The Week The World Watched Selma

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From the frozen steps of Brown Chapel they could see the car moving toward them down Sylvan Street, past the clapboard homes and bleak, red-brick apartments that dotted the Negro section of Selma, Alabama. In a moment it pulled up at the chapel, a brick building with twin steeples, and the people on the steps sent word inside, where a mass meeting of local blacks was under way. He was here. It was Dr. King. They had waited for him much of the afternoon, singing freedom songs and clapping and swaying to the music. Now they rose in a burst of excitement, and local leaders rushed to greet King and his staff at the doorway. Dressed in an immaculate black suit and tie, he was a short, stocky man with a thin mustache and sad, Oriental eyes. As he mounted the speaker’s platform, the crowd broke into such a tumultuous ovation that the entire church seemed to tremble.

It was January 2, 1965, a decade since the Montgomery bus boycott had launched the Negro protest movement in the South. Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the boycott and founder and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), was here this day to help mount a concerted voting rights drive for Alabama’s disenfranchised Negroes. And the cheering people in Brown Chapel were ready to follow him. Regardless of the danger, many of them believed, King would show them how to stand and walk with their backs straight, for he was the Moses of the movement and would lead them to the promised land. …

The movement had come to Selma two years before, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)—which King had helped establish—sent in several young workers as part of a campaign to organize Alabama blacks at the grass roots. But this proved a formidable task in Selma, an old black-belt town on the banks of the murky Alabama River, fifty-odd miles west of Montgomery. The lives of Selma’s twenty-nine thousand people, more than half of them black, were regulated by a Jim Crow system that forced Negroes to live in an impoverished “colored” section and barred them from white schools, cafés, lunch counters, and theaters—and the polls.

White Selma recoiled from the boycotts and demonstrations and sit-ins and freedom rides that shook Dixie during the fifties and early sixties, recoiled from federal efforts to desegregate schools and public accommodations there. But worst of all was the arrival of the SNCC workers. A local judge, noting that they were racially mixed, wore blue overalls, and came mostly from outside Alabama, branded them “Communist agitators” in the employ of Moscow, Peking, and Havana. And agitate they did. They complained that of the fifteen thousand eligible Negro voters in Dallas County, just over three hundred were registered. Why? Because the county board of registrars met only two days a month and cheerfully rejected black applicants for reasons no more momentous than failing to cross at on the registration form. The SNCC people also stirred up trouble by leading small, tentative protest marches to the courthouse in downtown Selma. At the same time, a dental hygienist named Marie Foster, a proud, forthright woman who served as secretary of a black organization called the Dallas County Voters League, conducted nighttime citizenship classes for her neighbors. These in turn led to weekly mass meetings at the Negro churches on Sylvan Street.

As the movement gained momentum in Selma, the white community sharply disagreed over what should be done. Wilson Baker, the hefty new director of the city police and a thoroughly professional lawman who had taught at the University of Alabama, was determined to avoid the kind of racial explosions that had rocked other Southern cities. With the support of Mayor Joe T. Smitherman and Selma’s old and affluent families, Baker intended to meet nonviolent protest with nonviolent law enforcement, deal quietly with federal officials, and get around national civil rights laws with minimal compliance. But the die-hard segregationists—particularly the country people of Dallas County—vowed to protect the old ways, come what may.

Their spokesman was Sheriff Jim Clark, a burly fellow who hailed from rural Coffee County, where populism and Negrophobia both ran deep. Clark was out “to preserve our way of life,” he told his wife, and “not let the niggers take over the whole state of Alabama. ” And nobody was going to get in his way.

In July, 1964, a segregationist state judge banned all marches and mass meetings in Selma, and Sheriff Clark enforced the injunction with a vengeance. By December the movement was paralyzed. In desperation local Negro leaders contacted SCLC headquarters in Atlanta and implored Dr. King to come and take charge.