- 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
Many good men have lived and died, So we could be marching side by side.
At the county line the column trimmed down to the three hundred chosen to march the distance.
Congress exploded in a standing ovation, the second of the night, indicating that the passage of Johnson’s bill was certain. As television cameras swept the hall, King wept. “President Johnson,” he said later, “made one of the most eloquent, unequivocal, and passionate pleas for human rights ever made by the President of the United States.”
Nine days later, in Montgomery, Judge Frank Johnson handed the movement still another victory. After almost a week of hearings, during which contempt charges against King were dropped, Johnson ordered Alabama officials not to interfere with the Selmato-Montgomery march. The plan Johnson endorsed, one worked out with military precision by civil rights leaders, called for the pilgrimage to commence on March 21 and culminate in Montgomery four days later. Only three hundred select people were to cover the entire distance, with a giant rally at the Alabama capital to climax the journey. “The extent of the right to assemble, demonstrate, and march should be commensurate with the wrongs that are being protested and petitioned against,” Judge Johnson ruled. “In this case, the wrongs are enormous.”
King and his followers were ecstatic, but Wallace was furious. He telegraphed President Johnson that Alabama could not protect the marchers because it would cost too much. Scolding Wallace for refusing to maintain law and order in his state (“I thought you felt strongly about this”), the President federalized 1,863 Alabama National Guardsmen and dispatched a large contingent of military police, U.S. marshals, and other federal officials to Selma.
And so on Sunday, March 21, some thirty-two hundred marchers left the sunlit chinaberry trees around Brown Chapel and set off for Montgomery. In the lead were King and Abernathy, flanked by Ralph Bunche of the United Nations, also a Nobel Prize winner, and Rabbi Abraham Heschel of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, with his flowing white beard and windtossed hair. Behind them came maids and movie stars, housewives and clergymen, nuns and barefoot college students, civil rights workers and couples pushing baby carriages. In downtown Selma, Clark’s deputies directed traffic, and the sheriff himself, still wearing his NEVER button, stood scarcely noticed on a street corner. As two state trooper cars escorted the marchers across the bridge, a record-store loudspeaker blared “Bye Bye Blackbird.”
The procession headed out Highway 80 now, helicopters clattering overhead and armed troops standing at intervals along the route. Several hundred whites lined the roadside, too, and a car with “Cheap ammo here” and “Open season on niggers” painted on the sides, cruised by in the opposite lane. Confederate flags bristled among the bystanders, some of whom gestured obscenely and held up signs that read, “Nigger lover,” “Martin Luther Kink,” and “Nigger King go home!” A woman in her early thirties screeched, “You all got your birth-control pills? You all got your birth-control pills?” On the whole, though, the spectators looked on in silence as King and his fellow blacks, United States flags floating overhead, trampled forever the old stereotype of the obsequious Southern Negro.
At the first encampment, some seven miles out, most people headed back to Selma by car and bus. King and the rest bedded down for the night in wellguarded hospital tents, the men in one and the women in another. “Most of us were too tired to talk,” recalled Harris Wofford, a friend of King and a former adviser to John F. Kennedy. But a group of Dallas County students sang on: “Many good men have lived and died,/ So we could be marching side by side.”
The next morning, wrote a New York Times reporter, “the encampment resembled a cross between a Grapes of Wrath migrant labor camp and the Continental Army bivouac at Valley Forge,” as the marchers, bundled in blankets, huddled around their fires downing coffee and oatmeal. At eight they stepped off under a cloudless sky.
As they tramped through the rolling countryside, carloads of federal lawmen guarded their flanks, and a convoy of army vehicles, utility trucks, and ambulances followed in their wake. Far ahead Army patrols checked out every bridge and searched the fields and forests along the highway. Presently, a sputtering little plane circled over the marchers and showered them with racist leaflets. They were signed by White Citizens Action, Inc., which claimed the leaflets had been dropped by the “Confederate Air Force. ”