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You may have seen the movie 'Selma,' but this Santa Monica woman was really there




Susan Cloke, a SNCC volunteer who marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 in the fight for civil rights.
Susan Cloke, a SNCC volunteer who marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 in the fight for civil rights.
John Rabe

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Susan Cloke looks like what she is: a Santa Monica woman involved in her community, a columnist for the Santa Monica Mirror, a mom. But this unassuming person was part of one of the most dangerous and successful civil rights efforts in history, which is dramatized in the Oscar-nominated film "Selma."

Cloke was in college in San Francisco when she started raising money for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Then, when she was just 18, SNCC asked her to go to Selma, Ala., where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others were working to register blacks to vote.

Luckily for her safety, her group arrived after Bloody Sunday, when police attacked marchers on the Pettus Bridge.

WATCH the video that shocked the nation: Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge

After being turned back one time, and jailed overnight, the march to Montgomery began in earnest.

It was a different world for Cloke. "I grew up in Minnesota, I was treated well by teachers, and policemen were our friends. I went out into the world thinking, 'Well of course people will be nice to me.'"

Her understanding of the horrors of Jim Crow grew in earnest when she started driving across the country to Selma with other volunteers. People in the South took one look at them and their California license plate and knew what they were doing and where they were going. They couldn't eat in restaurants, couldn't get a room in a motel — so they slept and ate in the car.

On the march to Montgomery, "I would alternate between marching and driving a SNCC radio car. There was no security on this march. So SNCC had radio cars, and we went on a farm road parallel to the highway, looking out for danger coming toward the marchers."

The march itself was not marred by violence, and Cloke says she wasn't really scared until she and SNCC workers — four black men — drove back to Selma. On the way, they were stopped by police and taken to a spot hidden from the main road. For what happens next, and to hear about Cloke's encounters with Dr. King, listen to the whole interview on this page.

But as a takeaway for everyday life, here's a lesson from Dr. King that Cloke wrote about in the Santa Monica Mirror:

It was at the church [in Selma] that I first heard Rev. King speak. I have long remembered, and thought about a particular speech, which I can’t find and so this is not an exact quote, but what he said, much more eloquently than I can, was, “Morality is like a muscle. If you don’t use it to make small decisions then, when you need it, it won’t be strong enough to do what needs to be done.” —Susan Cloke, Santa Monica Mirror

Editor's Note: In our audio interview, Susan Cloke says SNCC would have contacted U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy if there was violence along the march route. She misspoke: Kennedy was not A.G. at the time of the march.