Todd Endo was watching the evening news one March night in 1965 when he saw someone he recognized on the screen. It was Jim Reeb, an assistant minister at All Souls (Unitarian) Church in the District. Endo had worked with Reeb on community service projects the previous summer.
Reeb had gone to Selma, Ala., after state troopers and deputy sheriffs brutally beat demonstrators as they attempted to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge toward the state capitol in Montgomery, demanding voting rights. The event on March 7, captured on film and broadcast around the country, spurred hundreds of people to Selma to lend a hand.
Now broadcasters were reporting that Reeb was dead. He had been beaten by segregationists two days after the march, on a day that would later be dubbed Bloody Sunday. He died on March 11.
Seeing the body of someone he knew moved Endo to action. He booked a flight for Selma.
“I went in as a Japanese American in support of African Americans on issues that they determined to be their civil rights, even though that wasn’t me, or my people, or my ethnic group,” Endo said.
Endo, who has called Virginia home for much of his adult life, said he may not have had the same interactions with whites as the black protesters. But what was going on in the South during the 1960s bore similarities to what had happened to Japanese Americans during the 1940s, when about 120,000 were stripped of their rights and forced into internment camps.
Throughout this coming month, hundreds are expected to go to Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, and Endo, now 73, will be among them. It will be the first time he has been back to the town, revisiting the days that would end up shaping much of his life.
The retired educator said he wants to go back to “talk to people who have been there from ’65 and are willing to tell me and show me how things are different and the same, and what they’re working on.”
Endo’s interest in civil rights began with his family. They were removed from their home in Los Angeles in 1942 and taken to a series of internment camps. After nearly three years in the camps, the family found its way to Washington, D.C.
Endo would go on to get his undergraduate degree at Oberlin College, where he was one of three Asian Americans in his graduating class.
“What my parents told me, and just said it over and over again, [is that] because I was Japanese American, I will stand out,” he said. “I will be noticed. I will not fit in with the general population.”
At Oberlin, Endo became engaged with a burgeoning activist culture. Seeing students with a background in protests opened his eyes to people who were more committed to a cause than anyone he had encountered.
“I’m not sure when I went there I knew what a socialist was,” Endo said.
The math major ended up with a degree in history and career aspirations to become a professor at a small liberal arts university like Oberlin. But then came news of Reeb’s death, so he headed to Selma.
Endo said he did not give much thought at the time to the fact that few in Selma looked like him. He recalls seeing one other Asian American, and he heard there was another around. But Endo said he lacked the curiosity to wonder why there weren’t more.
Over the past five decades, however, he said he has considered it often.
“I am just left with the fact that there were very few Asian Americans in Selma, but the question, why?” Endo said. Still, he said he can’t recall anyone questioning why he was there.
Many of Endo’s memories of the protests and marches have faded with time, but he does remember the tight restrictions on where activists could walk and how long they could stand in one place. And he remembers seeing the police, waiting to strike at any moment.
He particularly remembers two women who stood on either side of him throughout demonstrations leading up to the pivotal march. Though he doesn’t recall their names, he says they represent the core of the civil rights movement.
On one side stood a woman who said she had been denied the opportunity to vote as many as 16 times. “She was determined to file an application to register, and she would continue to do this until she succeeded,” Endo said. “That was really impressive to me.”
On his other side stood a woman who had been tear-gassed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday. She told Endo that she would continue to endure police brutality until the marches proved effective.
Endo left Selma around March 17, before the successful march from Selma to Montgomery. He knows how fortunate he is to have left when he did.
Jonathan Daniels, a seminarian whom Endo knew, stayed behind.
“Why did he stay? I don’t know,” Endo said. “Why did I go? I don’t know, other than that’s what I had set out to do that year. [Daniels] stayed and he worked through the summer. And he was killed. He was shot by a local guy who got acquitted in 35 minutes when he was on trial.”
Endo believes the true achievement of any civil rights movement happens long after the protests have receded from the spotlight.
“I don’t think I even had the sense then that I do now that the real work of Selma was going to occur after Selma,” he said. “It didn’t occur because they marched to Montgomery. That was not the culmination.”
After Selma, Endo said he didn’t “want to spend my time teaching history at a small liberal arts college like Oberlin. I did want to be a more active participant in social change.”
He spent the next 50 years working in education, focusing on issues affecting racial minorities. He formed the Urban Alternative, a nonprofit group in Arlington that focuses on immigrant issues, and he was responsible for the construction of private schools for high school dropouts in six cities through a program hosted by the U.S. Postal Service.
Endo said he has observed the nation’s attitudes toward people of different races soften, but he said there’s still much work to be done.
“I haven’t gone back . . . I want to do this and actually look back,” he said of his upcoming trip to Selma. “What happened to Dallas County or Lowndes County, comparing 1965 to now?”
Endo said he hopes to remind himself of the impact the experience had on his life.
“That’s the big attraction,” Endo said. “It’s a place that I didn’t know well, but I’ve been there. It was a major event. I would like to see more, to make a connection again.”
.Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the D.C. church where Jim Reeb was an assistant minister in 1965. It was All Souls (Unitarian) Church, not All Souls United Church. This version has been corrected.