Linking arms with five other men to surround Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Leon Riley helped protect the civil rights leader from a death threat by rushing him from an outdoor stage in Montgomery, Ala. to a nearby church. Fifty-three years later, that dash and the march from Selma preceding it remain among the most meaningful events of Riley’s life. As the nation observes Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the Brookdale resident recently reflected on that historical moment from the apartment he shares with his wife Janet in Robin Run Village, a continuing care retirement community in Indianapolis.
The couple was living in California when they learned Dr. King was asking people from around the country to come to Alabama and march 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights. It would be the third and final such event in March, 1965. At 29, Leon Riley was a newly-minted pastor with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) working full-time on social justice issues; Janet Riley was also a dedicated civil rights activist.
The pair arrived in Alabama several days ahead of time for training on how to handle 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,” Riley said. “If you were a guy, you were to see if there was a woman nearby and protect her with your own body.”
The Riley’s were among 8,000 people who converged in Selma for the trek. Then a federal judge ruled only 300 could take part on a section of Highway 80 that narrowed to two lanes from four. Believing that local marchers should have priority, Janet Riley withdrew from the event and returned home. Leon Riley seized the opportunity to participate by helping drive one of three flatbed trucks carrying latrines that would accompany the marchers.