The Week The World Watched Selma

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One black from Montgomery kept crying, “This is the day! This is the day!”

Wallace refused to come out of the capital and receive the Negroes’ petition. He peered out the blinds of his office, chuckling when an aide cracked, “An inauguration crowd may look like that in a few years if the voting rights bill passes. ” But a moment later Wallace said to nobody in particular, “That’s quite a crowd out there.”

Outside King mounted the flatbed of a trailer, television cameras focusing in on his round, intense face. “They told us we wouldn’t get here,” he cried over the loudspeaker. “And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies, but all the world today knows that we are here and that we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, ‘We ain’t gonna let nobody turn us around.’ ” For ten years now, he said, those forces had tried to nurture and defend evil, “but evil is choking to death in the dusty roads and streets of this state. So I stand before you today with the conviction that segregation is on its deathbed, and the only thing uncertain about it is how costly the segregationists and Wallace will make the funeral.”

Not since his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial had an audience been so transfixed by his words rolling out over the loudspeaker in rhythmic, hypnotic cadences. “Let us march on to the realization of the American dream,” he cried. “Let us march on the ballot boxes, march on poverty, march on segregated schools and segregated housing, march on until racism is annihilated and America can live at peace with its conscience. That will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man. How long will it take? I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you will reap what you sow. How long? Not long, because the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Then King launched into “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” crying out, “Our God is marching on! Glory, glory hallelujah! Glory, glory hallelujah! Glory, glory hallelujah!”

In August, Congress enacted the voting rights bill, and Johnson signed it into law in the same room in which Lincoln had endorsed the first confiscation act, which seized all slaves employed in the Confederate war effort. And for those who had participated, the movement of 1965 became the central event in their lives. They were surprised at themselves, proud of the strength they had displayed in confronting the state of Alabama, happy indeed, as one of the marchers put it, to be “a new Negro in a new South—a Negro who is no longer afraid. ”

During the summer of 1977 I visited Selma and interviewed some of the people who had been involved in the movement. Among them was Mrs. Richie Jean Jackson, an articulate, animated black teacher whose home had often served as King’s Selma headquarters. On a brilliant June afternoon she took me to all the sites of the movement, to the marble courthouse, Sylvan Street, and Brown Chapel, wheeling her Gran Torino through Selma with uninhibited gusto. The city’s police force and city council were both racially mixed now, she told me, the schools and public accommodations all integrated. She related how Wilson Baker had defeated Clark in a bitter election for sheriff in 1966, how Baker was dead now and Clark was gone (nobody knew where), and how she and her white team teacher could tease and talk to each other without worrying about a color barrier. “I would rather live here now than anywhere else,” she said. “Though we still need a few more funerals.”

Later that same day I called on Marie Foster, Mrs. Jackson’s sister-in-law. As we sipped coffee in her neat, wellfurnished home, she recounted those days in vivid detail, squinting her eyes and wrinkling her nose when she stressed a point. On the third day of the great march to Montgomery, she recalled, she became so tired that she could hardly lift her feet. “Andy Young saw how tired I was and walked a ways with me. ‘Come on, Mrs. Foster,’ he said. Tm gonna put you in one of the escort cars.’ But I shook my head and kept on somehow, and Andy Young just smiled and shook his head and went on down the line. In camp that night I rubbed alcohol on my feet—they were all swollen and sore—and I prayed. I asked God to please help me, please give me the strength to go on tomorrow. ” She paused. “Well, He mustVe been working on me, because the next morning I was refreshed and ready. It was a wonderful experience—the march into Montgomery. We all felt so close to each other. I’ll never forget it.” She brought out a box and showed me a pair of shoes. Across the top of the box she had written: “Shoes that carried me through 50 mile trek from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. 1965. We walked for freedom, that we might have the right to vote.”