Dr. King’s Dinner

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One of my early assignments as a rookie civil rights worker was to stay close to Dr. King when we filed through the streets of Selma, Alabama. Three or four of us shared this duty, and together we kept him pretty much surrounded, blocking the aim of any sniper who might be crouched on a nearby rooftop.

I had arrived in Selma less than a month before, white and fresh from college in Colorado. Hundreds of us were set to march that day, February 1,1965. Our ostensible destination was the Dallas County Courthouse downtown, to renew a protest against the exclusion of almost all of the county’s black citizens from the voting rolls. But no one expected to get that far; everybody knew we wanted to provoke arrests.

After barely nibbling breakfast, afraid and exhilarated at the same time, I donned my movement uniform: stiff new denim overalls, a matching jacket, and, incongruously, a yarmulke. One of Dr. King’s staffers, who understood how important the support of Jewish groups was to the movement, had distributed them to us. Properly decked out, I headed across town to the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Red brick with two squat steeples, Brown Chapel sat on Sylvan Street in the middle of the George Washington Carver Homes, Selma’s neat, generally well-kept black housing project. People were standing around on the steps, and, inside, the benches were full. There was a “mass meeting” that morning to get everybody into the right frame of mind for the day’s events. The elements were basic and familiar: preaching, praying, singing, clapping. But in those days in that place the combination was unforgettable and overwhelming.

After a concluding prayer and a round of “We Shall Overcome,” we lined up outside, watching our breath in the chilly morning air, and then stepped off, clapping and singing, up Sylvan Street toward the courthouse nine blocks away.

I took my place near Dr. King at the head of the column. We hadn’t gone far before we were stopped by a man in a dark business suit and a fedora hat, standing in the middle of the street with his hands in his pockets. This was Wilson Baker, Selma’s public safety director. Baker was a good and smart man, a disciple of Police Chief Laurie Pritchett of Albany, Georgia. Pritchett had outmaneuvered a vigorous protest campaign in Albany three years earlier by figuring out how to handle the pack of Yankee reporters that showed up wherever Dr. King did. Coming into a Southern town with cameras, microphones, and notebooks, they expected to see crude redneck cops and sheriffs beating up peaceable, noble Negroes. Pritchett spoke politely and made sure his policemen arrested the marchers quietly and without fanfare. The Yankee reporters soon became bored and moved on.

Baker had Pritchett’s strategy down cold. If King was determined to get arrested, Baker would accommodate him, but he would also make sure that the reporters saw nothing more exciting than a crowd of people milling around outside the back entrance to City Hall.

For all his outward composure, however, Baker was not in complete control of the situation in Selma. In particular he couldn’t afford to let us get past him to the courthouse, where the Dallas County sheriff, Jim Clark, was waiting.

Sheriff Clark was a tough-talking, head-cracking Deep South lawman who had no patience with civil rights protests or with Baker’s “coddling” of agitators. And he was backed up by a volunteer posse notorious for brutalizing labor organizers in this so-called right-to-work state. The year before Dr. King came to Selma, the posse had been turned loose on civil rights marches with predictably bloody results.

Baker had been hired to polish the town’s image, and ever since, he and Clark had been jockeying for control of the city’s streets. When Dr. King announced his plans to come to Selma, their struggle ratcheted up several notches.

On our earlier marches in Selma we had stayed on the sidewalks. This time, though, we were proceeding brazenly down the middle of Sylvan Street. That made us a parade. As if following a script, Baker reminded Dr. King that he didn’t have a parade permit and warned that if we didn’t return to the sidewalk immediately, he’d have to arrest us.

Taking his cue, Dr. King quietly refused. Baker stepped aside, and we resumed our walking. Two blocks up we turned the corner. Ahead lay City Hall and, a few blocks farther south, the courthouse. But this was as far as we could be allowed to go. Blackuniformed police fanned out across the street ahead of us, and Baker drove up, got out of his patrol car, and announced our arrest. Dr. King asked if we could pause for a prayer, and we all knelt on the cold nubbly asphalt. Everything was going like clockwork.

There were about 250 of us in the march, and it took hours to book us all. The police herded us into the parking lot behind City Hall, and we stood there shivering in the cold, waiting our turn to go inside. Eventually I was led in, fingerprinted, photographed, and then taken upstairs to the third floor to what I now learned was the county jail. The city jail, which was too small to hold us all, was on the second floor.

The cells ran along two walls; above them, out of reach, was a row of small windows. Across from the cellblock was a large day room, bare except for a couple of steel tables bolted to the floor and a toilet in the corner. The marchers were huddled here, and I moved in to join them. We all were waiting for Dr. King to join us and tell us what to do next.