By Barb Arland-Fye
Msgr. Marvin Mottet playfully pointed his walking cane at flooded LeClaire Park on April 18 as if he were a modern-day Moses hoping to part the Mississippi River from downtown Davenport. And in a sense he is a modern-day Moses, always striving to empower the oppressed and marginalized.
The longtime civil rights activist was among a group of about 80 people re-enacting the Civil Rights March of 1963 from St. Anthony Catholic Church to LeClaire Park about four blocks away. He and some of the others had participated in the original march, Aug. 23, 1963, to urge passage of the Fair Employment Act in the Iowa Legislature. Their original march preceded by five days the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Monday’s re-enactment of the March on Davenport was part of a celebration to introduce the Davenport Civil Rights Walking Tour and to unveil a plaque outside St. Anthony Catholic Church — one of seven sites where historic civil rights events occurred in Davenport in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“Davenport’s Civil Rights Movement is unique because of the significant support it received from the local Catholic community, including the Catholic Diocese of Davenport and St. Anthony’s Parish …,” the plaque reads.
So why was the re-enactment held on a blustery April afternoon rather than a hot day in August? “This walk was contemplated with the opening of the Civil Rights exhibit at the Putnam Museum in January (2010), but it took time to get the seven signs completed,” explained Judith Morrell, executive director of the Davenport Civil Rights Commission. “And with the Putnam event on April 26 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, we thought this would make a great kickoff,” added Morrell, who marched cheerfully alongside other participants in the April 18 walk.
The civil rights exhibit, walking tour and the march are a collaborative effort of the civil rights commission, the Putnam and St. Ambrose University.
What a contrast for those participating in both the original march and its reenactment! Photographs from the march a half-century ago show an ethnically diverse crowd of mostly younger adults dressed in light summer clothing and carrying placards calling for fair housing and jobs. This time, the ethnically diverse crowd of mostly middle-aged and older adults shivered in coats and gloves, some carrying placards bearing slogans of a half-century ago.
Leading the march down Main Street to the river’s new boundaries were marchers from the first walk, including Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba and Msgr. Mottet. Arms linked, they and the rest of the group sang “We Shall Overcome,” accompanied on guitar by younger adult musicians. The event attracted civic and religious leaders from the Quad Cities and a number of staff and faculty from St. Ambrose, including its president, Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, historian Art Pitz, and original marchers Bernice Jones, Pat Deluhery, Ernie Rodriguez and Henry Vargas.
When the marchers approached flooded River Drive, where park benches were nearly submerged, St. Ambrose’s Father Chuck Adam and others changed songs to “Peace is Flowing Like a River.”
Two key players in the civil rights movement, William Cribbs and Jack Schneiders, rode a golf cart down to the river and back. Msgr. Mottet walked to the river, but accepted a ride back in a golf cart. He and the other civil rights leaders reminisced about the 1963 walk, when an estimated 2,000 individuals marched alongside them. Cribbs, with a chuckle, recalled how loud speakers set up at LeClaire Park for the 1963 event blew a fuse. It’s exciting to see all the people who showed up today,” he said. “Even in this weather,” Schneiders added.
“I remember walking down the middle of the street and thinking, ‘This is what St. Paul must have meant when he talked about being a fool for Christ!’” Msgr. Mottet said.
A reporter asked the priest, still actively involved in social justice, what his job is today. Msgr. Mottet responded, “I’m supposed to be retired, but it’s wearing me out.”