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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
When Cloud repeated his order, King asked him to let them pray. “You can have your prayer,” Cloud replied, “and then you must return to your church.” Behind him the troopers stood sullen and still. As hundreds of marchers knelt in the crisp sunlight, King motioned to Abernathy. “We come to present our bodies as a living sacrifice,” Abernathy intoned. “We don’t have much to offer, but we do have our bodies, and we lay them on the altar today.” In another prayer, a Methodist bishop from Washington, D.C., compared this to the exodus out of Egypt and asked God to part the Red Sea and let them through. As he finished, Cloud turned to his men and shouted, “Clear the road completely—move out!” At that the troopers stood aside, leaving the way to Montgomery clear. The Methodist bishop was awe-struck, certain that God had answered his prayer.
King eyed the troopers suspiciously. He sensed a trap. “Let’s return to the church,” he said, “and complete our fight in the courts.” And the marchers, some singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me “Round,” headed unmolested back into town.
Back at Brown Chapel, King pronounced the march a victory and promised that he and his people would get to Montgomery one day. Most of his followers were content with the abbreviated march, but the Methodist bishop felt betrayed. And the SNCC people were furious. They wanted to storm on to Montgomery that day, even if it meant crashing through Lingo’s line. Many of the students were already jealous of King, feeling that SNCC had begun the Selma movement but King and “ SLICK ” had received all the glory. Now they censured him bitterly for turning around at the police barrier, fumed about the white people he had brought into the movement, and denounced his admonitions to love those who oppressed them. “If we can’t sit at the table of democracy,” raged SNCC executive director James Forman, “we’ll knock the ___ing legs off.” Soon SNCC was in virtual rebellion against “de Lawd”—their name for King—and officially withdrew from his projected Montgomery trek, although members could still participate as individuals.
Harmony between King and SNCC was not the only casualty of Tuesday’s demonstration. That night James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston, and several other whites dined at a Negro café. Afterward, on their way to SCLC headquarters, four men emerged from the shadows and fell upon them with clubs, one smashing Reeb in the head. Reeb collapsed in a coma, and an ambulance sped him to a hospital.
In Selma, Reeb’s beating touched off fresh waves of protest marches—one led by six smiling nuns from St. Louis. When Mayor Smitherman banned all demonstrations and Wilson Baker tied a rope across Sylvan Street, civil rights workers dubbed it the “Berlin wall” and started a round-the-clock, sit-down prayer vigil in front of Brown Chapel. Two days later, in a chill rain, an unshaven, red-eyed Baker brought them the news that Reverend Reeb had died.
At last Baker ordered Clark to “get your cowboys the hell out of here.”
Reeb’s murder whipped up a storm of public indignation. Telephone calk and telegrams blazed into Washington with demands that federal troops be sent to Selma. President Johnson said that he was “concerned, perturbed, and frustrated,” then came to a momentous decision: he announced that he intended to appear before Congress the following Monday night, March 15, and personally submit a strict new voting rights bill. The President even asked King to be his special guest in the Senate gallery.
But King was in Selma that Monday, conducting a memorial service for Reeb at the courthouse. That night he and his assistants settled down to watch Johnson’s congressional appearance on television, the first time a President had personally given a special message on domestic legislation in nineteen years. “It is wrong—deadly wrong—to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote,” Johnson said in his slow Texas drawl, and he reviewed all the obstacles to Negro voting in the South. His bill proposed to abolish these impediments through federal overseers who would supervise registration in segregated counties—exactly what King had been demanding. With Congress interrupting him repeatedly with applause, Johnson pointed out that “at times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.” But “even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement... the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.” In closing he spoke out of his south Texas past and his own brush with poverty and racism as a young schoolteacher. “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. ” He added slowly and deliberately, “And we shall overcome!”