Hear Philip Deitch talk about his introduction to photography, civil rights advocacy and being the "President of Sr. Antona Ebo's Fan Club."
“Oh, God, this is going to be real trouble” thought Sr. Antona Ebo FSM, just days after Bloody Sunday at the head of another march in Selma for voting rights. She would be hailed by the NY Times as sparking the conscience of the country. Forty-five years later to the day on March 10, 2010 in St. Louis this humble woman of color religious would receive a kiss on the cheek from President Barack Obama acknowledging her contribution to his historic election.
The PBS documentary, Sisters of Selma: Bearing Witness for Change recounts the story of the Missouri Nuns who traveled to Selma the same week as Bloody Sunday and it focuses on Sr. Ebo, the only African American in the entire 48 person St. Louis interfaith delegation chosen and sent by Cardinal Joseph Ritter making it the largest response to the call from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that the faith community come to Selma. Selma was the water cooler/dinner table topic on Americans’ minds everywhere in the days after Bloody Sunday.
Word of her pending trip swept through the St. Mary’s Hospital (where she was Director of Medical Records) and a friend called her, offering advice. “Now, Sister, if you go down there, you don’t know the deep South. Stay with the group and keep your mouth shut.” Then she heard on the news that night that a protester, Rev. James Reeb, from Boston, had been beaten (and would soon die). “And I’m thinking to myself, Are you outta your mind?”
There were no other people of color going from St. Louis. “That’s when it hit me, when we got off of that plane” she thought, “if you get arrested, you ain’t gonna be with the group of sisters.” Another moment of truth came for her that day when a federal agent advised her to take off her glasses if she could see well enough without them: “That was when I came through with that silly thought, Oh, God, this is going to be real trouble. We’re not down here to play pick-up-sticks. I don’t know why I thought of pick-up-sticks, except maybe somebody might have been ready to pick us up after everything was over!” Her presence, along with that of the other sisters, was deeply encouraging to the marchers beginning when they entered the historic Brown A.M.E. Chapel in Selma with a young Reverend Andrew Young, a civil-rights leader who would become Atlanta’s Mayor and UN Ambassador, telling the gathered community “Ladies and gentlemen, one of the great moral forces of the world has just walked in the door” inviting her to speak – a moment she never ever imagined – but a moment she trusted to God.
They marched again that day only going a few blocks until they were blocked by the Mayor and the Police, but the photographs of the marchers went everywhere. Sister Antona, who had been put at the front of the line wearing her full black religious habit, found herself, among the other five sisters, on the front page of The New York Times, telling reporters that she was proud to be Black: “I’m here because I’m a Negro, a nun, a Catholic, and because I want to bear witness to the right to vote by all the citizens of Selma as well as the whites.” (View trailer of PBS documentary, "Sisters of Selma" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TsGCWx63Es)
She would go on to a life of breaking barriers and inspiring people across the country. In 1967 she became the first African-American woman religious to run a Catholic hospital anywhere in the United States which she did in St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and then the first African-American serving as Wisconsin State Hospital Association President. In 1968 she was a founder of the National Black Sisters’ Conference, later it’s President. In the 1980s, after receiving her master's degree from Aquinas Institute of Theology, she spent six years working as a Chaplain at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. In 1999 she and civil-rights pioneer Miss. Rosa Parks were singled out to receive the Eucharist from Pope John Paul II on his visit to St. Louis.
Also, in 1999, on the 35th anniversary of the murders of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, she finally marched across Selma’s Pettus Bridge. She led youth and adults who had traveled in buses from around the country as a part of Freedom Ride ’99, an interfaith project of the NAACP and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Her clarion call as a part of the press conference demanding Mississippi finally file murder charges was followed by a conviction five years to the day. Beginning in 2000 she participated for over 10 years in a monthly mixed race/mixed religious dialogue group in St Louis hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council.
In January 2002 Democratic Governor Holden of Missouri honored her with the Distinguished Humanitarian Award at the state-wide Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. State Celebration Commission held at Harris Stowe State College and a few years later Republican Governor Blunt honored her as a member of the Academy of Missouri Squires, an honorary and limited group of 100 state honorees. October 20, 2002 St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali presided over services at the dedication ceremony of a Diocese seminar room named in her honor with a display case about her life. On April 26, 2005 Cong. Clay, Jr. recorded a tribute to her in the Congressional Record. On January 7, 2006 Sr. Ebo and Rabbi Lipnick were the recipients of the Rabbi Joshua Heschel – Reverend Martin Luther King Joint Inspiration Award presented annually by Jews United for Justice and the Missouri Historical Society.
