Former local minister escorted MLK out of Selma March speech after death threat
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – A former minister in Indianapolis reflected on not only one of the most memorable moments in his life, but in American history.
Leon Riley, 82, was just 29 when he boarded a plane to southern Alabama. Riley, a newly minted minister living in California, got on the flight with his wife, Janet.
It was paid for by other civil rights activists in the area after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called on citizens to march from Selma to Montgomery. After two marches took place in March of 1965, the couple arrived early to prepare for potential violence that might erupt during the march.
“We were told if you were attacked, you should lie down, curl up in a ball and cover your head with your hands,” said Riley. “If you were a guy, you were to see if there was a woman nearby and protect her with your own body.”
Around 8,000 converged in Selma for the final march, but a federal judge ruled only 300 could take part. The National Guard narrowed the now-famous Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after a Confederate general, from four lanes to two.
Riley said a lot more than 300 took part in the march and that Janet left because she felt priority should go to local African Americans who have been affected by discrimination.
“It wouldn’t be shocked if the line of people was a mile long, there were a lot more than 300 people marching,” Riley told us.
The march lasted three days and Riley was responsible for driving a latrine truck so folks could use the bathroom.
Once they got to Montgomery after the long 54 mile journey, Riley and five other drivers luckily were positioned right behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he gave a speech to tens of thousands.
The atmosphere was a mix of civil rights activists and and opponents screaming racial obscenities throughout the crowd.
“The atmosphere was so charged with the potential of violence that it’s fortunate there were no incidents,” reflected Riley.
As King was wrapping up his speech, a security guard learned of a death threat to MLK timed for the end of his speech, and asked the men to attempt to safely escort him off the stage.
Riley and five others covered King and escorted him safely to a local church, where a lot of supporters were at.
The chaos was not entirely over for Riley after escorting King to safety.
As he was driving back to Selma in his latrine truck, an African-American man in the middle of the road waved him down.
He told Riley he had been in a car driven by civil rights activist Viola Liuzzo, when a vehicle drew alongside theirs and fired at them. Liuzzo, mortally wounded in the head, lost control of the wheel and the car went into a ditch.
Riley told the 19-year-old teen to get onto his truck and he drove him to Selma along with the others.
Riley and his wife later relocated to Indianapolis in 1986. He was the minister at University Park Christian Church until 2000. They lived on the near north side and in Butler-Tarkington.
Riley and his wife now reside at Brookdale’s Robin Run Village on the northwest side.
His explanation about why the issue meant so much to him is simple, “we are one human family.”