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Rev. Ed File, a retired United Church minister, during the 1960s grape boycott.

Interview with Rev. Ed File

The retired United Church minister, now living outside Belleville, Ont., talks about the historic Selma-Montgomery march for civil rights in 1965, in which he took part

By Matthew Behrens

Q In 1965, where were you when you responded to Dr. King’s call for clergy to join the Selma-Montgomery march?

A I’d been working as superintendent of a North Winnipeg United Church mission. We had an active community centre, the first halfway house for prisoners in Canada, and a large fresh air camp in Gimli. The social programming we ran reflected my call to the ministry, which was based on Jesus’ teachings on love and justice.

Q How familiar were you with the civil rights movement?

A I had studied at Boston University under the same people who taught Dr. King during his PhD. I heard him speak there before he became really famous. I was also part of demonstrations against segregation.

Q The year before Selma, three civil rights workers had been murdered in Mississippi. Did that news make you fearful when considering the call to go to Selma?

A No, in fact, that spurred me on. Those three young people had been very much in my mind. [I remember having] a feeling of solidarity with them and [remember] what they had done and suffered as a consequence. It was important for more of us from the North to go down and join in what they were doing.  

Q How did you get to Selma?

A A pastor friend from Winnipeg had gone south, and we’d kept in touch about his involvement in campaigns like desegregation of the beaches. His church was attacked, and he moved to Philadelphia. I called him and said, “I feel the call that I’m meant to go to Selma, and I believe you’re feeling the call too, although you probably aren’t feeling it as strongly as I am.” We flew down and met up at the home of a white Montgomery family.

Q What was the mood in Alabama?

A There was certainly some tension. When we got there, we heard the news that James Reeb [a Unitarian minister who had gone south as well] had been killed. The first night, the phone rang, and someone made threats against the family for having white marchers staying in their house. The owner of the house calmly went to his closet, pulled out a gun and put it by his front door.

Q What was onlookers’ response to the march?

A Some pretty angry white folks were yelling lots of nasty things, especially to white people like me. As ministers, we wore our church collar, and the police would yell at us, “You’re a phony!”

Q Did you have a sense of history in the making?

A At the time, it felt like part of the emerging social justice struggle that we were all a part of. This was one of many engagements that I felt called to be involved with.

Q What stays with you most when you think of Selma?

A Definitely, the spirituality and singing. One of my favourites is When the Saints Go Marching In. That song and movements for justice are such wonderful ethical examples of throwing nonviolence against violence. The saints were marching in Selma; in South Africa against apartheid; with Gandhi; with so many others. And the saints are marching still in Ferguson, in Washington, in New York — everywhere.

Q What motivates you to stay involved in social justice efforts?

A I try to see things in the framework of the teachings of Jesus and the ethical ideals of the world’s great religions. Those ideals are permanent through the centuries, and people who are touched by those or view them as the focus of their lives see that it is an ongoing struggle for justice in what we used to call the civilized world. I see that steps that we had taken toward making societies more civil are being backed away from. It’s horrendous what humans are doing to each other all over the world when we have the resources to be inclusive and to have equity for all.

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