- Historic Sites
The Week The World Watched Selma
A century after passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, many Southern blacks still were denied the vote. In 1965 Martin Luther King, Jr, set out to change that—by marching through the heart of Alabama.
June/july 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 4
You wanted to march, didn’t you?"the possemen yelled. “ Now march! ”
That Monday night, with passions running high, local blacks crowded into Brown Chapel to hear Ralph Abernathy. A stout, earthy Baptist preacher who had marched and gone to jail with King since the early days of the movement, Abernathy soothed his people with a mixture of droll humor and defiance. He pointed to a radio antenna attached to the pulpit and said the police had installed that “doohickey” and had warned him to watch what he said. “But they forgot something when they said that,” Abernathy exclaimed with his jowly face set in a frown. “They forgot that Ralph Abernathy isn’t afraid of any white man, or any white man’s doohickey either. In fact, I’m not afraid to talk to it, man to man .” He held the antenna up and cried, “Doohickey, hear me well!” and shouts and waves of laughter rolled over the sanctuary. “We don’t have to spread out when we go down to that courthouse, doohickey. And the next time we go we’re going to walk together, we’re not going to go two together, twenty feet apart. We’re not going to have a parade, we’re just going to walk down to the courthouse. When we want to have a parade, doohickey, we’ll get the R. B. Hudson High School Band and take over the town!”
His speech scared Mayor Smitherman. Convinced that mass demonstrations were afoot, he called in the Alabama state troopers under Colonel Al Lingo, an ally of Governor George C. Wallace and a small-town businessman with firm views about what should be done with “outside agitators.” Lingo’s troopers rumbled into Selma in their two-tone Fords, with the stars and bars of the Confederacy emblazoned on the front bumpers. Sensing that the moment of “creative tension” was fast approaching, King and his staff called for mass marches and mass arrests and decided that it was time for King himself to go to jail. Accordingly, on February 1, King led 250 people en masse down Selma’s streets, forcing a disheartened Wilson Baker to arrest them for parading without a permit. By week’s end, more than three thousand demonstrators—King and Abernathy included—were locked up in Dallas County jails, subsisting on a cup of black-eyed peas and a square of cornbread twice a day. King’s incarceration, of course, made national headlines and brought reporters and television newsmen swarming into Selma.
Now that he had a national audience, King posted bond and held a news conference about his next step; he would personally ask President Lyndon Johnson to sponsor a voting rights bill for Negroes in Dixie. On February 9 King flew off to Washington for a round of talks with administration officials, including Johnson. Although the administration was actually planning some sort of voting legislation, Johnson and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey doubted that Congress would pass an additional civil rights bill so soon after the 1964 measure. But Humphrey told King that Congress might do so “if the pressure were unrelenting.”
In Selma, however, the number of marchers had begun to dwindle, and Baker’s hopes were rising. If Clark could be restrained, maybe King’s campaign could yet be derailed. But Clark could not be restrained. On February 10 he and his possemen attacked a column of young student marchers and drove them out of town at a run, hitting and shocking them with cattle prods. “You wanted to march, didn’t you?” the possemen yelled. “ Now march! ” They chased the youngsters until they stumbled vomiting and crying into ditches.
Back from Washington, King led twenty-eight hundred furious Negroes on the biggest protest march of the campaign. At the courthouse a deputy smashed one of King’s aides in the mouth with his billy club. As Time reported, Clark was the movement’s energizing force: every time it faltered, the sheriff and his deputies revived it with some new outrage. The Nation proclaimed King himself “the finest tactician the South has produced since Robert E. Lee.” And like Lee, The Nation observed, King got a lot of help from his opponents.
By now movement leaders had expanded the voting rights drive to contiguous Perry and Wilcox counties. In backwater Wilcox County racial oppression was so grim that blacks on one plantation had never even seen United States currency: they used octagonal tin coins parceled out by the white owners and shopped at a plantation commissary. Conditions were almost as bad in rural Perry County, where, aroused by King, a group of luckless Negroes attempted a night march in the county seat of Marion; Lingo’s state troopers ambushed the blacks and clubbed them, sending them screaming through the streets. When Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young pulpwood cutter, tried to defend his mother and grandfather, a trooper shot him in the stomach with a revolver. An ambulance rushed him to the Negro hospital in Selma, and as he hovered near death, Colonel Lingo served Jackson for assault and battery with intent to kill a police officer. On February 26 Jackson died, and King and hundreds of blacks from the area buried him on a rainswept hillside.