Al Kristal was 10 years old when Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Al grew up in Missouri, a state that had segregated schools but didn’t fight integration, and so a year or so later, he was attending an integrated school. Or mostly — there was only one black kid in his class.
He says: “After they integrated the schools, I would come home and I would tell my mother, ‘I played with the colored kid at school.’ I said that two or three days, ‘I played with the colored kid at recess.’
“After about the third day, my mother said to me, ‘Al, what is this boy’s name?’”
It was a pivotal moment in young Al’s life and a lesson that compounded and grew — and stayed with him.
“I grew up with the civil rights movement.
“It was an era when everybody watched the evening news on TV, and so one of the very first things I remember — I think it was 1957 — when they tried to integrate the schools in Little Rock and those poor girls were trying to get into school and all those people were yelling. This is still a vivid memory in my mind.
“How could people do this to children? I just could not understand it. I could not. I didn’t know how people could hate someone based on skin color.
“Because they’re people — just people.”
Ten years later, which is to say 50 years ago, Al was a college student. On spring break, he and 10 students from Shimer College took the train from Chicago to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. Before then, Al’s participation in the burgeoning civil rights movement had been merely watching the evening news, and that’s why they were there. But when those students walked out of the train station doors into the streets of Montgomery, they became part of history.
“(Now), they refer to people like me as the foot soldiers. ”
Al and his group were joining thousands of other people, mobilized from across the nation, to march the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery. They were responding because two weeks prior, the nightly news showed brutal images of state troopers attacking 600 nonviolent marchers, attempting the same route, who simply wanted to be able to register to vote.
“So this is big news. Prior to our coming there, President Johnson had mobilized the Alabama National Guard to protect the march. And so (people in Alabama) knew this march was happening and they knew that people from all parts of the country were coming to do it.
“No one would talk to us, no one would look at us, taxis wouldn’t pick us up, buses wouldn’t stop for us. People would give us these horrible stares. We called it the hate stare.
“I was scared. We were all scared. You knew: People got killed for doing what we were doing. It was very real.”
Martin Luther King Jr. had led a second march two days after what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” but the marchers turned around at the county line bridge, again without getting to Montgomery. In the meantime, Johnson submitted his Voting Rights Bill to Congress with a demand that it pass, and promised to protect the marchers. This was 1965.
“I just remember being a part of something huge. And the whole country was watching. After Bloody Sunday — (this march) just had to be important. And maybe that’s just me being 20 years old. But we just had the feeling this was a really important thing to do.
“The other half of me was scared to death.”
On March 21, 1965, 8,000 people began walking from Selma.
“There was a solid line of policemen and highway patrolmen the whole way, the whole 50 miles of that march. These are local Alabamans protecting us from other Alabamans. We didn’t trust them. At all. At any point, we felt that that line could break.
“And there were people lined up to six deep, screaming and yelling at us. Vile things. Horrible things.
“It was probably the bravest thing I did in my life.”
Eight thousand people marched that first day, but because the road turned into a two-lane highway, only 300 people were permitted to march on days two, three and four. Al and his friends returned to Brown’s Chapel in Selma to wait nervously for news about the marchers.
“One of the things we did was support; I know one of the things we did was make tuna fish sandwiches. And we did other things; I’m sure we talked about civil rights and about being young people together. ”
On day five, 25,000 people joined the march for the last 10 miles to the Capitol building in Montgomery.
“(I remember) standing in front of the Capitol and hearing Martin Luther King speak. And singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ with 25,000 other people — absolutely fantastic. ”
That night, Al and his college friends returned to the church in Selma to spend the night before heading back to Chicago.
“And that’s when we heard that Viola Luizzo had been killed. She was a mother from Detroit, a white woman who was ferrying marchers back (to Selma). We thought we made it through the whole march and no one had been killed. And then that last day, someone was killed. I remember that. I remember it enough that I’ve never forgotten her name.
“It could have been any of us.”
Al returned to college for one semester, moved to California, and married Deborah. He eventually graduated from college, did not get drafted to Vietnam, raised three children, moved to Boise and taught for 33 years in the public school system. For the last 21 years, he taught in the Caldwell School District.
“Caldwell has a large minority population. And I was told, ‘How can you teach those people?’ People would say that to me. I’m quoting people, but it reinforced what I was raised to believe: People are the same.
“I would talk with parents — parents pretty much want what’s good for their kids no matter who they are or where they came from. They want their kids to be successful and happy.
“It sounds kind of trite, but treating people with dignity and respect is kind of a common thing in the civil rights movement — and doing my job as a teacher. I was able to treat people for who they were, (not) what they looked like or where they came from.”
And so, when one of Al’s sons, Gabe Kristal — who grew up knowing his father had marched in Selma and now works as a union organizer in New York — suggested that they go together to Montgomery for the 50th anniversary commemorative march, Al agreed.
“Gabe said, ‘I learned my values from you, Dad.’”
On March 21, this time in 2015, Al, Gabe and Gabe’s wife went to Montgomery for the march, organized by the National Park Service. The marchers’ 54-mile route from Selma to Montgomery is now a National Historic Trail.
Rewalking the last day brought back a rush of emotion.
“I believe that when I got inside of the Capitol that I could remember the feeling — that we had made it. All of a sudden, it’s going to be OK. We could see success; our goal had been met.
“This time I was marching with a bunch of people again and the feeling came back to me, of having done it. ”
Al struck up a conversation with a man named Ralph.
“I said I had been here 50 years ago; he said, ‘I was here, too.’ And I said, ‘This is my son.’ And (Ralph) said, ‘This is my grandson.’
“Something that we had shared 50 years ago, we were now sharing with our children and grandchildren. This is big stuff.”
Al notes that the marchers in 2015 were a mixture of young and old. He laughs.
“I was young then; I’m old now. I guess it was the same mixture of people (in 1965) but I was in a different demographic. Now I look at it from (the point of view) of the old folks: Kids, this is your job. You’ve got to keep doing this for us.”
Al was surprised by the number of people who thanked him for being brave enough to come, those 50 years ago.
“Particularly a lot of the young people said, ‘Why did you do that? Didn’t you know what the South was like?’ I said, ‘Well, there are certain things that are right. And equal rights is a basic right for all people.’ I didn’t think about not coming.”
“(Looking back), the country is so much more integrated now. The opportunities are so much greater for people of color. We aren’t there yet — and we’re not there for women, either, but that’s another story. And we’re not there for gays and bisexuals.
“(But) as I was standing listening to the speeches (in 2015), there was a man in a nice uniform standing next to me. It was the fire chief in Montgomery. He was a black man. That’s big. So although I wouldn’t say that the civil rights fight is over, in some little way, I was part of making huge changes in this country.”
Al Kristal is Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones’ neighbor. He is a gardener extraordinaire; he and his wife, Deborah, are the kind of neighbors you only dream of — there in an instant with a pie or the right tools and wisdom for a home remodeling project. Do you know someone living “from the heart”? Katherine spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.