This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches – some of them marred by violence by the authorities. Roscommon town resident Mary Connaughton (86) lived in Selma at the time and was actively involved in the campaign against racial injustice in Alabama and the USA generally. SEAMUS DUKE has been speaking to her…
Half a century on, Roscommon native Mary Connaughton reflects on her first-hand experience of a historic period in the battle for civil rights for black people in the USA…
Mary Connaughton was in the USA in an era when black people were fighting for the right to get on the same bus as white people, to attend the same schools as white people, to live in the same housing estates as white people – and even to vote.
So what brought this Roscommon native to the West Coast of the USA and to places like Selma in Alabama, which was the epicentre of the protest movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s?
To find out, I met Mary recently to chat about her life and times. Mary came to Roscommon town from Athleague when she was five years old. Her family lived in Stonepark in the town. She attended school in the Convent in Roscommon, before studying nursing in Richmond Hospital.
After a “nice” period working in Bordeaux in France, she gained further career experience in Geneva, then Cork, then in the USA.
“I was always interested in going to the USA to see what it was like. I didn’t like Americans at that stage because the ones I met were always giving out, but I wanted to see what the country was like…so I went there in 1957.”
In possession of a green card, and with an aunt and uncle in Boston, Mary’s plan was to work for a year and travel for a year and then return home.
“I worked for five months in a hospital in Boston and for six months in a hospital in New York. I was learning all the time. Then I took a bus that went all the way across the country and stopped off at different places along the way. I found the size of the country just amazing. I ended up in San Francisco.”
After working for a short period in ‘San Fran’, Mary got further work in Bellingham, near Seattle.
“I looked after a man and his wife after they were badly burnt in a plane crash. That lasted a few weeks. I went to other places like Calgary and to a beautiful place called Banff in Canada in The Rocky Mountains.“I wanted to get out of nursing so I went and worked at a Jewish home for the aged for a year.”
Three years into her travels, Mary returned to Ireland, but was soon back in the United States, “because I had started to make friends in America.” It was now the early 1960s.
Mary had been watching what was going on in terms of discrimination in the USA and her sense of injustice was rising all the time.
“In my time travelling across the country I noticed the discrimination that was so rife. In Little Rock, Arkansas, for instance, I saw signs on buildings which said ‘coloured only’ and I realised that there were toilets for ‘blacks only.’
I couldn’t believe it. “I was friendly with a few other Irish girls at the time and we got involved with a group called the Catholic Alumni Club. “I was working with a beautiful black girl at that time and I quickly realised that here was I who knew no one and who was only after arriving into the country and I could live anywhere I wanted and go anywhere I wanted, yet here was this women whose family went back generations and she was only allowed to live in a ghetto, and I thought that was terribly unfair.
“There was a Catholic inter-racial group starting at that stage and I signed up immediately. I thought with our history here in Ireland it was the right thing to do.”
Mary and her colleagues began working on issues such as integrated housing. The level of discrimination never ceased to shock her.
She recounts, as an example, the fact that the very first black bus driver in San Francisco had a PhD. Resistance to discrimination was growing – and the protests that were springing up were led by Martin Luther King, fast becoming the champion of black people.
Mary takes up the story. “There was a place in Alabama called Selma and that was the focus of the campaign. I was involved in helping out with John F. Kennedy’s campaign when he ran for President too.“There were groups going to Selma regularly and one weekend seven of us went.
“At that time there was serious trouble there and there were riots…the police were beating the protestors and forcing them back. The bigotry there was unbelievable. The blacks were largely denied even a vote. This was in 1965 and 1966” Mary recalled during our recent chat at her home in Roscommon.
“There was a voting rights bill passed but what happened was that the blacks would queue up and those behind the counter would take a two-hour lunch break and then close up at 4 pm and most of those queueing would be left out in the heat. There were people there in Selma from all over the country.”
Soon Mary was spending a lot of time in Selma, which had now become a hot-bed for the campaigners. She became more and more active in the fight for rights for black people. “Myself and another girl went off to picket the Mayor’s office. He was there in his job for over 30 years and we were taken into protective custody and we were left standing around outside the jail in the heat. We slept on the floor of the jail.”
She recalls taking part in marches, in an atmosphere of tension. “We walked ten miles and we slept out in the fields. The local people brought us food and it was much appreciated, I can tell you.”
As a young Irish woman now gripped by the need to support the civil rights movement, Mary’s passion to make life better for others was evident. If she earned 1,000 dollars a month she gave as much of it as she could to the local parish. “As long as I could run my car and had somewhere to live I was happy,” she says.
Returning to San Francisco, Mary attended a meeting with local missionaries. A decision was taken to open a hospital in Selma, which was staffed by the missionaries.
Mary: “The hospital was in huge debt so we began raising money for it. It was totally for black people. We even got a priest to go on TV and appeal for funds. But we were picketed by people who were calling us communists.”
Mary recalls using some of the funds she received from supporters to organise a Picnic Day for black people, which was attended by over one hundred people. Mary began working at the new hospital in Selma.
“When I was there I just worked in the hospital. I didn’t get involved in the politics of what was going on. I couldn’t even visit the black people because it was not safe and they would get in trouble and I didn’t want that.”
After about a year in Selma, Mary returned to San Francisco. In recent years – many decades on – she made an emotional return trip to Selma and was delighted to see the changes.
While a resident there in the 1960s she had taught religion to a family with ten children. They were all subsequently baptized.
Mary reflects: “I was back there recently and they are all grown up now and doing well, but they were in dire financial straits (years ago). You couldn’t believe how poor they were.”
Now, when Mary returned to Selma two years ago, she met many of the family members and was delighted to see they are all well and are of course “fully integrated.” After her period campaigning as a volunteer in Selma – and working in the hospital – Mary switched careers and began working in medical insurance.
But she never lost her desire to fight for social justice. For example, when she saw grape-pickers being mistreated, she stopped eating grapes for many years!
“I became great friends with a couple in Selma, James and Etta Perkins. They were just so good to me. I stayed at their house…they gave me the keys to their car and the keys to their house and I always said your own relatives would not do that! They were fantastic people. They came to San Fransicco to see me too. Very special people and great friends.”
Her uninformed reservations about ‘Americans’ prior to her first trip to America proved to be misguided! She made great friends in the USA.
“I found the American people that I met so friendly. They hadn’t a clue who I was yet they opened their doors to me. I made great friends there.”
After working in the medical insurance field Mary trained to become a hospital chaplain. In this role she worked in University of California Medical Centre for over a decade. When the time came to retire, she began to plan for a return to her native Roscommon, moving back here in 1999.
She is philosophical about the fact that she remained single.
“I never really met anyone over the years. I always thought that I might get married at some stage but it just wasn’t to be. That’s life.”
Reflecting on her eye-witness role during a dramatic period in civil rights history, she says: “I am so happy that I have lived to see the day when things are now so much better for black people and I am so proud to say that a son of my great friends Etta and James Perkins became the first black mayor of Selma.
That was such a proud event for all of us that were involved.” Religion has always been central to her life and now, back home in Quarry View in Roscommon (“which I love”), she tries her best to attend Mass each day.
She enjoys reading, listening to the radio and watching television. “I’m very happy really” she concluded.
This remarkable woman who derives great satisfaction out of her life of service to others lives quietly in Roscommon town happy in the knowledge that she was part of a huge social movement that made life better for millions of people.
I intend to visit Mary again for more stories in the near future and in the meantime I hope that in this relatively short interview readers will have gleaned a little sense of what this woman lived through during what has been a remarkable and fascinating life journey.