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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
After the funeral, King escalated the campaign once again. He announced a mass march to the Alabama capital in Montgomery, to begin in Selma on Sunday, March 7, and to proceed down Highway 80—popularly known as the Jefferson Davis Highway. SCLC’s James Bevel, a brooding young minister who wore denim overalls and a skullcap, had conceived the idea for the march. “I can’t promise you that it won’t get you beaten,” King told his followers. “But we must stand up for what is right.”
The announcement appalled Alabama officials: the image of hundreds of flag-waving Negroes descending on the state capital was more than they could bear. Wallace banned the march and instructed Lingo to enforce his order “with whatever means are necessary.” The governor’s aides, though, assured Mayor Smitherman that there would be no violence, and Smitherman in turn promised the full cooperation of the city police. All of this infuriated Police Chief Baker. Smitherman and Wallace were both “crazy,” he said, if they thought Lingo and Clark would not molest the marchers, and he threatened to resign before he would let his men participate in what was sure to become a blood bath. At last Smitherman relented and allowed the city police to stay out of the matter. Once the marchers crossed Edmund Pettus Bridge and left Selma, they would be in the hands of Lingo and Clark.
On Saturday, March 6, King was back in Atlanta, where he decided to postpone the march until the following Monday. On a conference phone call with his aides in Selma, he explained that for two straight Sabbaths he had neglected his congregation—he was co-pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church—and that he really needed to preach there the next day. He would return to Selma on Monday to lead the march. All his staff agreed to the postponement except Hosea Williams, a rambunctious Army veteran with a flair for grass roots organizing. “Hosea,” King warned, “you need to pray. You’re not with me. You need to get with me.”
On Sunday morning, though, King’s aides reported that more than five hundred pilgrims were gathered at Brown Chapel and that Williams wanted permission to march that day. In his church office King thought it over and relayed word to Brown Chapel that his people could start without him. Since the march had been prohibited, he was certain that they would get arrested at the bridge. He would simply join them in jail. He expected no mayhem on Highway 80, since even the conservative Alabama press had excoriated Lingo’s troopers for their savagery in Marion.
With King’s blessings 525 people now left Brown Chapel in Selma and headed for Edmund Pettus Bridge toting bedrolls and blankets. Williams and John Lewis, a SNCC veteran who had been savagely beaten as a Freedom Rider several years earlier, were in the lead; an escort of borrowed ambulances took up the rear. It was gray and hazy, with a brisk March wind gusting up from the Alabama River as the column came over the crest of the bridge and saw a chilling sight. “Wallace’s storm troopers,” as civil rights workers called the state police, stood three deep across all four lanes of Highway 80, wearing gas masks beneath their sky-blue hard hats and armed with billy clubs. Williams turned to Lewis and asked, “John, can you swim?”
“No,” Lewis replied.
“I can’t either, and I’m sure we’re gonna end up in that river.”
As the blacks approached the wall of troopers, Major John Cloud raised a bullhorn and shouted, “You’ve got two minutes to disperse! Turn around and go back to your church! You will not be allowed to march any further!” Sixty seconds later Cloud ordered a charge, and the troopers waded in with clubs flailing. They shoved the front ranks back, fractured Lewis’s skull, hammered women and men alike to the ground. Then they regrouped and attacked again, this time firing canisters. “Tear gas!” a marcher cried. Soon clouds of yellow and white smoke swirled across the highway, and the marchers fell back choking.
As white onlookers cheered, Clark’s mounted posse now rode out from between two buildings, their leader bellowing, “Get those goddamn niggers!” With a Rebel yell, the possemen charged into the Negroes, lashing out at them with bullwhips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. “Please, no!” a marcher cried. “My God, we’re being killed.” In chaos the blacks retreated to Brown Chapel, the road behind them littered with bedrolls, shoes, and purses. At the chapel some Negroes hurled bricks and bottles at the possemen, while Lewis—his head covered with blood—and Williams guided their stricken people inside. The air reeked of tear gas as they huddled in the sanctuary, some groaning and weeping, others in shock.