- 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
At the Lowndes County line, where the highway narrowed to two lanes, the column trimmed down to the three hundred chosen to march the distance. They called themselves the Alabama Freedom Marchers, most of them local blacks who were veterans of the movement, the rest assorted clerics and civil rights people from across the land. There was Sister Mary Leoline of Kansas City, a gentle, bespectacled nun whom roadside whites taunted mercilessly, suggesting what she really wanted from the Negro. There was one-legged James Letherer of Michigan, who hobbled along on crutches and complained that his real handicap was that “I cannot do more to help these people vote.” There was eighty-two-year-old Gager Lee, grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson, who could march only a few miles a day, but would always come back the next, saying, “Just got to tramp some more.” There was seventeen-year-old Joe Boone, a Negro who had been arrested seven times in the Selma demonstrations. “My mother and father never thought this day would come,” he said. “But it’s here and I want to do my part.” There was loquacious Andrew Young, King’s gifted young executive director, who acted as field general of the march, running up and down the line tending the sick and the sunburned. And above all there was King himself, clad in a green cap and a blue shirt, strolling with his wife, Coretta, at the front of his potluck army.
They were deep inside Lowndes County now, a remote region of dense forests and snake-filled swamps. Winding past trees festooned with Spanish moss, the column came to a dusty little Negro community called Trickem Crossroads. Walking next to King, Andrew Young pointed at an old church and called back to the others: “Look at that church with the shingles off the roof and the broken windows! Look at that! That’s why we’re marching!” Across from it was a dilapidated Negro school propped up on red bricks, a three-room shanty with asphalt shingles covering the holes in its sides. A group of old people and children were standing under the oak trees in front of the school, squinting at King in the sunlight. When he halted the procession, an old woman ran from under the trees, kissed him breathlessly, and ran back crying, “I done kissed him! I done kissed him!” “Who?” another asked. “The Martin Luther King!” she exclaimed. “I done kissed the Martin Luther King!”
On the third day out King left Alabama and flew off for an important speaking engagement in Cleveland; he would rejoin the marchers outside Montgomery. It rained most of the day, sometimes so hard that water spattered high off the pavement. The marchers toiled seventeen endless miles through desolate, rain-swept country, some dropping out in tears from exhaustion and blistered feet. When they staggered into a muddy campsite that evening, incredible news awaited them from Montgomery. The Alabama legislature had charged by a unanimous vote that the marchers were conducting wild interracial sex orgies at their camps. “All these segregationists can think of is fornication,” said one black marcher, “and that’s why there are so many shades of Negroes.” Said another, “Those white folks must think we’re supermen, to be able to march all day in that weather, eat a little pork and beans, make whoopee all night, and then get up the next morning and march all day again.”
On Wednesday, as the weary marchers neared the outskirts of Montgomery, the Kings, Abernathys, and hundreds of others joined them for a triumphal entry into the Alabama capital. “We have a new song to sing tomorrow,” King told them. “We have overcome.” James Letherer hobbled in the lead now, his underarms rubbed raw by his crutches and his face etched with pain. Flanking him were two flag bearers—one black and one white—and a young Negro man from New York who played “Yankee Doodle” on a fife. As the marchers swept past a service station, a crew-cut white man leaped from his car, raised his fist, and started to shout something, only to stand speechless as the procession of clapping, singing people seemed to go on forever.
And so they were in Montgomery at last. On Thursday the largest civil rights demonstration in Southern history made a climactic march through the city, first capital and “cradle” of the old Confederacy. Protected by eight hundred federal troops, twenty-five thousand people passed the Jefferson Davis Hotel, with a huge Rebel flag draped across its front, and Confederate Square, where Negroes had been auctioned in slavery days. There were the three hundred Freedom Marchers in front, now clad in orange vests to set them apart. There were hundreds of Negroes from the Montgomery area, one crying as she walked beside Harris Wofford, “This is the day! This is the day!” There was a plump, bespectacled white woman who carried a basket in one arm and a sign in the other: “Here is one native Selman for freedom and justice.” There were celebrities such as Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte, the eminent American historians John Hope Franklin and C. Vann Woodward. Like a conquering army, they surged up Dexter Avenue to the capital building, with Confederate and Alabama flags snapping over its dome. It was up Dexter Avenue that Jefferson Davis’s first inaugural parade had moved, and it was in the portico of the capital that Davis had taken his oath of office as President of the slave-based Confederacy. Now, more than a century later, Alabama Negroes—most of them descendants of slaves—stood massed at the same statehouse, singing “We Have Overcome” with state troopers and the statue of Davis himself looking on.