In 2006 she was among the six persons honored at the Library of Congress by the AARP project "Voices of Civil Rights". In 2010 Congressman John Lewis and Sr. Ebo would meet face to face for the first time at the St. Louis NAACP Annual Dinner Meeting.On July 27, 2011 Harry Johnson, President and CEO of the of the Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Inc. gave Sr. Ebo a personal tour of the site while she recounted her experience in Selma. On May 10, 2012 she was honored by the St Louis American with their Lifetime Achievement Award in Health Care. (View "Lifetime Achievement Award," http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAaVtu4oM8Q )
In 2013 she was honored as a special guest of Congressman Lewis marching with him across the Pettus Bridge, greeted and kissed on the cheek by Vice President Joe Biden. On March 11, 2010, 45 years to the day after she was in Selma, Sr. Ebo offered the invocation at the St. Louis speech by President Obama. Her prayer was at the very hour her plane had arrived back from Selma marking an indelible moment in history. On March 10, 2014, her reunion with Ambassador Young occurred at the STL Urban League Dinner on what was the 49th anniversary of their original historic meeting. On July 30, 2017, the Missouri History Museum presented a program which recounted and honored her life. This was a part of the year-long exhibit St Louis #1 in Civil Rights.
In March 2015, at the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, she was inducted into the National Voting Rights Museum Hall of Fame and was a special guest to hear Cong. Lewis and President Obama speak at the Pettus Bridge with President Bush and both first ladies present on stage. In 2014 she was present in Ferguson having a profound impact on protestors and police showing up at a protest march; offering a reflection on justice at the STL Archdiocesan Prayer Service in Ferguson on the 2015 anniversary of her Selma march; and honored as a faith leader in a Michael Brown memorial service at Central Reform Congregation.
In the fall of 2016, the year before she passed away Sr. Ebo recorded a broadcast message opposing the proposed voter photo identification amendment encouraging everyone to always vote, coming full circle back to her original efforts to assure voting rights for all people. This was after having had two strokes and dealing with cancer. Her continuing passion was to teach youth that they all should have and pursue their own dreams for a community that works for everyone today. Sister Antona Ebo, FSM passed away on November 11, 2017 at age 93. (View "Living St. Louis Tribute https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VU5t_4a0Nd4 .)
PHILIP DEITCH has regularly volunteered his time, energy, and photographic services to causes he is otherwise concerned with in addition to documenting diverse aspects of daily life including both people and places. His photos and videos have been used by over 300 not-for-profits and community-based organizations in a variety of ways. These have included newsletters (print and online), websites and social media, annual reports, brochures, posters, flyers, mailings, and in presentations at museums, community awards programs and banquets. They have also been seen in books, newspapers, magazines, documentaries, and movies including on PBS. Philip has also grouped his photos and personal reflections into educational talks and articles on important moments in history. His collection now includes over 250,000 images including many unique moments captured due to his being the only photographer allowed to be present.
Philip has had a long history as a civil rights activist and diversity trainer since founding a civil rights club in the 8th grade. His education includes a master’s degree in health care administration and training as a Jewish Lay Leader along with certification in clinical pastoral education (as a hospital chaplain). He has served on the board of directors or in a leadership position on over 50 not-for-profits, civil rights, and community coalitions on the local, state and national level and many as a founding member.
His relationship with Sister Antona Ebo, FSM began in 1999 when they met and traveled together for a week as part of Freedom Ride 1999, hosted jointly by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) and the NAACP. Philip was a member of the RAC National Commission on Social Justice. The ride commemorated the 35th anniversary of Freedom Summer and the murders of civil rights activists Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. The bus from St Louis had left on Friday June 18, 1999 after a send-off ceremony on the steps of the Griot Museum. Buses from several cities met in Selma with their riders getting to walk behind Sr. Ebo as she crossed the Pettus bridge for the first time, an effort she was blocked from doing several days after Bloody Sunday. The caravan of buses then traveled to the site on a dirt back road in rural Philadelphia Mississippi where these three young activists were brutally murdered. Sr. Ebo led the participants in prayers at the murder site and then at a press conference calling on the Sate to finally bring murder charges. A guilty verdict was handed down five (5) years to the day.
They would bond on that trip with Philip acting as ‘president of her fan club’ until her death. Philip would end his comments at the memorial service held at Central Reform Congregation “I am thankful to have been be a student at her feet who shared a very special relationship that will always guide me in her spirit and that of her often quoted teaching in Isaiah 55 that I was so pleased to read at her funeral - Come, listen, learn, and live in truth. Or in the slightly adjusted words of Isaiah 52:13 See, my servant who as acted wisely; she has been raised up and lifted up and highly exalted.”