The Week The World Watched Selma


So it was that King picked Selma as the next target for his civil rights crusade. Inspired by Gandhi, King had embraced nonviolent direct action as the most effective weapon to combat segregation in Dixie. While the Congress of Racial Equality had actually pioneered direct action in America, King and the SCLC had refined the technique in civil rights battlefields across the South, for the first time drawing the Negro masses there into the struggle for equality. King and his lieutenants would select some notoriously segregated city, mobilize the local blacks, and lead them on peaceful protest marches. They would escalate the marches, increase their demands, even fill up the jails, until they brought about a moment of “creative tension,” when white authorities would either agree to negotiate or resort to violence, thereby laying bare the brutality inherent in segregation and appealing to the national conscience that would force the federal government to intervene. The technique failed in Albany, Georgia, where white authorities handled King’s marchers with unruffled decorum (“We killed them with kindness,” chuckled one city official). But it succeeded brilliantly in Birmingham, where Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor turned police dogs and firehoses on the marchers in full view of reporters and television cameras. Revolted by such scenes, Congress had produced the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which desegregated all public facilities.

They told each other, “Brother, we got a movement goin’ on in Selma.’

And now, hurrying down to Selma in early January, 1965, King would employ nonviolent direct action again, this time against discrimination at the polls. He and his staff would defy Clark, challenge the court injunction, and start a movement that they hoped would force Congress to guarantee Southern blacks the right to vote. And Selma’s embattled Negroes, thrilled that so celebrated a man would lead them personally, greeted King with the most incandescent mass meeting ever seen in Brown Chapel. They would start marching when the registrars next met, King promised them, and they would keep marching until victory was theirs. “Our cry to the state of Alabama is a simple one: Give us the ballot! ” He had them shouting out. “We’re not on our knees begging for the ballot. We are demanding the ballot.” They were on their feet cheering. Then they broke into the great hymn of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.”

And so on January 18 the campaign began as King led four hundred people to the courthouse. Wilson Baker, however, broke them up into small groups. Otherwise, he said, he would have had to arrest them for parading without a permit, and Baker wanted no arrests.

At the courthouse, however, the marchers passed into Clark’s jurisdiction. And the sheriff stood there now, in his uniform and braid-trimmed hat, gripping his billy club as King recited the grievances of local Negroes and in his most dignified manner asked that they be registered to vote. Going along with Baker for now, Clark simply ushered the demonstrators into a back alley and left them there.

But the next day wave after wave of Negroes besieged Clark’s courthouse. With the campaign attracting blacks of all ages and occupations, civil rights workers told one another, “Brother, we got a movement goin’ on in Selma.”

On Monday, January 25, they were back at the courthouse again, demanding the right to vote and singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me “Round.” Now they were protected by a federal court order, just handed down in Mobile over the weekend, that overruled Clark’s injunction and barred city and county officials from impeding the “orderly process” of voter registration. Wearing a lapel button that read NEVER, Clark strode angrily down the line. When Mrs. Annie Lee Cooper, a huge woman, remarked that “there ain’t nobody scared around here,” Clark pushed her so hard that she lost her balance. She rose up, punched the sheriff to his knees, and then slugged him again. A deputy grabbed her from behind, but she stamped on his foot and elbowed him in the stomach and then knocked Clark down a second time. At last three deputies subdued Mrs. Cooper and held her fast as Clark beat her methodically with his billy club, ignoring the newsmen and their cameras.

Several black men started to interfere, but King stopped them. “Don’t do it, men. I know how you feel ‘cause I know how I feel. But hold your peace.” He was determined to have his followers adhere to his philosophy of nonviolence, never hating or fighting their white oppressors but relying on the redemptive power of love and dignity. And it was the only way black men could protest in the South without getting killed. As the SCLC’s James Bevel put it later, any man who had the urge to hit white officers was a fool. “That is just what they want you to do. Then they can call you a mob and beat you to death.” In any case, a photograph of the beating of Mrs. Cooper was soon circulating across the country.