Answering the call for civil rights

Bob and Elaine Tiller continue their work on social justice

Created date

September 26th, 2019
A woman in a peach pink shirt smiles next to a man in dark blue button down shirt.

Elaine and Bob Tiller have worked all their lives for civil rights and continue to do so at Riderwood, where they live.

It’s been many years since Riderwood residents Bob and Elaine Tiller boarded an overnight train from Chicago to Alabama to join in protest marches for voting rights of African Americans. Yet, the memories from those few days in 1965 are still vivid in their minds.

“There were people lined up wanting to shoot us, with batons out ready to beat us, dogs raging at us, and I can still get in touch with the incredible fear that I felt, not knowing what was going to happen next,” Elaine says. “I remember the mixture of fear but also needing to trust that this is where I need to be right now no matter what happens.”

An incredible risk

In 1965, Bob and Elaine had recently married and decided to take a year off from their studies at Yale Divinity School to participate in an urban ministry program in Chicago. The professors and other students in the program were all “radical for that time,” Elaine says, so when they saw on TV the violence that was happening in Alabama, they knew they had to do something to help.

“There had been a lot of civil rights demonstrations across the South, and on that particular day known now as Bloody Sunday, the police beat a lot of people,” Bob says. “Martin Luther King, Jr., was on TV that night urging more people to come and march with them.”

Bob, Elaine, and their classmates decided to answer that call. 

The local African American community stepped up to house people from out of town who came to participate in the marches. Bob and Elaine stayed with an African American family in a housing project. Elaine recalls that it was too dangerous for protesters to eat at restaurants or even go to grocery stores, so local African Americans cooked food for the volunteers.

“People say to us how brave it was to do this, but it was nothing compared to what the African American community did in Selma, Ala., because they had to stay and live there after this,” she says. “They were much more at risk.”

Bob says the intense commitment and determination of people fighting both for and against voting rights stands out in his memory.

“The people who were working to oppose voting rights appeared to be fueled by a tremendous hostility and anger,” he says. “The people who supported the right of African Americans to vote were fueled by a real determination that this is a human right in a democracy. That right had been systematically denied for decades, and there was an enormous amount of emotion and passion there. That made the experience of being with the marchers one of real joy but also of fear.”

The incredible risk taken by both the leaders of the voting rights movements and the many volunteers who joined the marches was not in vain. Within weeks of the marches, President Lyndon Johnson historically called for the passage of a voting rights law. The Voting Rights Act became law in August 1965, officially outlawing discriminatory voting practices. 

“Local law enforcement was deployed against us, and the thing that kept us safe from being harmed were our large numbers and the national media presence and the representatives of the federal Justice Department that President Johnson had sent there,” Bob says.

Lending their voices

Bob and Elaine had been activists before going to the marches in Selma, but that experience solidified their commitment to social justice. They’ve gone on to stand up for many important issues over the years. They’ve lent their voices to the fights for women’s rights, reproductive rights, and immigrants’ rights.

“We were also very supportive of gay and lesbian rights, and we worked for legislation that legalized same-sex marriage prior to the Supreme Court decision on that,” Bob says. Same-sex marriage was legalized in Maryland in 2013, in part thanks to much of the work done by people like Bob and Elaine. “There was also a bill to guarantee rights for transgender people in Maryland that we worked for. That is all part of the continuity of the civil rights work we had [started] decades earlier.”

Since moving to Riderwood, an Erickson Living community in Silver Spring, Md., Bob and Elaine have connected with many other active retirees who share their commitment to social justice. 

Riderwood has more than 100 resident-run clubs and committees, many of which are dedicated to working on the kinds of issues that are important to the Tillers. There’s a sustainability committee, a Unitarian group, and a diversity and inclusion committee, among others. 

“We have connected with a lot of likeminded people here—people who want to support human rights—and we have been very heartened by that,” Bob adds. “We’ve been grateful for that and for the new friends we’ve made here and the ways Riderwood residents are involved in working on the issues we care about.”

The Tillers are currently very passionate about reducing gun violence in the U.S., and they’re involved with a new group at Riderwood that is working on this important issue. Through the group, Bob and Elaine recruited another resident to go with them to a state legislative hearing on Maryland gun laws. 

“There’s this new anti-gun violence group we’ve been working with here. It was developed in the last six months and came out of the Democratic club,” Elaine says. “We had one large educational event, and we had 150 people there, so we felt that was pretty successful.”

More than marches

In addition to joining groups to work for social justice, Bob and Elaine have also found many ways to relax and unwind at Riderwood. 

They enjoy dining each night with friends at the community’s on-site restaurants, and they have also taken continuous learning classes on campus. They both serve as ambassadors to help new and prospective residents get to know the community. Bob plays on Riderwood’s softball team, which competes in an annual tournament against teams from other Erickson Living communities. 

Elaine took a pottery class. “I love pottery, and that was a lot of fun,” she says.

The decision to move to Riderwood was easy for Bob and Elaine because their family has a long history of choosing continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs). Both Bob’s parents and grandparents lived at a CCRC. 

“We knew some day that this is what we wanted,” Elaine says. “We wanted to be somewhere we could get the care we needed without burdening the kids.”

When the yardwork and upkeep on their Silver Spring house started to become a burden, Bob and Elaine began researching nearby CCRCs. After considering three or four communities, Riderwood stood out as the best choice for them.

“One of the reasons we chose Riderwood was that it was nearby, and we knew about a dozen people who were living here who all had good things to say about it.”

The Tillers have two sons and four grandchildren. They recently took their whole family on an Alaskan cruise. 

“It was perfect for all different ages, and we all had a great time,” Elaine says. “We’re leaving soon on another trip to Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest and then we’re going on to Rome and Florence.”