Walking with giants: On 50th anniversary of Selma march, SF man recalls the distance traveled 

click to enlarge Vincent Wu is shown holding a photo from the Selma march. - GABRIELLE LURIE/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Gabrielle Lurie/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • Vincent Wu is shown holding a photo from the Selma march.
San Francisco resident Vincent Wu this month made his first visit in 50 years to the Edmund Pettus Bridge and other symbolic Alabama sites that bear testament to the transformative Selma-to-Montgomery marches, which are among the most pivotal chapters in the civil-rights movement.

Remembering those days was an emotional moment for the retired tech worker, who today lives in the Richmond district. Back then, Wu was a mathematics graduate student who didn’t want to remain on the sidelines during the struggle to extend voting rights to all people.

“It was an honor,” said Wu, 73, reflecting on his early activist days, when he witnessed Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others make history. “We were young and foolhardy and thought we were invincible.”

Today marks a special moment for Wu and other participants. On March 25, 1965, activists completed the third and final 54-mile march from Selma to the Alabama state capital. Prior to the successful completion of the march, participants had been tear-gassed and clubbed by Alabama state troopers on the bridge.

The events, starting March 7, 1965, made a lasting statement of black citizens’ desire to vote — and helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Wu, a native of the Yunnan province in China who moved to San Francisco at age 14, was attending the University of Illinois when he heard about King’s appeal to church leaders everywhere to congregate in Selma.

The only Chinese member of the university chapel, Wu, who was about to turn 23, got into a Volkswagen bus with half a dozen other members and immediately headed to Alabama to answer King’s call.

His initial duty during the march was to be a travel coordinator, shuttling people from a Greyhound station in downtown Montgomery to where marchers were gathering in Selma.

During one pickup in downtown Montgomery, police stopped Wu and threw him in jail for one night, just because he was an activist participating in the local movement.

“It didn’t dawn on me at the time, but being outsiders and undesirable, we were profiled by police just like nowadays,” he said.

A couple days later, on March 21, as activists began the final journey for Montgomery, Wu was driven on a flatbed truck to set up camp for the marchers at David Hall Farm, seven miles east of Selma. That event remains indelibly imprinted in Wu’s mind.

“We were at the campsite waiting for the marchers to come from Selma and it was dusk and they marched over the ridge in groups with the U.S. flag and the United Nations flag waving and it was a glorious sight,” Wu said. “It’s something that I will remember for the rest of my life.” It was just one of a handful of unforgettable moments.

The night before arriving at Montgomery, Wu volunteered to be one of about 20 people to link arms and encircle King to protect him from sniper fire through the third march. Walking 10 to 15 feet away from King, it didn’t occur to Wu that he could have been killed.

The final arrival in Montgomery on March 25 was “exuberant,” Wu recalled.

“Certainly, onlookers were very solemn, very sullen, but for us it was a dream come true,” he said.

But the reality of death hit Wu when his colleague, a white woman named Viola Liuzzo, was fatally shot by members of the Ku Klux Klan that same day while she was driving activists to the Montgomery airport.

“The freaky thing is that I drove her car and it was the car that she was shot in,” he said. “You kind of think that it could have been you.”

Following the march, Wu completed his studies and returned to the Bay Area, where he managed the group at Atari that adapted the popular “Donkey Kong” video game for home computers. He launched a startup and worked several tech jobs before retiring.

Wu, who celebrated his 73rd birthday last week with a big family lunch, was heartened to meet another Asian-American who participated in the marches during his trip this month back to Alabama.

He’s also proud to see how many people of color over the years have become leaders in the nation.

“[Going to Alabama] was very emotional visiting a place of my youth of when we did something significant,” Wu reflected.

“Even though it was a minor contribution, it was part of a whole.”

jkwong@sfexaminer.com

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Bio:
Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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