Sister Antona Ebo encourages 'looking under the rug' in Ferguson

Photo by Philip Deitch

Sister Antona Ebo, FSM, lives in a senior retirement apartment about eight miles from the unrest in Ferguson, but time and distance disappear when she correlates it to the civil rights movement and her part of a march in Selma, Ala., on March 10, 1965.

"When the young blacks in Ferguson speak, they are rabble-rousers, and that's what we were called when we went to Selma," said Sister Ebo, now 90 years old and sharp as a tack. "We were called rabble-rousers and dupes of the Communists because (FBI director) J. Edgar Hoover was working so hard to prove that Martin Luther King was not a Christian but a Communist.

"People who had put their trust in J. Edgar Hoover rather than J.C., if only they would have put their trust in J.C., they would have been on the right side of this thing. It's the same kind of stuff that's happening now."

Sister Ebo has made one trip to Ferguson, a few weeks after Michael Brown was shot dead by a Ferguson police officer and after the bulk of the violence. Friend Philip Deitch drove through the area with Sister Ebo and Presbyterian minister Rev. Mary Newburn-Williams, and he stopped to get out and speak with law enforcement officials that he knew. Sister Ebo and Rev. Newburn-Williams waited in the car but weren't alone for long. When word spread that the black nun who marched in Selma was there, the stop turned into a meet-and-greet with Sister Ebo as the main attraction.

The head of security in Ferguson, Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol, visited first, squeezing into the passenger seat with Sister Ebo. A steady stream of well-wishers followed -- police, protesters and a small video crew from Birmingham, Ala. Earlier, the crew had walked past Deitch's car and Sister Ebo.

"Capt. Johnson had caught up with them and told them they were going the wrong way, that they should be back there talking to that beautiful black nun. I said, 'Where did he get the 'beautiful?'" Sister Ebo said, with a laugh.

In seriousness, Sister Ebo said she reminded the crew, "You are not here to take a superficial picture. You are going to raise the rug up and look at what's under the rug. The mistake I think many of us made in the '60s is we were taking somebody else's word for it; you have to look under the rug.

"This kid -- when you're 90, everyone's a kid -- looked at me and said, 'I hear what you're saying; I think we were missing it, too, (in the '60s) because we missed you.'"

Sister Ebo was among the group now known as the "Sisters of Selma" -- six nuns who with 48 priests traveled from the Archdiocese of St. Louis to Selma for the march. She's quick to note that they didn't actually march with Dr. King, as is widely misreported even today. "I wish they would stop using that," said Sister Ebo, who neither marched alongside nor met Dr. King.

The group went only a block that day in Selma, but the marchers, led by sisters, already had made an impact.

"They put the women in the front; all of the women were just the six of us," she said, noting the nuns were a last-minute addition to the St. Louis group, with two each from three orders -- the Franciscan Sisters of Mary (Sister Ebo's order), Sisters of Loretto and Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. "We had full habit on ... and it shocked everybody.

"The young blacks in Ferguson have been asking for help so that when this thing came up and this unarmed kid was shot, everyone got up in arms; the whole world got up in arms. The same thing happened when six sisters for the first time in the history of the Church got involved in a political issue. When that happened, the whole world got involved."

Sister Ebo called on both sides of the Ferguson unrest to meet for dialogue, just as she does in an ecumenical and interracial group of Catholics, Jewish and Protestants that meets on a regular basis. "How are we going to know each other as God's children if we have a group over here and a group over there?" Sister Ebo asked.

In the dialogue, it's equally important to listen as well as speak.

"There are moments like this when you hear everybody talking at the same time but nobody is listening to anybody," she said. "It's the time when you need to be silent and hear what's going on."

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