KENT SPENCER, THE PROVINCE | Originally Published APRIL 5TH, 2015
American Dick Toliver lived under the shadow of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama 50 years ago, amid lynchings and cross-burnings.
Now, he’s coming to Vancouver on Friday, April 17 to lend his presence to the city’s inaugural Rights and Freedoms March.
“The Vancouver march is a statement for the rights and freedom of people,” said Toliver, 76, a retired U.S. air force colonel. “I want to join our patriots in Canada.”
March organizer Don Chapman said the walk around False Creek will pay homage to the racial abuses suffered by aboriginals, Chinese, Japanese and Sikhs in this country.
April 17 was chosen because it will be the 33rd anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which safeguards citizens’ human rights.
Toliver was a veteran of one of the most notorious freedom marches of all time.
March 7, 1965 in Selma, Ala., is known to history as “Bloody Sunday”; he found himself among the marchers at the Edmund Pettus bridge by accident.
“I didn’t know they were planning a demonstration,” he said.
Stationed in Selma at a nearby air force base, where he was training to become a jet pilot, the commander had warned him to stay out of the city. But the family’s baby was sick and needed medicine.
“I shouldn’t have been anywhere near there,” he said.
“Boisterous white men with clubs” swore at him as his car neared the scene. Soon, a violent assault began on the unarmed crowd. It was aided by vicious police dogs, clubs and horseback-mounted men.
“The images go down as the most horrendous I’ve ever witnessed,” Toliver told The Province recently.
“I could hear screaming and see tear gas rising. Guys on horseback were swinging clubs into the crowd. Civilians were invited to join in. It was a free for all.”
Toliver was tempted to “inflict pain” on the attackers but said it would have been “suicidal” and “unjustifiable.” He drove back to the base.
“My rage left me speechless and in tears. (My wife) Peggy did all she could to calm me down,” he said.
The incident changed history. Under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, two subsequent marches took place at the bridge and three months later U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Toliver spent a long time digesting his horrific experiences and now sees them in a different light.
“It took quite some time to get over Selma and see it as a positive experience rather than one of excruciating pain,” he said. “It honed my resolve to face whatever would come in the future.”
Toliver flew 446 combat missions over Vietnam and now lives in Goodyear, Ariz.
The Vancouver march will start at the Olympic Village skytrain station and go to David Lam Park. It begins at 9:30 a.m.
“Canadians have no idea how hard some people have had to fight for their human rights,” said Chapman.
To find out more, go to rightsandfreedomsmarch.com.
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