By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — A light snow, dropping temperatures, building winds, snow and ice-packed sidewalks greeted participants on the annual Civil Rights March Jan. 24 at St. Ambrose University. Students, faculty and staff gathered in Cosgrove Hall where the school’s chaplain, Father Ross Epping, led them in prayer. “Prepare you hearts and minds as we walk in silence,” he said.
“Today, we pause to reflect on the myriad of voices who through words and actions have impacted the work of civil rights in our community,” President Amy Novak said. “We also pause to reflect on the significant work that must continue to create a more welcoming community and a world in which opportunity is not hindered by hatred, fear, assumptions, prejudice or systems that prevent people from the opportunity to realize their full potential.”
She reminded marchers to reflect on the important work accomplished in civil rights in this country, the Quad-City community and university. “Our history as a university community and in the larger Davenport community reminds us of the pivotal role community members played in fostering change.”
The late Father Edward Catich, a faculty member, professor and artist, used imagery to ignite and inspire a new national consciousness around race, Novak said. Fathers Bill and Ed O’Connor, also deceased, “questioned whether conformity to a corporate ideal that segregated non-white populations was just and whether all people were sharing equally in the prosperity experienced during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The O’Connor brothers were vocal advocates for racial justice.”
She referred to the late Msgr. Marvin Mottet and other Ambrosians who, along with about 2,000 people, gathered at St. Anthony Parish in Davenport for a march for equality in 1963. The late Father Francis Duncan took students to rural Mississippi to help with voter registration, and locally, they worked to address poverty efforts at Cook’s Point in Davenport. Four students and a faculty member participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. Afterwards, students chartered the first NAACP chapter on campus — the first for a Catholic college in the U.S.
Ambrosians have embraced the call to act for justice and dignity, but “we have much work to do,” Novak said. “I am inspired by the many members of this community who we will remember today in our walk and the countless others who advocated for human dignity for all. … May we as a community embrace the fullness of our calling to live out our commitment to human dignity for all.”
Ryan Saddler, associate vice president for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for St. Ambrose, led the silent march from the university to the corner of Harrison and 12th streets. Some students from Davenport Central High School who were leaving school at the end of the day stopped to watch the marchers.
The marchers stopped near the spot where Charles and Ann Toney started what Sandler called the “birthplace of the Davenport Civil Rights Movement.” Charles was the first Black student to attend St. Ambrose College in 1932, but he left after a year to find work. Earlier, at age 15, he went to the Clinton County Attorney to challenge the “whites only” policy at the public pool.
On July 24, 1945, the Toneys, who married in 1944, went to the integrated Capitol Theater in Davenport to watch Greer Garson and Gregory Peck in the movie, “The Valley of Decision.” Walking home, the couple stopped for ice cream at the Colonial Fountain at 12th and Harrison. Clerk Dorothy Baxter refused to serve them. Saddler said Charles Toney asked whether the clerk knew she was violating the couple’s civil rights. The clerk replied she did not care and would not serve them.
The Toneys took Baxter to magistrate court. The first trial ended in mistrial but the Toneys won their case in a second trial where the jury deliberated about 10 minutes before reaching a verdict. The judge fined Baxter $10, and $3.75 in court costs. Charles Toney declared it an “outstanding victory for democracy.”
The couple was “willing to stand up for their rights and, thus, become part of the ‘first act’ of the struggle for civil rights,” Saddler said. Their case represented the first court victory against discrimination for a Black citizen. From 1939 to 1950, Iowans brought 22 cases to court, but only three resulted in a conviction and fine. More than 50 years later, the Toneys acknowledged progress toward eliminating discrimination, but said it remained present in a subtle form.
The marchers walked back silently to campus where Paul Koch, provost and vice president of academic and student affairs, greeted them in the Beehive of Ambrose Hall. He talked about the history of the university’s annual civil rights march, organized in 2009 and first held in 2010. Students were encouraged to sign pledge cards of inclusion before warming up with hot chocolate and cookies.