Sister Antona Ebo, F.S.M: Champion of Civil Rights
CINCINNATI—In March of 1965, in Selma, Alabama, civil-rights workers conducted a protest that
would capture the world’s attention. They had been actively struggling across the South for 10
years to gain the right to vote for African-American citizens. After their protest fell under violent
attack on “Bloody Sunday,” the call went out for religious leaders everywhere to come
to Selma. On March 10, a Franciscan sister, Antona Ebo, an African American, in full habit, would appear
on TV screens and later on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Sister Antona is one of more than
10 Catholic sisters featured in an hour-long show that has been airing nationally on PBS stations during
the past few weeks.
The story of this remarkable woman—her life growing up, her deep faith and her relevance in the Civil Rights movement—is
featured in the March issue of St. Anthony Messenger. Entitled “Antona Ebo, F.S.M.:
Brave Sister of Selma,” by Assistant Editor John Feister. The article will be posted, after February
20, at: AmericanCatholic.org.
Now 83 years old, Sister Antona credits her conversion to Catholicism as a young girl to a dare from a friend and the presence of the
Blessed Sacrament. When she was nine, one of her friends, who accompanied her to the bakery to get
bread, convinced her to go inside St. Mary’s Church in Bloomington, Illinois, with him. “As
I reflect on that story, I think we were on the way to pick up day-old bread for our body. And this
child taught me about the bread of life that was on that altar,” Sister Antona says.
Her love of the Eucharist and
her desire to work as a nurse led her away from Bloomington to a segregated St. Louis religious community.
The Franciscan Sisters of Mary were one of the few congregations that would accept blacks then. She
spent the next 20 years as a nurse and hospital administrator.
Then the local black community of Selma, Alabama, invited the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,
led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to their city to protest treatment of African Americans. Their
first attempt, on March 7, was met with brutality in front of television cameras for the world to witness.
In the days that followed, Sister Antona and the religious leaders played an important role, expressing
the nation’s moral outrage. That public support eventually persuaded President Lyndon B. Johnson
to intervene and ensure the marchers’ safety. Their brave actions led to the monumental National
Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Sister Antona went on, in 1968, to be a founder of the National Black Sisters’ Conference,
and later served as its president. In 1976 she became the first Black woman religious to run a hospital
(St. Clare Hospital in Baraboo, Wisconsin). Eventually, Sister Antona moved back to St. Louis to serve
as a provincial leader of her community.
And now her story is part of a documentary from Los Angeles filmmaker Jayasri Hart. “It captured
my imagination,” Hart says. “Here you have the intersection of feminist issues, civil-rights
issues, race issues and religious issues.” There are six sisters who came from St. Louis to Selma,
plus several others who already worked there or joined the marches later. But Jayasri sees Sister Antona
as the “star” of her film. “Suddenly it became important that she was black. I think
that mobilized the whole story.”
granted to reprint this release.