INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – In 1965, Leon Riley was a minister in California. That year, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. issued a call for Americans to join him in Selma, Alabama, for a march to Montgomery. Upon hearing the invite, Riley jumped at the chance.
“It’s one of the most important thing I’ve ever done, ever had the opportunity to do,” he said.
During the march, Riley served as support, driving trucks carrying latrines. But one night, it was revealed that there had been a death threat made against Dr. King. So, Riley stepped up as personal security.
“The drivers of the trucks were asked ‘would you be a human shield around Dr. King’ because there could be shots. So, six of us surrounded him and linked arms and ran with him to a nearby church at the end of his speech,” he said.
Riley says he remembers feeling a level of fear but considered it an honor to defend King’s life.
“None of us had any question as to whether we were willing to do that. It was such an honor,” Riley said.
Once the march was over, Riley was tasked with transporting marchers back to Selma. During that trip, he played a role in a defining civil rights moment – the death of Viola Liuzzo. As Riley was driving, a young man named Leroy Moton flagged him down. Moton informed Riley that the Ku Klux Klan had shot and killed Liuzzo and ran their car off the road. Riley offered him a safe ride out of town.
“And I really did think every vehicle we passed or passed us could be marauders and things would go very, very bad,” he said.
Looking back, Riley says he remembers moments of incredible fear, but adds that they were often replaced with incredible hope. Now he says it pains him that some of the issues of 1965 still plague the country today, particularly when it comes to voting rights.
“I and countless others were willing to offer our lives in order that people be able to vote. But in recent years there have been so many deliberate steps to make voting more difficult, less accessible,” he said.
Despite the issues, Riley says he still sees hope in the younger generations, and hopes that they can be encouraged to act. His one piece of advice: making a difference is as simple as getting involved.
“It is getting involved in the community for the good of the community,” he said.