‘Bearing witness to what I believed’

‘Bearing witness to what I believed’

Virginia Volker recalls a lifetime of working for a more just Alabama.

Elaine McArdle
Virginia Volker

Virginia Volker wears a pin of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the voting rights march in Selma, Alabama. (© Pam Powell)

© Pam Powell


It’s a simple canvas hat, light khaki with a blue band, the kind you’d wear on a fishing trip so, should it fall in the water, there’d be no loss. Nothing to bother saving, let alone carefully preserving for decades.

But Virginia Volker can’t let it go.

For 50 years, Volker has held onto the hat as tightly as she has her memories of the volatile week in March of 1965, when she and the rest of the small, then all-white Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham, Alabama, offered their homes to hundreds of strangers who poured in from across the nation for the march from Selma to Montgomery.

Three guests slept on the floor of the tiny apartment where she and her husband lived, before heading to Selma. The hat got left behind.

Its owner, a young black man from San Antonio, was a medical technician, Volker recalls, though she can’t remember his name. She can barely pull up a mental image but might recognize him—even through the hazy lens of time—should they meet again. She wants to place the hat in his hands and say, “Weren’t those times something? Can you believe how long it’s been?” And, of course, “Thank you.”

Thank you for traveling all that way to risk your life to help this troubled city realize its destiny, its better self—the self she’d always known, in her bones, was right and fair.

Ever since she was a little girl in Alabama in the 1940s and ’50s, Volker had peppered her Deep South parents with uncomfortable questions. Why, when she went with her Methodist minister daddy to the black part of town to trade goats, were the streets unpaved? Why, when the church youth group received a religious booklet with a photo of black and white teens together, was everyone so upset?

When Volker was seven, with her mom on a chore at the courthouse, she sneaked into the hallway and drank from the colored fountain. “It tasted the same, it looked the same, and it was like, ‘Hmmm, something is not right here,’” she remembers. She tucked that realization away with other experiences that led her to suspect that what she’d been taught was nonsense.

She asked more questions, consumed biographies of George Washington Carver and Lucretia Mott—and learned of people outside her small world who thought differently. Now she knew there were others who thought like she did.

She’d go on to become a scientist because “I was always questioning things,” she says. Her parents weren’t eager to push racial boundaries; when she provoked her relatives, her mother, in an effortless Southern way, politely steered the conversation to anything but race. But, she says, “My folks encouraged me to do what was right, even if you had pushback.” After her father’s death, she found among his things a book by W.E.B. Du Bois.

Throughout her 75 years, the issue of race—of fairness, she’d tell you—has been central to everything she’s done and continues to do: from taunting the Ku Klux Klan as a high school girl to joining numerous interracial groups and commissions to promote integration.

She’s worked with most of Alabama’s civil rights leaders. But unlike those who became nationally known, she’s among the thousands of others—black and white—who did the work on the ground, day after day, in the small towns and cities of the South, pushing wherever they could to change what must be changed. She didn’t march to Montgomery, but she housed and fed those who did, and, long after they left, continued fighting for racial justice in every facet of her world. She doesn’t crave the spotlight. She simply wants a better world, and there isn’t a day she hasn’t worked for it.

“Just don’t build me up as a b-i-i-i-g veteran!” she says in her Southern lilt. “I was just bearing witness to what I believed. That was all I could do.”

In her senior year at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where she majored in biology and psychology, Volker joined an interfaith group with students from then all-black Stillman College for “kneel-ins” to integrate local churches. The university threatened them by saying the Klan was following them and their safety could not be guaranteed.

“It was a really frightening experience,” she says. “I started thinking, ‘It’s not so simple, that if people just understood how bad they were being, they would change.’” The group learned to hide their meetings. “There’s a streak in me, where if somebody says you can’t, and I think I’m right, I’m going to do it one way or the other.”

When the campus Methodist group refused to integrate, she left the faith of her family. In 1962, she moved to Birmingham to get her master’s in anatomy at the University of Alabama School of Medicine. The next summer, she joined the interracial Summer College Youth Fellowship. One night, Tommy Wrenn of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was driving a group of students home when police ordered them out of the car and called her and others by racial epithets. One cop placed his hand on his gun until Volker pleaded with him to let them go.

It didn’t stop her. “There was a sense that we were right and we’re going to do what’s right no matter what. It’s like [Dr. Martin Luther] King’s quote: ‘If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.’”

In the fellowship she met UUs, including the man she would marry, Joseph Volker Jr., whose father helped establish the UU Church of Birmingham. (After having a son, she and Volker divorced.) She had found her spiritual home. “The UU church in Birmingham was a sanctuary for people in the white community that supported the civil rights movement,” she says. “That was really very important for me as a young person, finding adults that didn’t attack me for believing like I believed, who said it was okay to do what you’re doing.”

She joined an interracial women’s group, Friendship in Action, which sent black and white children to integrated camps and spoke around the state on how racism hurts children.

Then came Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, and two days later, the Rev. James Reeb, a UU minister from Boston, was beaten in Selma and died at the medical center where Volker worked. “I’m sitting in a lab across the street, and there was a man over there dying because he thought the same things I did. It brought it home even more,” she says.

When the UUA Board of Trustees flew to Birmingham to head to Selma for Reeb’s memorial service, her church stepped up again: Volker and other young members drove people to and from the airport, and the local UUs made sandwiches and organized buses to take people to the march. She and her husband considered driving to Selma but realized that, in a car, they’d be targets for murderers—the fate of fellow UU Viola Liuzzo.

When the Voting Rights Act and other milestones were achieved, things gradually settled down. For Volker and others, the next phase in the long march towards justice had begun.

For 30 years, she taught anatomy at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and directed its anatomy lab, hiring a racially diverse group of students, and gays and lesbians. She earned a master’s degree at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, then returned to Birmingham to work with the black neighborhood of Titusville to preserve its history.

Serving on the Birmingham school board for 15 years starting in the ’90s, she made sure civil rights history was taught in schools. It worries her that people might forget what happened here. She worked with the Rev. Gordon Gibson to preserve the history of UU involvement in the civil rights movement and served as the Alabama contact for the Marching in the Arc of Justice conference, which was organized by the Living Legacy Project in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Selma Voting Rights Campaign.

And through the years, she saved the hat.

When tens of thousands of people recently converged in Selma for the anniversary, Volker hoped to meet the man from San Antonio. It wasn’t far-fetched. After all, she ran into the Rev. George McClain, a Methodist minister she’d last seen in the summer of ’63.

But she never found him.

She keeps the hat still. She’s hoping that someday she’ll return it to the man who left it at her tiny apartment, back in those heady and dangerous days when she, and he, and so many others were young and eager to stand for justice.