- 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
Outside, Wilson Baker tried to assume jurisdiction, but the sheriff pushed past him, shouting, “I’ve already waited a month too damned long about moving in!” At that, his possemen stormed through the Negro section, beating people, and shoving their way into the First Baptist Church, where they seized a black youth and flung him through a stained-glass window depicting Christ as the Good Shepherd. At last Baker ordered Clark to “get your cowboys the hell out of here,” whereupon the possemen raged through downtown Selma, pounding on the hoods of Negroes’ cars and yelling, “Get the hell out of town. We want all the niggers off the streets.” By nightfall seventeen blacks had been hospitalized and seventy others treated for injuries.
“Please, no!” cried a terrified marcher. “My God, we’re being killed!”
That evening, ABC television interrupted its Sunday-night movie, Judgment at Nuremberg, to show a film clip of Selma’s bloody Sunday. In Washington, President Johnson publicly deplored such brutality; thousands of people in cities all over the country marched in sympathy demonstrations over the next few days.
In Atlanta, Martin Luther King was horrified at the news and guiltstricken that he had not been there with his people. But the events on Sunday also gave him an inspiration: he had long complained that clergymen “have too often been the taillight rather than the headlight” of the civil rights movement, and here was a tremendous opportunity to enlist them actively in the struggle. Accordingly he sent out a flurry of telegrams, summoning religious leaders across the nation to join him in Selma for “a ministers’ march to Montgomery” on Tuesday, March 9.
The response was sensational. Overnight some four hundred ministers, rabbis, priests, nuns, students, and lay leaders—black and white alike—rushed to stand in Selma’s streets with King. State authorities branded them all agitators. “Why not?” one retorted. “An agitator is the part of the washing machine that gets the dirt out.”
On Monday morning King’s attorneys filed into Judge Frank M. Johnson’s U.S. District Court in Montgomery and asked that he enjoin Alabama officials from blocking Tuesday’s march. King expected a favorable ruling since Johnson was thought to be the most sympathetic to civil rights of all the federal judges in the Deep South. But Judge Johnson refused to hand down an injunction that day. Instead he asked King to postpone the march until after a court hearing on Tuesday. At first King agreed. But when he reached Selma on Monday evening and found all those clergymen prepared to stand with him, he resolved to march as planned.
All that night civil rights leaders debated about what kind of march should be undertaken. Should they attempt to reach Montgomery or settle for a token demonstration here in Selma? Clearly the troopers and possemen would be massed out on Highway 80 tomorrow. Under considerable duress, King argued that it was not the nonviolent way to try to break through an armed wall, and he sold his colleagues on a compromise. They would march to the site of Sunday’s beatings and confront the police line, making it clear to all the world that Alabama planned to stop them with violence. Then they would turn back.
Tuesday morning brought an unexpected blow: Judge Johnson officially banned the march that day. For the most part the federal judiciary had been a powerful ally of the movement; but now King would have to proceed in defiance of a federal court order, and some advisers pressed him to cancel the march lest he alienate the very Washington politicians on whom his hopes depended. But King would not cancel the march, he said; he could not cancel it. If he waited until after protracted court hearings, all the clergymen in Selma might leave, public interest evaporate, and a decisive moment in the struggle be irretrievably lost. And there was still another consideration: if he did nothing today, pent-up emotions might explode into “an uncontrollable situation.” He had to march at least to the police barrier.
Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach phoned and asked King not to march. “Mr. Attorney General,” King said, “you have not been a black man in America for three hundred years.”
At Brown Chapel that afternoon, some fifteen hundred marchers listened quietly as King spoke of his “painful and difficult decision” to defy the court injunction. “I do not know what lies ahead of us. There may be beatings, jailings, and tear gas. But I would rather die on the highways of Alabama than make a butchery of my conscience. ” He led them through town two abreast, stopping at the Pettus Bridge to hear a U.S. marshal read the court’s restraining order. Then he walked them out to the Jefferson Davis Highway, where columns of state troopers, with billy clubs, again barred their way.
“You are ordered to stop and stand where you are,” Major Cloud boomed through his bullhorn. “This march will not continue.” King shot back, “We have a right to march. There is also a right to march on Montgomery. ”