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Fighting racism with prayer, activism

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Dolores Keller was a little girl standing on her family's porch when one of her friends pointed at a black man on the street and made a suggestion. Call that man n-----.

Keller had never heard the word before.

But she said it anyway.

"I remember my mother coming out and putting her arms around me, holding me to her," Keller said. "She was apologizing. She said, "Sir, we don't speak this way.' I can still feel the tremor in her voice."

That's one of Keller's earliest memories of segregated 1920s Detroit.

Now, Keller, 76 and a Catholic nun, is reflecting on a lifetime of fighting racism _ and the opportunities locally that may still lie ahead.

She marched in Selma, Ala., with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She spent decades educating black children in Detroit schools.

Her latest cross to bear is as an ex-officio member of the Dunedin Inclusion Committee Task Force, a group designed to honor King's legacy and help the city better embrace diversity.

"We are really late in Dunedin," Keller said. "Other cities have done it. What we want to do is learn from other cities, do something dignified and really honor Martin Luther King and the other people who made a contribution."

No matter where you live, racism is pervasive, says Keller.

She remembers the way her white classmates taunted the black students. "N-----!" they would say. When she rode the bus as a child, the black people clustered in the back.

Her mother once invited a black man over for dinner.

"No ma'am," he said. "Your neighbors wouldn't understand."

In her office at the Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, Keller flips through an old scrapbook of yellow newspaper clippings and photos. She is a nun with the Sisters of St. Joseph, one of the oldest active orders in the world.

"Look, there's me and Rosa (Parks)," Keller says, pointing to an old photograph. "There's me at the march in Selma, Alabama."

From Detroit to Selma

It was 1965. Keller, then a nun in her late 30s, knew about the battle blacks were fighting for voting rights. It didn't sit well with her soul.

"I called my Superior," Keller said. "I told her I was going to Selma. She said, "Fine. You're going to get killed.' "

She started by marching in Detroit in support of the protesters. That's where she first saw Rosa Parks. She ran over and shook her hand.

"You're the greatest woman I know," she said.

But marching in Detroit wasn't enough. Keller wanted to go to Selma.

She told the other nuns she was packing her bags.

Keller had missed the first protest on March 7, 1965, or "Bloody Sunday."

There, about 600 marchers headed east out of Selma on U.S. Route 80 toward Montgomery. They got to the Edmund Pettus Bridge six blocks away, where state and local lawmen attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas and drove them back to Selma.

Civil rights leaders sought court protection for a full-scale march, and on Sunday, March 21, about 3,200 marchers, including Keller, set out for Montgomery.

Accompanied by four other nuns, Keller flew to Montgomery and drove to Selma.

Dressed in their habits, they went to Brown Chapel to register. And for the first time in Keller's life, she had to write down who to notify in case of death.

She was taught how to be beaten.

You kneel down, put your head down and your arms down. The next person puts their body on top of yours, and then a third person. That way when they hit you with the billy club, they are hitting your back and not your head.

The organizers said: "You sisters, you pray out loud,' " Keller said. " "Don't look at their faces. But pray to God for mercy.' "

On the morning of the march, Keller saw King. She went up to him and shook his hand.

She said: "You are a true shepherd."

He said: "God bless you."

Whites stood with their little children, screaming obscenities at her group: "You're not nuns! You're not a virgin! Where'd you get the Halloween costume?"

Keller kept walking. She didn't look at them. She prayed. She sang.

That night, the organizers drove them back to Selma.

"It was awful," Keller said, thinking about the march. "But we can now vote. And people don't bother us." She paused. "But now people don't vote."

Something's missing

Keller moved to Florida in 1972 and worked at a school in Tampa. From there, she accepted a teaching job at Dunedin Elementary School, where she was state teacher of the year in 1978.

But Dunedin, where just 2 percent of the population is black, isn't Detroit.

In her 31 years as a Florida resident, Keller has never been inside a black person's house. She doesn't know any black professionals or black-owned businesses. She wants more black, Hispanic and Asian people to move to Dunedin.

She now works at Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church overseeing a homebound program for the elderly. Her evenings are spent in committee meetings and working with the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce.

But she hasn't forgotten Selma. And she never will.

Keller is a sensitive person, said Dr. William Hale of Dunedin.

"Her sensitivity makes her aware of her fellow man and makes her treat others equally, regard and respect them and have a kind attitude toward them," he said.

Perhaps that's why she sent a letter to Richard Gehring asking to help with the Inclusion Committee Task Force.

The committee submitted its final report to the Dunedin Commission two weeks ago. And Keller was a part of the discussions.

"It is interesting how things come together," said Gehring, committee chairman. "Every one of us has someone we meet at school, in the workplace. All the sudden, you find out they have this very rich background on a topic you're working on."

Keller thinks Dunedin is serious about embracing diversity. She wants to name a building or street after King.

While her life has been full of experiences, there's this element missing, she said. The Inclusion Committee, she hopes, is the answer.

"I'm starting to do something (again)," she said. "Maybe this is my opportunity now. Maybe I've been waiting."