS documentary film, "Sisters of Selma," which debuted in 2006.

They would also illustrate so clearly the transformation of Catholic sisters from the Civil Rights era to today, the subject of FSU assistant professor Amy Koehlinger's 2007 book, The New Nuns: Racial Justice and Religious Reform in the 1960s (see main story). Koehlinger also served as an informal consultant for the "Sisters of Selma."

During an era when nuns and the church were still shying away from public activism, Schmidt and her fellow St. Louis sisters were among the first women religious to protest on the political stage.

Schmidt, who went by the name Sister Ernest Marie in the religious tradition of the time, attributes her defiance of the mainstream to her education. When King called the religious communities to action, Schmidt was teaching at Fontbonne University, a Catholic institution in St. Louis.

"I believe I had good insight because I was a faculty member and teaching sociology," she said.

It also helped that her religious community's leadership was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, she said. But even with this support and her educational background, Schmidt said she didn't realize the full gravity of what she was participating in until she returned to St. Louis from Selma. After only a day in Alabama, the National Guard had encouraged the Missouri sisters to return home for their own protection. When they touched down at the airport, Schmidt was stunned to see throngs of national reporters there to greet them.

"That was an awakening," she said.—C.S.


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